The Highly Toxic Pet Threat You Most Likely Ignore

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

overweight cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • U.S. cat parents are allowing their pets to grow increasingly overweight, seemingly oblivious to the short- and long-term damage they’re doing
  • Excess fat cells create high levels of inflammation in the bodies of animals, and that inflammation increases the risk for many serious diseases
  • One of the root causes of obesity in kitties is processed food; no cat, much less an overweight one, should be fed a dry diet loaded with grains or carbohydrates
  • To lose weight in a healthy way, overweight kitties need a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet fed in two or more portion-controlled meals, and at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day, which requires creativity and persistence on the owner’s part

The number of fat cats in the U.S. continues to increase each year. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), in 2017, 60 percent of kitties were overweight or obese, up from 59 percent in 2016.1 These are very discouraging statistics for those of us who understand all too well the toll excess weight takes on the health and quality of life of pets.

Many people seem to think fat cats are cute and entertaining, and there are endless pictures, videos and memes of overweight kitties on the Internet to prove it. The sad truth is these animals are overfed and under-exercised victims of typically loving but misguided guardians who don't realize the damage they're doing to their furry companions.

Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and founder APOP has been sounding the alarm for years about the epidemic of overweight and obese pets in the U.S. In fact, almost everyone in the veterinary community shares his concern (though we don't all agree on the underlying cause of the problem, or the best way to solve it).

According to Ward, over the last 20+ years, the public perception of obesity has evolved from "fat is funny" to "fat is deadly" to "fat is boring." People are ignoring warnings about obesity even though they know being overweight is unhealthy for both humans and pets. Ward believes people are practicing "optimism bias" in choosing to believe that the debilitating, life-shortening effects of obesity won't happen to them or their beloved animals. It's a coping mechanism, but it's also allows people to avoid making crucial lifestyle changes.

Excess Fat Triggers Hundreds of Damaging Inflammatory Processes in Your Cat's Body

In an effort to recapture the attention of people who feel "fat is boring," Ward suggests we think of heavy pets not in terms of their weight, but rather the deadly inflammation the extra weight creates. Excess fat causes what Ward calls an "adipokine storm" inside your cat's body:

"Adipokines are signal proteins produced by fat tissue," says Ward. "Leptin, adiponectin and interleukin-6 (IL-6) are examples. We know adipokines cause or contribute to hundreds of harmful inflammatory processes throughout the body.

Think of every fat cell as a little factory pumping out hundreds of potentially toxic compounds. Multiply that by millions or billions in an obese pet. The real danger of excess fat isn't the fat; it's the inflammation the fat causes."2

It can be a real wake-up call to know that your overweight kitty's body is constantly producing millions or billions of toxic compounds, but that may be exactly the mental image pet parents need to help them recognize the seriousness of the issue. Ward firmly believes inflammation is the biggest threat pets face today. Scientific evidence of the damage excessive inflammation causes to the body continues to mount.

And in my opinion, toxic fat combined with a toxic environment (lawn chemicals, PBDEs, vaccines, and flea and tick pesticides, to name just a few) plus malnutrition, courtesy of the processed pet food industry, is a 100 percent guarantee your cat will suffer from at least one degenerative condition in his or her lifetime.

Inflammation Kills Cells and Increases the Risk for Many Serious Diseases

Anything that causes or stimulates inflammation in the body increases the risk for serious disease, including:


Respiratory disease

Insulin resistance

Heart disease

Type 2 diabetes

Kidney disease

High blood pressure

Decreased life expectancy

Another disease associated with inflammation is cancer, and in fact, research is pointing to cancer as a chronic inflammatory disease. The cancer rate in today's pets is staggering at one in three cats and one in two dogs.

Inflammation kills the cells of the body. It also surrounds cells with toxic inflammatory byproducts that inhibit the flow of oxygen, nutrients and waste products between cells and blood. This creates an environment in which abnormal cells proliferate. Preventing inflammation is the first step in preventing cancer.

Root Cause of Obesity in Cats

Most integrative veterinarians, including me, believe processed pet food is by far the biggest contributor to the pet obesity epidemic. Most processed pet diets aren't biologically appropriate for cats, and are loaded with exactly the types of ingredients that promote weight gain and inflammation in the body.

It's also true that today's kitties are overfed and under-exercised, however, the first thing I scrutinize with any overweight cat is the type of food he's eating. I look for things like the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in the diet. Food high in omega-6 essential fatty acids and low in omega-3s (which is the case with most processed pet diets) is associated with inflammatory conditions.

Commercial pet food is also typically high in pro-inflammatory carbohydrates, including processed, high-glycemic grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes or legumes, which contain lectins. If a cat is fed any dry food it's a red flag, because all kibble contains some form of starch — it can't be manufactured without it.

What You Should Absolutely NOT Feed Your Overweight Kitty

Since processed pet food is a root cause of overweight and obesity in cats, the solution is certainly not to feed more of the same. And it's especially important to avoid feeding processed pet food claiming to be a "low-fat" or "weight reduction" formula for weight loss. Most low-fat pet foods on the market are very high in carbohydrates (often labeled "high-fiber"), and typically contain excessive amounts of starches like corn, wheat, rice, potato or oatmeal, as well as an abnormal amount of non-digestible fiber.

The starches are low in fat, but high in calories; excess calories are stored by your pet's body as fat. The non-nutritive fiber is simply a filler. The theory behind fiber-filled pet food is that it makes cats feel full. Fiber may make your kitty feel temporarily full, but she's not being satiated at the cellular level where it truly counts.

Fiber beyond what would naturally occur in a species appropriate diet for cats (no more than 8 percent) blocks absorption of crucial nutrients into the small intestine. It acts as a barrier, preventing trace minerals, vitamins and antioxidants from being absorbed into your pet's body. Many low fat and weight loss formulas contain as much as 27 percent fiber, blocking a tremendous amount of critical nutrients!

Many pet parents report their cats seem constantly hungry on these "diet" formulas when fed for a prolonged period of time, and for good reason. Chronic deprivation of nutrients to the cells can result in feelings of constant hunger. This is because your carnivorous cat isn't getting enough protein and other essential nutrients to adequately sustain her biology.

The constant hunger can trigger annoying begging behaviors, which can prompt many people to feed more food, assuming their kitty is "starving" despite the fact that she's too heavy. The end result is a pet that is still fat (and often fatter), but at the same time undernourished, which further exacerbates the potential for degenerative disease.

The Right Way to Return a Fat Cat to Good Health

Whether your kitty is overweight or slim and trim, feed a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet that is naturally anti-inflammatory and consists of real, whole foods, preferably raw, organic and non-GMO. It should include:

High-quality protein, including muscle meat, organs and bone (protein coming from animal sources should make up more than 80 percent of a cat's diet)

Low to moderate levels of animal fat (depending on your pet's activity level)

High levels of EPA and DHA (omega-3 essential fatty acids)

A few fresh cut, fibrous vegetables, pureed

A whole food vitamin/mineral supplement that meets the additional E, zinc, iron, copper, manganese and vitamin D deficiencies often found in homemade diets OR enough of these hard-to-source foods in whole food forms, daily

Beneficial additions such as probiotics, digestive enzymes and super green foods

High moisture content

No grains or starches

Along with a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet, it's important when feeding any cat — especially one who's overweight or obese — that you practice portion control at every meal. For most cats, this means a carefully measured morning and evening meal. And don't forget to factor in any calories from treats.

You also need to know exactly how many calories he 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.

Equally important is ensuring your cat gets regular exercise. An overweight body slims down by taking in fewer calories and expending more energy. Daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes of consistent aerobic activity, will help your cat burn fat, increase muscle tone and maintain the integrity of her musculoskeletal system.

It can be tricky to get cats to move, especially when their weight is overtaxing frame. I recommend switching to food-release toys, or a no-bowl feeding system to encourage physical activity during mealtimes, in addition to creative exercise sessions throughout the day.