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Junk in the trunk

Help your fat cat dump his spare tire

From Animal Sheltering Magazine January/February 2013

Otto has been on a long journey, and he’s lost some baggage along the way. That’s not something most travelers would celebrate, but for Otto (short for Ottoman), it’s meant the difference between life as a furry footstool and life as a cat.

The white-and-black shorthair, now 11, tipped the scales at 34 pounds when his owner brought him to New Jersey’s Clementon Animal Hospital in January 2011. “We just stared at him,” says veterinarian Sachina Lyons-Brown. “… It was so weird to see a cat his size.”

The equivalent of a 500-pound man, Otto could barely walk, couldn’t groom himself, and couldn’t negotiate a litter box. His owners had decided to euthanize him. Instead, Lyons-Brown and her staff adopted the sweet-natured beach ball. Efforts to lighten his load began that day.

Fat cat nation

While Otto’s morbid obesity is unusual, he has plenty of company in the plus-sized feline department. A 2011 nationwide survey found that 55 percent of adult pet cats—or 47.3 million—are overweight, and more than half of those are classified as obese (8 or higher on a 9-point body condition scoring chart).

Reflecting the trend, fat cats have become a fixture in animal shelters. “We see overweight cats on a daily basis, but seriously obese cats we see about two a month,” says veterinarian Kristi Ellis of the Oregon Humane Society in Portland. One of her charges, 28-pound Walter, made national news when he was returned to the shelter last January, 11 pounds heavier than when he was adopted in 2009. Staff had to help him walk by supporting him with a sheet slung under his midsection.

Why are cats getting fat? In a word, lifestyle. In their mice-eating days of old, domestic cats “had to work really hard for that one little boost of calories,” says Lyons-Brown. Today’s modern housecat, on the other hand, spends most of his day looking for something to do, and too often that becomes parking himself in front of an overly generous kibble bowl. Owners often compound the problem by interpreting their kitty’s requests for attention as demands for food and showering him with treats, when what he really needs is a good workout.

The consequences can be serious. Even a few extra pounds can burden the heart, raise blood pressure, and cause arthritis by increasing stress on the joints and ligaments. Obese cats, unable to clean themselves properly, frequently suffer from painful rashes and urinary tract infections. And overweight cats are four times more likely to develop diabetes.

Walter-weight champion

Caring for obese cats like Walter in a shelter setting presents a unique challenge. Stress and depression from being in an unfamiliar environment may cause a cat to stop eating altogether; while obese cats certainly need a cut in calories, lack of appetite can lead to rapid weight loss and the danger of fatty liver disease. So, paradoxically, fat felines often must be encouraged to eat whatever they want while waiting to be adopted.

Despite his well-fed appearance, Walter turned out to be a finicky eater. “The first four to five days he was here he was just picking at his food,” says Ellis. “He lost 2 pounds, 4 ounces in about a week. That’s way too fast.”

Fortunately, the 7-year-old was adopted 10 days later, and his new family was given some unusual advice: Don’t put him on a diet yet. “I told them [that] the first two weeks we’re not going to fight the battle,” Ellis says. “… He was going to a new home, and that’s a new stress. I just wanted to make sure he was eating well before they start changing his diet.” The change involved switching from dry to canned food; Ellis recommended that Walter’s new owners get him used to the new food before cutting back on his calories.

Easing stress motivated veterinarian Laurie Millward to create kitty Phat Camp at the Capital Area Humane Society in Hilliard, Ohio. The communal living room contains comfortable beds, extra-large litter boxes, and plenty of toys and enrichment activities to encourage play and calorie burning. The cats are free-fed a diet low in fat and calories. “I don’t limit the amount of food given to those cats,” says Millward. “I don’t want to start resource guarding or competition, which would stress them.”

The cats seem happy in the environment, and the response from the community has been “amazing,” says Millward. “I can’t keep enough fat kitties in Phat Camp because they get adopted. It’s wildly popular.” Pudgy, round faces are hard to resist, and a reduced adoption fee doesn’t hurt, either.

As cute as those fatties may be, Millward makes it clear to adopters that getting their new companions to shed pounds is essential. “We don’t just send them home and say ‘good luck.’ We strive to educate [them] … so that they encourage weight loss … but do so safely.”

The “Catkins” diet

Everyone knows someone who lost 10 pounds in 10 days on a juice fast or cabbage soup diet. But in feline shrinkage, there are no quick fixes. Cats who reduce too quickly can develop life-threatening hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), so weight loss must be carefully monitored. Done correctly, it can take more than a year for a real heavyweight to reach his goal.Successful weight loss starts with calorie control. “When humans measure out dry food for a cat, their eyes are bigger than reality,” says veterinarian Lisa Pierson, who maintains the website “They don’t understand that a half cup can be over 300 calories. Most sedentary housecats only need about 200-225 calories a day.”

Cats who eat only kibble, high in calories and carbs, should be switched to high-protein, low-carb canned food, says Pierson; studies have shown that such diets are better at meeting feline nutritional needs and keeping weight under control. “Cats are programmed to eat a certain amount of protein. If ... you’re feeding them very high carbohydrate diets, they tend to overeat because they’re trying to meet their protein needs,” Pierson explains. The increased water content in canned food also means cats take in fewer calories per bite and are satiated sooner.

For Lyons-Brown and her staff, getting Otto to exercise was a challenge. When he first arrived at the vet clinic, the morbidly obese kitty didn’t walk on his toes like a normal cat, says Lyons-Brown. “His legs were down; all the way up to his ankles would be touching the ground.” Not surprisingly, he tended to stay put in one spot.

At first, staff got him moving by placing him a few feet from his food so he would have to walk to it. “It was a rule that everyone who was here had to move him three times during their day,” Lyons-Brown says. As his weight gradually dropped, Otto grew more active, becoming interested in toys and playing with other animals in the clinic.

Otto’s odyssey isn’t over. He has more pounds to shed. But a year later and more than 10 pounds lighter, the former footstool sits normally, grooms himself, uses a regular litter box, climbs stairs, and trots around the office. In other words, he’s a cat.

About the Author

Arna Cohen is a former Associate Editor at The Humane Society of the United States.