When we adopted Olive at the Humane Society back in 2007, three things stood out about her: She was a rare orange female; she made liberal use of a scratchy voice; and she pushed other cats in the room away from the food. This was good, we thought. Our other cat, Fred, was a lean, 18-pound male, and we needed someone who could hold her own against him. At an assertive 15 pounds, Olive seemed like the perfect complement.
Three years later, Olive weighs 20 pounds, Fred has passed away from bowel cancer at age 5, and 12-year-old Wally has joined our family. Set in his ways, Wally arrived eating only dry food. Because he’s a disinterested diner, we leave his Whiskas Meaty Selections out for him to graze on when he sees fit. Often he doesn’t get much, because Olive always appears when she hears kitchen activity.
At her last checkup, Olive’s doctor, Elizabeth Miquel of the Essex Veterinary Center, doled out some tough love. She observed that Olive could not bend at the waist to clean her rear end. Miquel recommends annual tooth cleanings, but she said Olive was no longer a safe candidate for the necessary anesthesia.
Olive isn’t alone. Cat obesity is a major problem among Miquel’s patients, she told us. Yet when she searched for studies on overweight pets, she found that only dogs had been formally examined. How does she explain the bias? “People think that fat cats are cute,” Miquel conjectures.
Linda Moore, the DVM at Cats Vermont-Veterinary Clinic in Burlington, agrees: “A lot of people think a cat should be nice and round and fat.”
Miquel is so concerned about feline obesity, though, that she’s thinking of opening a kitty boot camp at her practice, where cats could stay a week to learn better habits. For now, she encourages patients to come for weigh-ins every other week to chart their progress.
Moore, who also monitors hefty cats, advises owners not to get discouraged if they see changes of just a few ounces over several weeks. “Especially if they’re big, fat cats to begin with, they don’t get all nice and skinny and buff,” she says.
Changing food type and amount are easy answers for single-cat households. (Wet food has fewer calories and is better for urinary health, the vets say. Plus, food packaging often recommends a larger portion than is necessary.) Like tubby humans, cats also benefit from exercise. Miquel recommends letting them outside when there are no major risks from traffic or other animals.
But Moore counters, “I know plenty of outdoor cats who are fat.” She compares an overweight cat with “a 65-year-old couch potato whose only exercise is using the remote control” — in both cases, encouraging activity is a struggle. Moore recommends finding games that appeal to your cat’s interests. If they involve toys that dispense food, you’ve got dinner and playtime at once.
But if you have a multi-cat household like mine, how can you put just one cat on a diet — especially when she’s a proactive eater? Miquel refers me to an engineer by the name of Brad Portelance. In his spare time, Portelance builds and sells the NekoFeeder, which is composed of food-carrying cases outfitted with sensors that correspond to a particular collar. The door will unlock only when the cat wearing that collar approaches, allowing him to access the food inside the case.
Portelance has been using the system successfully for nine years with his two cats. Hana dines in her NekoFeeder, while namesake Neko, who is fed carefully and separately, is no longer fat.
Portelance says his customers — at www.nekofeeder.com and select veterinary offices — have been grateful. “It’s been really rewarding to see how people are so affected by the love of their cats,” he adds.
But in a culture where love and food are associated, many owners want to give their cats what they crave. “We love them to death, literally,” warns Miquel. But we owe it to our pets to care about their long-term welfare — even when it means enduring a symphony of agitated yowls.