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With food and water served daily, comfortable furniture to curl up on and no immediate threats to safety, indoor cats enjoy a life that outdoor felines, and even some people, seem to envy. But the good life can be hazardous for cats if it leads to weight gain. When left unchecked, those extra pounds can cause serious problems.
“Research indicates overweight cats have two times the risk of having skin disease, four times the risk of having diabetes and five times the risk of having lameness,” says Ann Hohenhaus, DMV, at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. Experts, however, are quick to add that your cat is far safer indoors, so it’s imperative that you provide opportunities for daily exercise as well as the right kind of food to help your indoor pet maintain a healthy weight.
Is Your Cat Too Fat?
“Cats are like old men,” says Jessica Braun, DVM, owner of Animal Health Center of Hays, in Kansas. “All the extra weight goes to the belly.” Although your veterinarian can tell you the best weight for your kitty, a cat with a big tummy is most likely overweight. These days, fat cats are common. Nearly half of all the cats that come to Dr. Hohenhaus’s medical center are overweight or obese. “Almost all the indoor cats I see are overweight,” says Dr. Braun.
Male cats tend to be heavier in general, but there are plenty of hefty female felines, too. Both spaying and neutering can be factors, since they may reduce certain hormone levels and can lead to some decreased activity. The benefits of spaying and neutering, however, far outweigh any side effects; the primary reason that cats carry extra pounds has nothing whatsoever to do with a surgery. Cats are usually fat because they’re being overfed or not consuming the right vittles for their particular lifestyle.
“I think it’s better to feed a cat twice a day,” advises Dr. Braun, who explains that when given unlimited food, cats will eat more. “Cats are nibblers,” she says. “Whenever you leave dried food out, 80 percent to 90 percent of cats will eat too much.” You can control your cat’s weight by limiting food but also by offering food that targets an indoor pet’s needs.
The Right Food for Indoor Cats
If your cat is looking a bit hefty around the middle, try feeding one of the new commercially available foods that are specially made to address the particular health challenges of indoor cats. Some contain the nutrient called L-carnitine, which converts fatty acids to energy, thus helping weight loss. Lower in fat and calories but containing a blend of carbohydrates, these foods also help to keep overeating in check by causing your cat to feel full faster.
Another perk of foods formulated for house cats is that such products often contain fiber. As it does for humans, fiber helps to maintain proper digestion, and in cats, it can also aid in the prevention of hairballs. If your cat is a longhaired breed or already suffers from hairballs, you may additionally wish to provide fresh grass -- available at most pet stores. “Cats in nature chew on grass to help pass hairballs,” says Mark Hanks, DVM, at Kindred Spirits Veterinary Clinic in Orrington, Maine. “The long stem fiber of grasses intertwines with the hair to help move it through the GI tract. I especially like oat grass for managing hairballs because it is particularly high in antioxidants that benefit the cat.”
In addition to feeding your cat the right foods, here are some dos and don’ts for keeping your indoor cat fit and healthy:
Do play with your cat every day. Also provide toys and catnip for your kitty.
Don’t give your cat human food, except as a rare treat, since it can lead to weight gain. “Giving a cat human food is comparable to a human eating three doughnuts in addition to a regular daily diet,” says Dr. Braun.
Do give your cat a scratching post and climbing structure to encourage activity.
Don’t buy food with only cost in mind. Go for the highest-quality food you can afford that best matches the particular health and life stage needs of your cat.
Don’t give milk to your cat. Many felines cannot digest it properly and could get diarrhea. But do provide a fresh, clean bowl of water at all times.
Do get your cat a friend, if possible. “Cats living in a household with a dog or other cats are less likely to be obese,” says Dr. Hohenhaus.
The health risks for indoor cats are far fewer and much less serious than for cats that live outside. The risks are also avoidable. By feeding your indoor kitty the right foods and by encouraging activity, you can help to sidestep health problems that can cause expense and heartache down the line. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” concludes Dr. Hohenhaus.
Elizabeth Parker has written for The Boston Globe, Shape, Glamour, Viv and many other publications. She is co-author of Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books) and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, cat and two rabbits.