Cat Obesity - Fat or Fluffy?

It’s not just we owners who suffer from over indulgence; our feline house-mates are prone to becoming a little “chubby” themselves, which can lead to many serious health risks.  

Recently Jon Bowen (leading veterinary behavioural advisor), spoke at the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellor’s (APBC) conference on how to tackle the growing problem of feline obesity.  Following are a few points on feeding approaches taken from his fascinating talk.

The first issue to note is how commercial pet food has changed over the years.  With an aim to reduce transport and packaging costs, pet food has generally become more energy dense.  This can make it hard for cats to gauge how much they’re eating, and only a few extra pieces of kibble a day can lead to creeping weight gain. 

Our own feeding approach can also have a direct impact on our cat’s consumption.  Cats are grazers so prefer to eat little and often, on average around seven times a day if given the choice.  So unless food is left down, set meal times (usually twice a day to fit around work), can lead to overeating in an attempt to “stock up” until dinner. 

And then there is our own nurturing behaviour around wanting our cat to enjoy their food and leave a clean plate.  It’s easy to succumb to shopping around for different brands because the cat didn’t seem that interested in what they were given.  But maybe the cat just wasn’t that hungry.  Encouraging the cat to overeat through high flavour food and infrequent meal times, can rewire their brains’ “full” signal causing a vicious cycle where they will then have to eat more to feel satisfied.

We also risk mistaking their greetings as a request for food.  In fact, if we feed the cat, and then stroke it when it’s eating, some cats learn to eat just to get the desired attention.  For cats, eating isn’t always the best reward.  For example we might assume that the reward for hunting to the cat is the consumption of the prey.  In fact the predatory action of stalking and catching is in itself self-reinforcing, and eating the prey may do little more than satiate a hungry cat.  Although not tried myself, I’m told the average unseasoned mouse is pretty bland.

So what to do?  Well the specifics will depend on each cat but generally little changes make a big difference.  To start with, some cats may benefit from food left down all the time to remove the urgency around eating.  This is particularly successful if there is some effort to get to the food, such as by using the Trixie “activity board”.  This ensures the cat will only eat if the gain outweighs the effort – i.e. they are hungry enough.  In addition, keeping the food bland and without variety, reduces unnecessary eating.  This also helps to rewire the stomach to brain connection, and help them listen to the correct “full” signal. 

And finally remember that a chatty happy cat trying to trip you up with all the leg winding, may not be asking for food, but trying to get your attention for a game or a cuddle – most cats are far more sociable than we realise and really don’t just see us as glorified tin openers.  Although I believe mine only sees me as a heated cushion for the winter! 

[please consult your vet if your pet’s overweight or for specific pet diet advice]