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About Eric Barchas, D.V.M.

Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, emergency medicine, hospice and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile.

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All rights reserved.

The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.

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Obesity in Cats

Animals Affected

Cats

Overview

Obesity is a syndrome in which the amount of excess body fat an individual carries is great enough to cause harm to health and well-being.   Obesity is a debilitating syndrome that is linked to a number of serious health consequences for cats.

A number of factors play a role in the development of obesity in cats.   However, the root cause of obesity is the consumption of more calories than the body needs.

Because most cats cannot be compelled to exercise, feline obesity is challenging to eliminate.   However, cat owners do have options for preventing and treating obesity.

Symptoms

  • Obese cats carry excess body fat.  Due to the distribution of fat on the cats' bodies, an excess is not always obvious to people who have not been trained to recognize it.  To qualify as obese, a cat must carry a quantity of excess body fat that compromises its health and well-being.
  • Obese cats may be noticeably sedentary.
  • Obese cats may be noted to have difficulty climbing, walking, running, jumping, and grooming themselves.
  • Some obese cats appear to have excessive appetites for food.  Others do not.

Risk Factors and Prevention

Diet and lifestyle play a role in feline obesity.

  • Sedentary cats suffer higher rates of obesity than active, playful cats.
  • Cats that consume high-calorie diets, or highly palatable (extremely tasty) diets may be more likely to become obese.

Several risk factors for obesity are related to a cat's genes and underlying health and metabolism.

  • Middle-aged cats are more likely to be obese than cats that are young (1 - 3 years) or elderly (greater than 14 years).
  • A genetic or hereditary predisposition to obesity is likely.  Some animals have naturally low metabolisms or strong appetites.  Some breeds (such as Burmese) appear to be predisposed to obesity.
  • Cats that have been spayed or neutered appear to suffer incrased rates of obesity. However, most experts agree that the health benefits of spaying and neutering outweigh this risk.
  • Cats that receive medications such as prednisone or phenobarbital may gain weight as a side effect of the medicine.

Finally, factors related to the humans and animals that live with cats can predispose them to obesity.

  • Cats may be overfed in large households where multiple people can offer food.
  • Cats that are fed by children or very elderly people may receive too much food.
  • Cats that are free-fed from large food bowls may overeat.
  • Cats that routinely eat another cat's food may gain weight.

Complications

  • Diabetes mellitus is a serious and common consequence of obesity in cats.
  • Joint problems, mobility problems, and arthritis are exacerbated by obesity.
  • Skin infections and matted hair may result from decreased grooming in obese cats.
  • Bladder infections can result if excess weight prevents a cat from grooming its hind end.
  • Obese cats may suffer from increased rates of feline lower urinary tract disease.
  • Obesity may accelerate and exacerbate kidney disease and heart disease in cats. Note that obesity, by itself, usually does not cause heart disease in cats.
  • Obese cats may suffer respiratory and breathing problems.
  • Obese cats are more likely to suffer complications during anesthesia and surgery.
  • Overweight cats are predisposed to a serious liver condition called hepatic lipidosis, or "fatty liver".
  • Obesity has been linked in some studies to cancer, incontinence, heat intolerance, decreased immune function, difficulty giving birth, and difficulty breathing.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of obesity is based on physical assessment by a veterinarian.  Metrics similar to body mass index (which is widely used in humans) exist for cats but are not commonly used.

Treatment

Treatment of obesity is based upon reducing caloric intake and increasing caloric expenditures.

  • Most cats cannot be compelled to exercise.  However, owners can encourage increased activity by offering toys that stimulate hunting instincts, such as laser pointers or feathers on the end of strings.
  • Offering food in a remote area of the house may reduce food intake (because extra effort is required to obtain food) and stimulate activity during the cat's trips to and from the food bowl.
  • Owners of obese cats should talk to their veterinarian about special diets that are designed to facilitate weight loss.
  • Overweight cats should not be free-fed.  A measured quantity of food should be offered during each meal.
  • One responsible adult should be in charge of feeding all meals.  Other members of the household should refrain from offering food.
  • In households with multiple cats, each cat should be fed separately in a unique location (for example, a room with the door closed) so that the amount of food each cat receives can be controlled.

Follow-up

Weight management programs should take place under veterinary supervision.  Periodic health checks and progress assessments will be necessary.

Most weight loss programs are effective only if the changes made are permanent.   In other words, successful programs do not involve dieting.   Rather, they require permanent lifestyle changes.

Finally, cat owners should be aware that even when properly performed, weight management programs in cats are not always successful.  Failure of a cat to lose weight should not be interpreted as the fault of the owner.

Despite the frustrating nature of eliminating obesity in cats, the benefits of weight loss are great enough that owners should remain dedicated to the cause.

Miscellaneous

A growing body of evidence suggests that dietary excesses of carbohydrates, relative to fats and proteins, may be a risk factor for obesity in cats.  Even if this is proven to be true, it will still be a less important risk factor than excessive caloric intake.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM. All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.

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