Cat: Behavioural Approach to Obesity

obese catMy cat is overweight and I have tried putting him on different slimming diets from the vet but with no joy – is there anything else I can do to help him lose weight?

Losing weight is often a difficult process and animals, like people, often take weeks or months to shed those unwanted pounds. Feeding a prescription slimming diet is certainly a good start in a weight reduction programme for your cat but it is important to remember that food intake is only one part of the problem. Energy expenditure is also important and if you simply reduce the amount of food that your cat is consuming and do not alter the amount of exercise that he is taking you will find that the rate of weight loss is almost negligible. Encouraging your cat to take exercise by playing with him and by putting his food in unusual locations, so he has to go looking for it, will help. In addition there are some misunderstandings about the way in which cats eat which can lead to problems of obesity so it is important to address these as well.

What are the best ways to encourage my cat to be more active?

Cats are designed to engage in short bursts of energy expenditure rather than in long sessions of physical activity and therefore you need to provide toys and games which encourage this sort of action. Games which stimulate predatory instincts are usually irresistible for cats and the use of fishing rod toys which encourage some aerobic activity will be a helpful part of your pet’s diet regime. More details are available in the leaflet Playing Effectively With Your Cat.

How can I encourage my cat to be more active when I am out at work all day?

One of the most difficult things to do is encourage activity in a pet that is alone for long periods of time, but it is not impossible and there is a range of toys and feeding equipment available to stimulate feline activity. Some of the timed cat feeders that can be set at pre-determined times to allow access to food can be useful and if this timing is combined with the provision of puzzle feeder activity this can lead to a significant increase in activity. Cat aerobic centres which incorporate hiding places for part of the cat’s daily food ration can also be useful. In addition to feeding related activity you can encourage other forms of play by the provision of toys, but it is better to use items that have intrinsic movement as these will stimulate the cat to play even in the absence of a human operator!

I have tried playing with my cat but he is so overweight that playing is simply not on his mind – is there any other way of increasing his energy expenditure?

When cats have become very overweight it can be difficult for them to play and they tend to spend their time either eating or sleeping. In these cases it is important to increase the level of activity associated with feeding and simple changes, such as placing the food bowl in a slightly less accessible location, may be beneficial. Try putting the food bowl on top of a small platform, so that the cat has to climb up to gain access to it or use multiple bowls spaced around the house so that the cat has to walk from one bowl to the other in order to complete his meal. You may also consider making some homemade puzzle feeders out of plastic bottles so that your cat has to roll the bottle across the floor in order to gain access to the food inside. In the beginning make food easy to access via the toys so that motivation to play with them is high, then gradually make food more difficult to access to encourage greater energy expenditure. As the weight loss begins you will find that your cat has more energy to engage in play and other activities but in the early stages feeding time may be your only opportunity to make him burn off some of those calories.

I feed my cat two good meals of cat food every day so why does he keep on asking for treats between meals?

The cat’s digestive system is designed to take in multiple small meals throughout the day and the concept of two meals in twenty four hours is simply quite alien to natural feline behaviour! Two large meals encourages cats to carry on eating even when they are no longer hungry and when they have been fed in this way for a long period of time they find it very difficult to regulate their own food intake. Often cats learn to consume larger quantities in one or two sittings because they come to realise that food is not available at other times, but their natural instinct is still to eat smaller amounts more often. If they can gain access to snacks between meals they will certainly do so. In many cases owners misinterpret the cat’s attempts to elicit social interaction, through vocalisation or rubbing, as a demand for food and when the cat realises that food treats can be elicited in this way it quickly learns to develop this “food soliciting behaviour”. In order to decrease this desire for in between snacks you should increase the frequency of feeding and spread your cat’s daily food intake between multiple small meals rather than two main sittings.

cat foodMy cat regularly asks me for treats and I am worried that he will feel rejected if I stop giving them to him?

As human beings, who see food as a socially important resource, it is easy to project our own perceptions onto our pets and expect them to see things in the way we do. It is very likely that the behaviour, which you are interpreting as a plea for food, was originally a request for social interaction and has only developed into a food soliciting behaviour because of your response. If you alter the way in which you feed him, so that he can gain access to his actual diet in small helpings, and then begin to respond to his calling and rubbing by playing with him or giving him some quality time in your company he will be just as rewarded as if you give him a treat!

I have several cats and I feed them all at the same time – is this OK?

Feeding should be a calm and peaceful activity and in the cat world it is also something that they like to do alone. It is therefore much better for cats to be fed as individuals with separate food bowls distributed throughout the house. If they are forced to come together into one room at a set time to get their meal this can be very stressful for them. Eating when you are stressed alters the way in which you metabolise the food and this can be a factor in the development of obesity.

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