What the Most Unnecessary 19 Million Cat Study Reveals

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat obesity

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study of over 19 million cats indicates that our feline friends have grown progressively fatter over the last few decades
  • While these results are hardly surprising, they may provide a starting point for future research into cat health as it relates to overweight and obesity
  • Hopefully, future studies will focus on what today’s kitties are fed and the extent to which dry cat food contributes to obesity and poor health
  • Keeping cats at a healthy weight involves feeding the right diet and the right amount of calories, and encouraging daily exercise

Recently, researchers at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College in Canada set out to answer the question, “Are cats getting fatter?” Presumably, according to a university news release, “pet owners and veterinarians didn’t know for sure,”1 thus the need for a study.

For the record, my question is, how could they not know? Well over half the domestic cats in North America are overweight or obese! Their bodies don’t look a thing like the bodies of kittens who haven’t yet been overfed, street cats living by their wits or cats in the wild.

Kitten
Kitten
feral cat
Street/feral cat
Bengal tiger
Wild cat (Bengal tiger)
obese cat
Typical obese adult pet cat

Notice the lean lines and lithe appearance of the first three cats? That’s how nature created them. Now look at the human-created bowling ball shape of the fourth cat, who looks so different from the other three he or she could be another species. How is it not obvious to even the most casual observer that the hugely overweight adult cat is hugely overweight? Do we really need scientific research to point that out?

I digress, so let me return to the study results, which were recently published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.2

Study Looked at 54 Million Weight Measurements Taken on 19 Million Cats Over a 35-Year Period

The U of G researchers are the first team to evaluate data on more than 19 million cats to analyze typical weight gain and loss in domestic kitties over their lifetimes. Not surprisingly, the researchers learned that most cats continue to put on weight as they age, and the average weight of pet cats is on the rise.

“As humans, we know we need to strive to maintain a healthy weight, but for cats, there has not been a clear definition of what that is. We simply didn’t have the data,” study author Dr. Theresa Bernardo said in the news release. “Establishing the pattern of cat weights over their lifetimes provides us with important clues about their health.”3

The researchers analyzed 54 million weight measurements taken at veterinary offices on 19 million cats between 1981 and mid-2016. Some of their findings:

  • Male cats tended to reach higher weight peaks than females
  • Spayed or neutered cats tended to be heavier than intact cats
  • Among the four most common purebreds (Siamese, Persian, Himalayan and Maine Coon), the mean weight peaked between 6 and 10 years of age; among common domestic cats, the mean weight peaked at 8 years
  • The mean weight of neutered, 8-year-old domestic cats increased between 1995 and 2005 but remained steady between 2005 and 2015

The purpose of the study was to provide a starting point for further research, which is why the researchers didn’t look at what caused the changes in weight, nor did they establish what a healthy weight is. In their news release, they made some rather obvious and commonsense observations and suggestions as to how cat parents can monitor their pets’ weight and why it’s important. However, their final comment was encouraging:

“We are ultimately changing the emphasis to cat health rather than solely focusing on disease,” said lead author Dr. Adam Campigotto. “As we investigate the data and create new knowledge, it will enable veterinarians to offer clients evidence-based wellness plans, allow for earlier identification and treatment of disease and an enhanced quality of life for their animals.”

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Dry Cat Food = Fat Felines

The U of G research team plans to study ways to reduce cat obesity, one of which is the use of automated feeders, perhaps equipped with built-in scales, that dispense the appropriate amount of food for a cat. This approach will be problematic if these feeders are designed to dispense dry cat food, and I’ll explain why in a second.

When your feline family member needs to lose weight, there are certain issues you’ll need to address simultaneously, including the type of food you’re providing, the number of calories consumed and your cat’s individual metabolism, and, of course, portion sizes.

When it comes to choosing your cat’s diet, it’s important to remember she’s an obligate or true carnivore, which means she must consume a meat-based diet. Dry food contains a minimum of at least 30% carbohydrates or starches, all of which displace animal meat and critical meat-based amino acids.

Kibble is not biologically appropriate nutrition for cats. It lacks the moisture your kitty needs from her diet. If you’re a regular visitor here at Mercola Healthy Pets, you know there are a lot of other problems with kibble as well. Generally speaking, I don't recommend feeding cats a dry diet.

To be optimally healthy, your kitty requires a nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate, fresh food diet that is high in both excellent-quality, animal-based protein and moisture, and contains no grains or refined carbohydrates. Fat doesn’t make us fat, carbohydrates do, and the same is true for cats.

If your cat is addicted to dry food, I recommend watching my two-part video serious on how to successfully transition your cat to a healthier diet. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Calculate the Number of Calories Kitty Requires Each Day

If you feed your pet commercial cat food, do you know how many calories you’re feeding at each meal? Pet food package labels should be scrutinized not only for the ingredients in the formula, but also to determine the fat content and calories per serving. Many pet foods contain carbohydrates that can have a dramatic impact on the calorie count per serving.

If your cat food label doesn’t offer calorie information, you can often use an online search engine to find the information you need. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle if you want to help your cat lose weight. Many pet owners have no idea how many calories are packed into that can or cup of food.

And even if you feed your kitty a diet or weight management formula (which I don’t recommend), if you leave the bowl out 24/7, it’s very likely she’s still getting more calories than she needs to maintain an optimum weight. You need to feed your cat the correct amount for her optimal body weight and metabolism, which is very likely not the amount suggested on the label. To figure out how many calories your cat needs per day to maintain his ideal body weight, use this formula.

Your cat’s metabolism determines how well her body uses the calories she consumes. For example, a hyperthyroid cat has a higher metabolism than kitties with no thyroid issues, so she needs more calories. At the opposite end of the scale are cats who are morbidly obese and burn almost nothing through activity. These kitties need very few calories in very small portions. Your cat’s age and breed will also affect the number of calories she needs. Younger and more active kitties need more calories.

Feed Your Cat Like a Cat, Not a Cow

Cats are carnivores, which means they’re natural hunters. Cats living in the wild catch one to several mice a day depending on their age and activity level. They aren’t designed to graze like cows at an all day, all-you-can-eat buffet. Kitties are built to eat small amounts of food, followed by a fast, followed by another meal, followed by more fasting.

Most cats become overweight because they’re given way too much food, way too frequently. Many cat parents continue to free feed, which is an unnatural eating pattern for cats, as well as a great way to make them fat. I recommend eliminating food bowls and hiding meals in food-dispensing "mice" placed around the house, forcing your cat to go look for food, an activity that engages his brain, body and palate.

Encourage Your Cat to Exercise

Like dogs, most adult cats, regardless of body condition, need an incentive to get moving — which is where you come in. Consistent exercise, including at least 20 minutes of high-intensity activity (playing) will help your cat burn fat and increase muscle tone. For cats, this doesn’t happen all at once, but you can get your kitty moving many times a day by engaging in “chase” games around the house.

Make sure he has things to climb on, like a multi-level cat tree or tower. Invest in a laser toy, either a very inexpensive, simple one or something a bit more sophisticated like the Frolicat®. When considering other feline diversions, think like a hunter and choose toys and activities that appeal to your cat’s stalking instinct. And don’t overlook old standbys, either, like dragging a piece of string across the floor in view of your cat.

Ping-pong balls are another oldie but goodie, along with bits of paper rolled into balls, plastic milk cap rings — pretty much any light object that can be made to move fast and in unanticipated ways. For more ideas on how to challenge your cat both physically and mentally, take a look at my interview with cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy.

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 him from getting out and other animals from getting in.