By Dr. Becker
The obesity epidemic in cats is a growing problem (pun intended), and two of the biggest risk factors for obesity in kitties are indoor-only, sedentary lifestyles and biologically inappropriate diets, especially dry cat food.
When you consider the life of a cat in the wild versus the kitty on your couch, it's easy to see where things went sideways. Your cat's wild cousins spend many hours a day — we're talking eight to 12 hours, each and every day — on the hunt.
Hunts are not always fruitful, in fact, only about 10 to 40 percent are successful, according to feline behavior specialist Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, depending on whether the cat is hungry, has recently eaten or is nursing kittens.1
This means there are times when wild cats barely catch enough prey to keep them going, interspersed with times when they catch more food than they know what to do with. The evolutionary result is that hunting in cats isn't directly connected to how hungry or full they are.
"A hungry cat will hunt more vigorously, "Colleran told dvm360," but even cats with a full tummy will hunt." And felines aren't driven to hunt by the taste of prey, either. The prey wild cats prefer is a) available, and b) the right size.
Life in the Wild Versus Life on Your Couch
Colleran offers additional thought-provoking insights into the differences between housecats and wild cats, and how those differences have helped create legions of fat domestic felines:
✓ Scientists theorize that what makes cats feel full are the amino acids found in animal protein, not carbohydrates. (I'm not sure why this is only a theory, since cats have no biological requirement for carbs, and an extremely limited ability to even digest them.)
Most commercial cat foods on the market (including "grain-free" foods) are loaded with carbohydrates (starch). If carbs don't make cats feel full, or full for long, it would certainly explain why so many people overfeed.
✓ Cats in the wild feed themselves, whereas pet cats are fed by their human caretakers who often offer them all the wrong stuff and entirely too much of it. In contrast, wild cats eat exactly what their bodies need in the quantities needed.
Also, meal sizes in the wild are necessarily small, because cats must choose prey that doesn't turn predator on them. Pet cats are fed by well-intentioned humans who, for a variety of reasons, don't typically understand how to best nourish their kitty.
✓ Wild cats don't hunt or eat in packs like wild dogs do. They are solitary hunters and sharing isn't their thing unless it's a mother cat feeding her kittens.
Many households have more than one cat, and they are often fed as a group. This can lead to competitive eating contests in which kitties eat more food and faster than they would if they were dining alone.
✓ Whereas felines in the wild are always on the move in search of their next meal, pet cats are fed ad libitum, which is the scientific term for the "all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet," also known as free-feeding.
The more you feed Mr. Meow, the less interested he is in "hunting" — which is good exercise — around the house. Before long, the only time you'll see him actually move is when he's headed to the buffet to devour more of the food you so generously provide for him 24/7.
✓ Wild cats live their lives intact. The vast majority of housecats are nutered or spayed, which is a double whammy in terms of weight gain, because it dramatically reduces the basal metabolic rate, according to Colleran, and increases appetite.
Combine neutering with free-feeding (which, by the way, I never recommend for any kitty, under any circumstances — more about that shortly), and it's a sure bet you'll wind up with a corpulent cat.
✓ Felines in the wild are able to express their raw cat all day, every day. Indoor-only kitties are often in need of environmental enrichment and opportunities to engage their natural hunting behaviors.
Bored, under-stimulated and sedentary cats tend to sleep even more than normal, which means they're not burning calories or keeping their bodies well-conditioned. The result is an overweight, out-of-shape kitty.
✓ Cats in the wild don't mix it up with humans. According to Colleran, having a close relationship with your kitty is actually a risk factor for making her obese.
Humans tend to misinterpret feline behavior. Specifically, you might be mistaking Fluffy's attention-seeking behavior for food-seeking behavior. So next time she seems to be looking for a snack, try playing with her or brushing her coat.
✓ You'll never find an overweight cat in the wild. Wild felines are lean, mean and well-muscled machines. Sadly, the majority of pet cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Sadder still, as Colleran points out, is that many owners seem to think their fat cats are just "fluffy or "big-boned."
No, they're not. They're too heavy to be healthy. It's really so important for guardians of overweight kitties to get real about not only their pet's body condition, but also the damage those extra pounds are doing to the animal's health.
5 Steps to a Leaner Cat
1. Feed your cat a diet that mimics her ancestral diet as closely as possible, which is a nutritionally balanced, fresh homemade diet.
If you're not ready or able to prepare pet meals yourself at home, take a look at "From Best to Worst — My NEW Rankings of 13 Pet Foods" for additional options.
2. Don't free-feed! Not only will you end up with an overweight cat, but also free-feeding requires dry food, which is the worst diet you can feed your furry family member.
Feed two or more portion-controlled meals a day, and know exactly how many calories your cat should be eating per day. Use this cat calorie calculator to determine how many calories he should take in to lose weight or maintain his current weight. If your cat is currently being free fed, measure out her calories for the day (let's say 1/3 cup) and add a tablespoon to the bowl throughout the day, as the first step to weaning her onto a feeding schedule.
After she's adjusted to many tiny meals a day, you can begin combining portions into three meals a day, and then reduce to two.
Contrary to popular opinion, I know many pet parents that find feeding their cats one large meal a day confers many health benefits, including ease of dietary rotation for variety, lower incidence of diabetes and maintenance of the cat's body mass index throughout her life.
If your kitty has a lot of weight to lose, it's important to reduce calories slowly over time. As you meet each new weight goal, re-adjust his daily calories until you reach his targeted weight.
3. Get your cat moving on a daily basis. Make sure she has things to climb on, like a multi-level cat tree or tower. Invest in a laser toy. Think like a hunter and choose toys and activities that appeal to your cat's stalking instinct.
I also recommend walking your cat in nice weather using a harness. This gets him out into the fresh air, stimulates his senses and gets his paws in direct contact with the ground. An alternative is a safe, fully enclosed porch or patio area that prevents your cat from getting out and other animals from getting in.
4. Feed cats separately in multi-cat households. This gives you the ability to precisely control the amount of food each kitty is served, lets you know immediately if someone's appetite drops off or picks up noticeably (both can be signs of illness), and solo dining also allows each cat to eat at his or her own pace without any need to compete or resource-guard.
5. Follow a consistent daily routine to minimize your cat's stress level, and take steps to environmentally enrich her living space. Also, learn as much as you can about feline body language and communication to minimize situations in which you might misinterpret what kitty is trying to tell you.