How to Feed a Fat Feline

Last January, Ingrid Duthie's favorite pants became very uncomfortable. Holiday parties led to extra calories, along with less time at the gym, for the 40-year-old Detroit native. She wasn't surprised she'd put on a few additional pounds, but she was taken aback when she noticed some extra girth on her 6-year-old cat, Felix, too. "I was probably more aware of Felix's belly since I was thinking a lot about my own, but I'd always thought of him as skinny, since he was very thin as a kitten," she remembers.

At Felix's annual checkup the following month, his veterinarian confirmed that Duthie's small-boned feline had added two pounds in the last year -- increasing his weight by more than 20 percent. He prescribed the following treatment: fewer calories, more calorie-burning. Below, veterinarian Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, weighs in on how cats acquire tubby tummies and how you can help to reverse the damage.

Why Cats Get Fat
According to Dr. Joyce, obesity in domestic felines has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. This is accompanied by health problems all too familiar to Americans: diabetes, arthritis and even premature death. But unlike dogs and humans, underlying health issues usually do not cause obesity in cats, according to Dr. Joyce. "In dogs we'll see hypothyroidism, but it almost never happens in cats," she says, explaining that this condition slows down an individual's metabolism. Hyperthyroidism, which causes just the opposite to occur, is far more common among felines.

So what does make Fluffy fat? Lifestyle. "Overweight cats are that way because of overfeeding and lack of exercise," she says. "Some cats are good at regulating their food intake, but others are not. If too much food is made available to them, they will eat it." Indoor cats generally don't have much stimulation in their environment -- they aren't stalking, chasing, jumping. Indoor cats are safe from trauma, which is obviously critical to their well-being, but they also sit a lot.

How Cats Get Thin
"Weight loss diets have the most successful outcomes," says Dr. Joyce. This includes both a commercial weight loss formula and portion control. "I recommend wet food, but only because it seems easier for owners to regulate how much they are feeding. Also, it's eaten in one shot, so if there are two cats in the household, there is less chance for the fatter cat to eat the skinnier cat's portion." Dr. Joyce also recommends strictly limiting treats and eliminating table scraps altogether. A grain-free food containing the amino acid L-carnitine may also be beneficial, as it helps to burn fat while maintaining lean muscle mass.

Though a gym membership may not be in your kitty's future, exercise should be on the menu. But be prepared. Getting Fluffy moving may take a dedicated and creative owner. "See what your cat responds to," Dr. Joyce says. "Some enjoy chasing a laser light, which you can operate from the couch. You can put a cat on a harness and an extendable leash and let it run around an enclosed yard with you. Make your cat work for its food -- take the bowl and ask it to follow you around the house to get it." If adopting a kitten is an option, a younger companion's eagerness to play and chase may also get your adult cat off the couch.

Enlisting Professional Help
Unlike dogs and humans, cats cannot tolerate severe calorie restriction. Consult your veterinarian about acceptable portion sizes for weight loss in order to avoid fatty liver syndrome, a serious condition affecting the liver that results when cats do not consume enough calories. Adds Dr. Joyce, "Fatty liver syndrome is also something to be aware of if you introduce a new cat into the home. The first cat may go on a hunger strike, to act out, which can seriously endanger its liver functioning." She suggests monitoring the first cat's food intake closely while the felines become acquainted.

Special Food Choices for Your Senior Cat

While cats are considered to be senior at age 7, they move into the “senior-plus” category at age 11. Below, Dr. Trisha Joyce, veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, shares the special nutritional needs of cats in their golden years.

Nutritional Considerations Change as Cats Age
“The biggest thing for older cats is protein content,” says Joyce. “All cats older than 11 have some degree of kidney disease.” Cats are obligate carnivores; they need animal protein to not only thrive, but also survive. As they age, though, their kidneys can’t generally handle so much of a good thing. “A little less protein is easier on the kidneys,” emphasizes Joyce.

Other concerns for older cats will not be new to anyone who is familiar with the human aging process:

  • Obesity. The biggest health problem among household pets is difficult to manage in cats, particularly because they tend to become more and more sedentary as they age.
  • Constipation. The aforementioned kidney problems leave older cats prone to dehydration, which can contribute to constipation, as does a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Immune functioning. A cat’s ability to fight illness declines with age.
  • Mobility. Joyce says that arthritis is probably underdiagnosed in cats. “They don’t move around as much in general, so pet owners won’t often notice their stiffness. But it’s reasonable to assume that they get joint degradation, just like dogs and people.”

Is Senior-plus Food Right for Your Cat?
Senior-plus food is appropriate for all cats 11 and older whose health problems do not meet the threshold for a specific prescription diet. Cats with more severe health problems may need a more aggressive dietary approach. “Senior food is no substitute for a prescription diet. Make sure to involve your veterinarian in any decision to change your pet’s food,” says Joyce.

When transitioning to a new food, it is recommended that you make the change gradually, substituting small amounts of new food for old over the course of a week.

What to Look For in Senior-plus Food
Given the most common health concerns of older cats, senior-plus formulas should address kidney health, immune functioning, joint health, digestion and weight concerns. As Joyce mentions above, a lower-protein formula can help promote kidney health. The following ingredients address each of these other common concerns:

  • L-carnitine. This compound is thought to promote the metabolism of fatty acids, helping cats burn them as energy.
  • Prebiotics and beet pulp. “Prebiotics promote a balance of healthy bacteria in the gut. Combined with a good fiber source like beet pulp and enough water, these fight constipation,” says Joyce.
  • Antioxidants. “Antioxidants are thought to support immune functioning. These fall under the category of ‘Might help; can’t hurt.’”
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. These compounds are produced naturally by the body and keep cartilage healthy. A senior-plus formula should be supplemented with these to stop the progression of arthritis.

“Cat’s don’t complain like dogs do, so owners are less likely to know they’re suffering, but it doesn’t mean joint pain is not an issue for them!” emphasizes Joyce.

Cats need extra TLC in their golden years, and one place to provide it is in the dish. With the right pet formula, your senior-plus cat can enjoy its old age as much as its youth.

The Lowdown on Low pH in Cat Food

Researchers have spent years trying to pinpoint the causes of bladder problems in cats, which are frustrating for owners, veterinarians and cats alike. Much of the talk in the last 20 years has focused on diet as a means to prevent or control these problems, with buzzwords like “optimum pH” and “healthy urinary tract formula” plastered all over cat food bags. With all of this research, the question remains: How important is diet in helping to manage urinary disease?

Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease
Urinary disease is a common problem in cats, accounting for 1.5 percent of feline veterinary visits, according to a 1999 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The consequences can be severe. Cats that have bladder issues often urinate outside the litter box, the No. 1 behavioral cause of owner relinquishment.

Feline lower urinary tract disease, or FLUTD, refers to a collection of issues that affect the bladder and urethra, resulting in signs such as painful urination, blood in the urine, increased trips to the litter box, and obstruction of the urethra -- the dreaded “blocked cat” emergency.

“There are two big categories of FLUTD: idiopathic cystitis and sterile struvite crystalluria,” says Dr. Lisa Weeth, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Hillsborough, N.J. For 60 percent of these cats, there is no identifiable cause. A 2003 study in the Journal of Urology suggests a correlation between stress and outbreaks of symptoms, but aside from this, no one can predict when the disease will strike.

Another 25-30 percent of cats with lower urinary disease have crystals or stones in their urine. The discussion about urinary pH becomes more important for these cats.

The Dark Crystal: Struvite and Calcium Oxalate Disease
All cats have some amount of minerals dissolved in their urine. When the concentration of minerals is high enough, the minerals come out of solution and form microscopic crystals. In their most severe form, these crystals coalesce into large bladder stones.

While no one can predict the exact set of circumstances that will cause any given cat to form crystals, there are several factors that are thought to contribute to their formation, according to Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with P&G Pet Care.

The two main crystals found in cats are struvite and calcium oxalate. Struvite crystals more commonly form in cats with an alkaline urine pH over 6.6, while oxalate crystals are usually seen at acidic pH values under 6.0, says Dicke.

“Urine acidification (of cat diets) began in the early 1980s,” says Dr. Sean Delaney, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist and founder of Struvite is far more common than calcium oxalate, explains Delaney, so feeding a diet that produces acidic urine with a pH of under 6.6 is a tool to help reduce the incidence of struvite crystals.

Hydration is another component of crystal formation. Dilute urine is less likely to form a precipitate than very concentrated urine. Unfortunately, getting cats to drink enough water is sometimes a tricky proposition. “Evolutionarily speaking, cats are a desert species that may have gotten water from their food. The more fluid that goes through, the better,” says Delaney.

Veterinarians are careful to counsel owners that though diet and hydration may aggravate urinary disease in cats that are predisposed to developing crystals, they are not usually considered the sole cause.

“I think, in general, pet owners underestimate the significance of stress in their pet cats -- especially indoor-only cats in multi-cat environments,” says Weeth.

Urinary Disease in Seniors
As cats age, lifestyle and secondary health issues can contribute to urinary disease. In addition to dietary management, stress and hydration, obesity is a risk factor for FLUTD, and a problem that can sneak up on cats as they age.

In older cats, secondary conditions such as bacterial infections may show up as a complication of renal disease -- a common condition in senior cats. Cats may or may not show outward signs of this problem -- another reason regular twice-a-year wellness visits in cats older than 7 are recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-step solution to solving the complicated issue of urinary disease in cats. The good news, however, is that we know more about it now than we ever have before, and with a dedicated veterinarian-owner team, clients have a great opportunity to help their cats live long, healthy and comfortable lives.

Caring for Cats With Sensitive Stomachs

Cats can be notoriously picky, snubbing food left and right. A big -- and often messy -- clue that something is wrong may be in or around your cat’s litter box. If your cat’s bathroom habits are amiss, it could be suffering from dietary intolerance (aka a sensitive tummy). Once you’ve detected the signs, our experts suggest the following:

1. Rule out serious health issues.
As an associate emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., Dr. Katy Nelson sees a lot of cats with litter box issues and related problems. “A cat with chronic vomiting and diarrhea should be examined carefully by a veterinarian to rule out metabolic (renal, thyroid, etc.), infectious (parasites, viral, bacterial imbalance, etc.), inflammatory (inflammatory bowel disease, lymphoma, etc.) versus other types of issues,” says Nelson. If any of those are diagnosed, appropriate treatment will follow.

Nelson, however, adds that something else might be to blame: “After a thorough work-up, if it is determined that the cat has dietary intolerance, pursuing a food that is highly digestible is recommended.”

2. Consider feeding your cat a low-residue cat food.
Your veterinarian might steer you to a low-residue food, which works by providing a special blend of fiber, protein and fat sources. “The protein and carb sources in these foods should be low-antigen,” says Nelson. Antigens are ingredients that can cause allergic reactions in some cats. Soy is sometimes a culprit, but food allergies differ between cats.

“The fiber sources should be moderately fermentable, as these produce lower amounts of gas than their more fermentable counterparts,” adds Nelson. Dried beet pulp is one such beneficial fiber.

Sensitive-stomach foods should also contain prebiotics to tailor the bacterial load in the GI tract. Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams, explains that “a prebiotic, such as fructooligosaccharides (FOS), is a fiber, which is not digested by the enzymes in the dog’s or cat’s digestive tract. Instead, the bacteria in the intestinal tract break the fiber down and use it for food.” Continues Dicke: “What makes a prebiotic different from other fibers is it feeds (or supports) the good bacteria (not the bad), helping the good bacteria to grow.”

3. Pay attention to your cat’s entire digestive system.
Many people tend to think of the digestion system as just being in the gut, but the process really begins right where the food goes in. According to an Emerson Animal Hospital fact sheet, “The feline digestive system -- like our own -- consists of several organs, including the mouth, esophagus (food pipe), stomach, duodenum, small and large intestines, and rectum.” The Waco, Texas, hospital helps with that process from the start by providing oral care to cat patients.

Dr. Joann Young, a veterinarian in Dover, N.H., is also adept at caring for kitty teeth. “Almost three out of four cats have tooth and gum disease by age 3, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society,” says Young. It is the No. 1 diagnosed problem in small-animal clinics today.”

Tooth decay, bad breath, bleeding gums and even tooth loss are all symptoms of dental disease. “Problems begin when food particles and bacteria build up in the cat’s mouth, forming plaque and tartar, causing gingivitis and severe periodontal disease,” says Young. “These bacteria can enter the pet’s bloodstream and damage the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs, according to research.” Brushing your cat’s teeth regularly and scheduling regular cleanings (especially if your cat will not tolerate home tooth-brushings) is therefore essential to your pet’s overall health.

4. Find a good diet for your cat and stick to it.
Nelson offers these final words of advice: “To avoid GI upset in kitties with sensitive stomachs, do not switch diets around, do not change protein and carb sources, and avoid giving fatty treats.”


When to Feed Cats a High-calorie Diet

A high-calorie pet formula packs a nutrient-dense punch and has even saved the lives of cats that are in need of gaining weight. Because of the calorie density in such formulas, a cat can ingest about one-quarter of the bulk of standard cat food and get the same nutritional benefit. Below, Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, who is a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, weighs in on when a higher-calorie formula may or may not be right for your furry friend.

When to Feed High-calorie Food
“If your cat has lost weight, it’s possible that something is going on metabolically that needs to be addressed,” says Nelson. “No normal cat on a normal diet is going to start to drop weight unless there’s something underlying. This is specifically a recovery diet.” Cats treated for inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the following conditions, are often prescribed calorie-dense foods:

  • Fatty liver disease. When an older cat stops eating, it is vulnerable to fatty liver disease. The body goes into starvation mode and begins sending fat cells into the liver to process as protein. Untreated, this will result in liver failure and death. “You can stop the process by supplying the animal with a fat source. A cat with fatty liver may end up being prescribed a high-calorie food for three to six months,” says Nelson.
  • Cancer. Cats with cancer will likely need extra calories to heal, but may not have large appetites. Nelson shares that eating just one-sixth of a can of certain high-calorie cat foods is “like eating a full can of regular food.”
  • Dental work. Many higher-calorie formulas are wet foods, making them easy on the teeth.
  • Hyperthyroidism. Once the condition is identified and the medication is started, a high-calorie formula may still be prescribed to help the cat return to a healthy weight.

When Not to Feed Maximum-calorie Food
A pet owner should not independently make the decision to put a cat on any prescription diet. A high-calorie formula “is a phenomenal food to have in your arsenal, but no owner should say, ‘I’m going to make a diet change because my cat is losing weight,’” says Nelson. “These foods are very high-protein, very high-fat. Start it unnecessarily, and your cat’s going to end up with pancreatitis or horrible diarrhea.”

  • Pregnancy/lactation. “Kitten food is most appropriate for pregnant and nursing cats. It has the appropriate levels of all sorts of nutrients that are necessary for the kittens,” says Nelson. A cat with a particularly large litter might be given a higher-calorie food as a supplement, but check with your veterinarian first.
  • Old age. Many elderly cats have mildly compromised kidneys, making a food that is very rich in protein likely a bad idea. For slender, senior cats, choose a nonprescription senior-formula cat food.

Switching to a new food generally requires a transition period, but Nelson explains that when cats need a high-calorie formula, time is often of the essence. “Typically, in situations where this food is required, you don’t have transitioning time. If you have to deal with a little diarrhea versus their liver getting compromised, you go for the former.”

Transitioning off is another story. Once a cat’s underlying issue has been identified and addressed, and the cat returns to a healthy weight or the oral problem is resolved, spend seven to 10 days adjusting the ratios of the new diet back to the older one.