Cat Obesity: Symptoms and Prevention

There is no doubt that cats are excellent pets. They are among the most popular pets in America, second only to dogs. Unfortunately one in three felines in America is obese, which can lead to serious health problems if not controlled. 

Feline obesity is a major problem affecting our furry companions and consequently us - the parents. As a feline lover and parent, it is crucial to learn how to tell if your cat is overweight or bordering on obesity, what causes it and what you can do about it. 

This article will tell you all you need to know, but first, here is a breakdown of what cat obesity is and the dangers. 

What is Cat Obesity?

When you hear that a cat is obese, the picture that first comes to mind must be that of Garfield. To some extent, obesity in cats is the accumulation of excess fats. When a cat’s body weight is 10-20% above its ideal weight, it is considered overweight. But when it exceeds the 20% mark, the cat is obese. 

Obesity is not just a dormant accumulation of fat tissue. Fat cells of obese cats are alive and make obesity a self-sustaining and self-destructive condition.

What do we mean when we say fat cells are alive? 

Previously, scientists thought that fat cells were inactive parts of the body. The perception was that fat cells only stored fat. But that changed when studies revealed that fat tissues are biologically active and often synthesize several biological compounds that regulate body functions. In other words, fat tissues are alive and can wreak havoc in your cat’s body.

cat weight chart

The Dangers of Obesity in Cats

Obese cats experience several health and lifestyle challenges. They have a higher risk of developing diabetes, feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD), osteoarthritis, liver disease, lameness, pancreatitis, gastrointestinal conditions, random and unexpected inflammation, and skin conditions like dandruff. 

Other health adversities due to feline obesity include: 

  • Increased risk of hypertension
  • Lower immunity
  • Reduced respiratory function.
  • Possible neurological problems
  • Increased risk of developing cancer 

In short, fat cats experience a lower quality of life and a shorter life. Therefore, it is crucial to know the causes and risk factors and try to avoid them.

Causes of Obesity in Cats

Whenever we see an obese cat, we straightaway think it is overfed and inactive. But the problem is more complicated and has many risk factors. Some factors are specific to the cat, and others relate to the diet and feeding habits.

Cat-specific Factors

  • Age: Older cats aged 8-12 years are less active physically and consequently more prone to becoming overweight than younger cats.
  • Gender: Female cats accumulate and store fat faster than their male counterparts.
  • Neutered/Spayed: Fixed cats are also less active and have bigger appetites than their yet-to-be-fixed counterparts.
  • Household: Indoor cats (like cats living in apartments) have fewer opportunities to exercise and burn calories than cats allowed to experience outdoors regularly.
  • Underlying health issues: Unusual gain in weight could also be an indicator of underlying health issues. Some diseases can cause rapid weight gain. They include hypothyroidism, insulinoma, and Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s Disease). On the other hand, conditions like arthritis cause joint pain. They reduce a cat’s physical activity significantly.

Diet-specific Factors

  • Type and quantity of food: Dry foods are often rich in calories and promote weight gain more than protein-packed canned foods. Also, improper measurement of food portions can cause the cat to overeat and gain weight faster. So, if your cat eats dry food, make sure to do your research on which brands are best.
  • Poor feeding habits: If your cat feeds too fast, she will moan and cry more often, and you could end up giving more food, off schedule, to keep her quiet. The same happens if you provide only one large meal in a day and not several (small quantity) meals. Too many treats also promote weight gain. 

Obesity is a more complex problem because fat cells synthesize compounds that make it worse. An obese cat will inadvertently be less interested in physical activities and more prone to ailments. Thus it is crucial to observe and keep tabs on the cat’s weight and take measures to prevent obesity.

Symptoms of Obesity

Bodyweight alone is not sufficient to tell if your cat is obese. Visit the vet regularly or have vets come over for checkups. Vets employ several techniques to tell if a cat is obese such as Body Condition Score (BCS) charts. These charts give instructions on assessing the look and feel of a cat at specific parts of the body. Some of the assessments are visual, for example, checking if the waistline is visible or not. Other examinations rely on touching. The vet, using the palms, would feel the rib and hip area to determine if they are fat-covered. 

As you can see, these tests are somewhat technical, and without training, you could end up with incorrect inferences.

What symptoms can you look out for (as a layperson) to determine if your cat is overweight or obese? 

  • Know the average weight of your cat and check it regularly. Depending on the breed, the average weight will differ. Most cats lie in the 9-12 pounds range. But big cats like Maine Coons can weigh as much as 25 lbs.
  • Check their physical activity levels. Cats are generally playful and physically active. If your cat is not interested in play and wants to lie down all day and night, there could be an underlying problem.
  • Stroke the cat around the belly and rib areas; you should feel the ribs. If you cannot, the cat is probably overweight.
  • Take a look at your cat’s body profile. If you cannot see a distinct waistline from above, or if you notice a swinging pouch near the hind legs, the cat could be overweight.
  • Look at the cat’s fur, especially at the backside. Is it neat, or can you see greasy patches, matted hair, and flaky skin? If it is the latter, your cat cannot reach that part of her body and self groom due to excess weight. 

If you suspect your cat is overweight, visit the vet for a proper check-up.  


Preventing Cat Obesity

The best way to treat obesity in cats is to adopt healthy practices and avoid or mitigate the risk factors. Consider ways to improve the cat's life through diet and activity. Here are tips on how you can prevent cat obesity. 

  1. Provide correct food: Avoid high-calorie foods. Instead, feed your cat on protein-rich foods and give them the recommended portions at the prescribed frequency (often mentioned on the packaging). 
  2. Avoid indulgent feeding: The cat may enjoy treats and scraps of human food like bread. Such foods are often rich in carbs and not part of a cat’s natural diet. Cats are obligate carnivores. Thus, meat should be predominant in their diets. By substituting meat with other foods, especially calorie-rich treats and human foods, you increase the risk of obesity. 
  3. Keep your cat mentally active: Like humans, cats often turn to food when bored. In an environment with plenty of food and few activities, a cat is likely to become overweight. But you can restrict access to food and provide mentally stimulating activities to avoid boredom. 
  4. Keep your cat physically active: play with your cat often. Provide opportunities to exercise and stretch their limbs. Cats love scratching posts, climbing, chasing little rodent-like toys, and other activities. 
  5. Take your cat for regular checkups. If you want to keep cat obesity at bay, you cannot avoid the vet’s office. As we discovered, obesity in cats is not always due to overeating and low physical activity. Certain ailments and health issues can also contribute. Take your cat to the vet for regular checkups. Early diagnosis often makes it easier to deal with such conditions and ailments.  

      Obesity in Cats, A Final Word

      Obesity in cats is a problem that generates several health and lifestyle issues. Obese cats are likely to develop chronic ailments and experience a lower quality of life. Obesity is a self-sustaining condition, and treatment requires plenty of guided effort and consistency. 

      Studies reveal that there could be a close relationship between overweight pets and their owners’ weight issues. The lifestyle and environmental factors underpinning obesity often occur and influence both. Therefore, preventing obesity is beneficial for both the pet and owner. Be on the lookout for the factors that underpin obesity and its symptoms and take proactive steps to avoid it.

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