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Fat Cats and Diabetes: What You Can Do

Fat cat

If you have a fat cat, you may think she's adorable and cuddly, but she's also at risk for a number of serious, even life-threatening diseases, including diabetes. In fact, diabetes among cats is a significant concern and the topic of a slowly growing number of studies. What can you do about an overweight cat and the risk of diabetes?

Fat cats are not healthy cats

The percentage of fat cats in the United States is catching up to the number of overweight and obese humans. In fact, more than half the domesticated cats in the country are too fat, and the blame can be placed on pet parents--but the solution also can come from the same source.

According to a new study in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, "overweight and obesity are linked to insulin sensitivity and subsequently in older cats, to an increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus." The scientists in this study explored whether there is an association between insulin sensitivity (a key factor in diabetes) and body condition score (BCS) or body mass index during early adulthood in cats.

Forty-one kittens started the study and were followed over 8 months, with periodic checks on body condition and body mass index. At month 8, insulin sensitivity was determined using a glucose tolerance test and compared with body condition.

The investigators found that even at a young age, "insulin insensitivity is significantly associated with BCS." Therefore, the risk for diabetes can start in young cats, which is similar to the risk people see today in overweight children and adolescents.

Before discussing obesity and diet as a cause of diabetes in cats, it's important to also note that genetics plays a role as well. According to feline expert Elizabeth A. Hodgkins, DVM, Esq., and author of Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life, "Some cats simply have genes that make them more or less likely to get diabetes, and more or less likely to get lots of other diseases as well."

Not all cats start their lives as overweight kittens nor fat adolescents, but many do grow into fat adults. A growing number of veterinarians and veterinary nutritionists are speaking out about the other reason for the epidemic of fat cats, and that reason is food, specifically dry cat food.

How to prevent a fat cat and diabetes
One veterinarian who is adamantly against feeding dry food to cats is Hodgkins, who explains that cats naturally get only about 3% to 5% of their total daily caloric intake as carbohydrates, yet the dry food pet parents feed cats contains 35% to 50% (or more) as carbohydrate calories.

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Therefore, "dry foods flood the cat's system with 5-10 times (500%-1,000%) more calories from carbohydrates than what would be found in a wild cat's prey." A result of this overfeeding of carbohydrates in dry food (popular because it's convenient and often lower in cost) can be obesity, diabetes, or both.

Hodgkins notes in Your Cat that "In my many years of practice, I have never seen a diabetic cat that was eating canned food or a homemade meat-based diet only." You can also learn to make your own homemade cat food using simple recipes available from feline veterinary nutritionists or the many books or websites by veterinarians.

Ideally, cats should consume at least 45% (preferably more) of their calories from protein, 30% to 45% of calories from fat, and no more than 10% from carbohydrates.

Is my cat fat?
To answer this question, here are a few guidelines. Adult females cats should weigh between 7 and 11 pounds--no more--unless they are Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest Cat, or Ragdoll breeds, in which case these ladies may weigh up to 14 pounds. Adult male cats should weigh 9 to 12 pounds unless they are of the larger breeds mentioned, in which case they may weigh up to 18 pounds.

You can also check to see if your cat is overweight using these steps:

  • When you feel your cat's rib cage, you should easily feel his ribs pressing against your palm. If you press with your fingertips and can't feel the ribs, then your cat is very overweight.
  • Stand your cat up on his back legs. You should see a waistline just below his rib cage. If you don't, your cat is overweight.
  • Feel your cat's shoulders, base of the tail, and spine. There should be a slight layer of fat over these areas, but not so much you can't feel the bones lightly underneath. If you don't feel the bones, then your cat is overweight.

How to help your cat lose weight
As with people, the two important steps to losing weight are diet and exercise. For a fat cat who is eating dry food, make the switch to canned food. Since cats can be finicky, you may need to make this transition slowly.

  • First, stop providing your cat with free choice dry food. You need to establish set feeding times, perhaps 2 to 3 times a day. At each feeding, provide dry food and a small amount of wet food.
  • Over the course of one week, keep reducing the amount of dry food and increasing the amount of wet until you have completed the transition.
  • If your cat is resisting the change to wet food, try adding a tablespoon of chopped cooked chicken or turkey to the canned food or sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top.
  • Generally, an adult cat needs about 4 to 6 ounces of canned food daily. Because each cat is different, you may need to make slight adjustments to this amount as time goes on and you see how much weight your cat loses.
  • Cats should not lose too much weight too fast: 1% to 2% of their body weight per week is safe. For example: an 18 lb cat should not lose more than 5.76 ounces the first week (18 lb x 16 oz = 288 oz x .02 = 5.76 oz to lose) The amount to lose each week will gradually decline as your cat loses more and more weight.
  • Weigh your cat when you start the weight loss program and then every 3 to 4 days. Since you are dealing with small amounts of weight loss, it's best to have a digital scale for an accurate weight.
  • Consult your veterinarian about your weight-reduction program for your cat.

Exercise is another important factor. You may not be able to walk your cat, but you can encourage her to be more active.

  • Play with your cat for at least 15 minutes each day (or assign this task to your children)
  • Provide toys and distractions, such as a cat tree, feathers hanging from a string, or balls. Catnip toys often stimulate activity.
  • Place a few medium-size empty boxes around the house so your cat can jump in and out of them
  • If you have stairs, put the litter box on one floor and the food on another, as far away from each other as possible, so your cat has to "travel"

If you help your fat cat lose weight, you will offer her an opportunity for a longer, healthier life, hopefully free of diabetes and other health problems associated with being overweight or obese.

Haring T et al. Overweight and impaired insulin sensitivity present in growing cats. Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition 2012 Jul 20. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0396.2012.01322.x
Hodgkins EA. Your Cat. Simple Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life. St. Martins, 2007, pp. 148 ff

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