Cat owners have a weighty problem: Their pets are no longer wild animals that hunt --- they're domesticated, overeating and obese.

September 16, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Nitwit is a good-natured calico cat who likes to sleep on the top bunk bed in her owner's spare bedroom. She jumps from the floor to the dresser to the bed. That's pretty impressive when you consider that 8-year-old Nitwit weighs in at a hefty 18 pounds, which is a little beyond pleasingly plump and edging toward obese.

"She's an eating machine," says her owner, Renate Reed of Annapolis.

Nitwit's weight doubled in the six months after she was neutered, to the shock of both Reed and her veterinarian. Because excess weight can lead to increased risk of life-threatening diseases, the vet recommended that Nitwit go on a diet.

According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, obesity in pets has become a major health problem. Excess weight increases the risk of kitty developing diabetes and urinary tract diseases. It's also hard on the joints, heart and other organs.

Unfortunately, cats aren't interested in counting their calories. Their owners will have to do it for them, and that can be difficult. If it's not a symptom of an underlying medical condition, overeating is often a behavioral problem--yours and theirs.

You're probably going to have seriously annoyed, and annoying, cats while you're breaking their bad habits. They'll whine, howl, nip at your ankles and wonder why you just don't get it. But then, no one ever said dieting was easy.

Nitwit now eats a low-calorie cat food, a pet chain's store brand. She gets a third of a cup of the dry food twice a day, along with a couple of treats like Pounce. To burn off a few calories, her owner encourages the cat to follow her when she goes out in the back yard.

"There's been no improvement at all," Reed says with a rueful laugh.

Nitwit might eventually need a prescription diet. The "light" food sold over the counter, although often good quality, isn't radically different from regular cat food, says veterinarian Jeff Nichol, author of Is My Cat Ok? How to Know When Your Cat Won't Say (Prentice Hall, 2001). Prescription diets, sold through veterinarians, can be substantially lower in fat and higher in fiber, which makes the cat feel fuller. (It almost goes without saying that prescription diets are also more expensive. And, of course, you can't just stop by the supermarket when you run out.)

Nichol feeds his cat, Raoul, a quarter of a cup of regular dry cat food moistened with water twice a day, a diet that would seem Spartan to many cat owners. But Raoul, who weighs 9 1/2 pounds, is 15 years old, healthy and still athletic.

"It's really a cat-owner problem," says Nichol. "We have to break the mindset of owners who think the more our pets eat the better we are at loving them."

If love isn't the issue, then it's likely to be a matter of convenience. Once dry food came on the market in the 1950s, owners could leave it down all day without worrying that it might spoil. Their cats could nibble a little here, a little there when they felt like it. Animal nutritionists call this "free choice" feeding. Unfortunately, the myth that cats only eat when they're hungry is just that: a myth. Some vets, including Dr. Jane Brunt of the Cat Hospital at Towson, say dry food is one of the main reasons there are so many overweight cats these days.

Dr. Brunt estimates that over half the cats she and her colleagues see are obese, defined as 10 percent over their optimum weight. The fattest cat she's ever treated weighed in at a whopping 29 pounds.

"It's kind of scary," she says. She recommends that owners start watching their pets' waistlines early; it's easier to train cats in the proper eating habits when they're kittens rather than switching from free-choice feeding to strict mealtimes later in life. Avoid giving pets table scraps, and limit between-meal treats.

Mice are away, cat won't play

Pet experts stress that regular exercise is important in weight control, but that's not easy when it comes to cats. With few exceptions, they can't be taken for a walk around the block. Most owners have a drawerful of cat toys that have been played with briefly and then ignored, and an obese animal isn't likely to chase after a catnip mouse for long enough to make any difference.

In the last 50 years cats have gone from being working animals (kept around to keep vermin down) to being mainly indoor pets. They are more sedentary and eating more -- a bad combination, as anyone who has ever wanted to lose weight knows. It's even become politically incorrect to let cats outside; the American Bird Conservancy has launched a campaign to keep cats indoors. True, outdoor cats are at more risk from diseases and getting hit by cars, but they also get more exercise.

"Cats are an athletic species," says Dr. Pat Bradley of Aardmore Veterinarium in Baltimore. "We've turned them into apartment pets. All the hunting they do is to stalk into the kitchen."

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