Pet Nutrition Pt. 2: Obese Cats

We have seen an epidemic of obesity in cats in the past 20 years, which has led to a huge spike in diabetic cats. The good news is that a single, simple change in diet can have a profoundly positive benefit for these cats, and for those at-risk cats. How?  Stop feeding commercial dry cat food and switch to a canned cat food.   Here’s what you need to know:

Since I was a kid, I’ve heard the term “fat cat” in reference to someone with a lot of money. But for me, the term “fat cat” has had an entirely different meaning for many years now. Unfortunately, in veterinary medicine, a “fat cat” is just that. A fat cat.

In the many years since I first started working in a vet clinic in Nashville, Tennessee in the early-mid 1970’s, the sad trend has been the development of cats and dogs (and, yes, people) getting fatter, with a large percentage tipping the scales towards obesity.   I’ll save a discussion about weight management and obesity in dogs for another day, but recent information about obesity in cats compels me to discuss this major, troubling health issue now.

When we look at the obesity epidemic in pets, we can easily find a couple of common threads with people: Increase in calorie consumption + Decrease in activity and fitness.  Of course, we know it is far more complex than that.  And I have no doubt there are many underlying factors that we don’t even know about.  But that’s a full day’s worth of discussion.

However, this much we now know for a fact:  The primary reason for overweight / obese cats is Commercial Dry Cat Food (dry cat foods from supermarkets) !  Yep, there, I said it. And more specifically, the high Carbohydrate content of commercial dry cat foods.   And to be up front, there is no commercially-available food that I can recommend to be better than others.  They’re ALL ‘guilty’.   Full disclosure:  You may be able to find a dry low carb cat food online … but there is nothing available at your local supermarket that is appropriate for an obese cat.  One acceptable choice among dry cat foods is a DRY prescription diet for Diabetic cats:  Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets DM.  However, it cannot be purchased without a prescription from a veterinarian.  Suffice it to say, canned cats foods are always preferred.

To be clear, there are millions of cats on commercial dry cat foods that have no weight issues. Great! But we’re focusing on the millions of cats that are, in fact, overweight.  Those are the ones we want to turn around by making better dietary choices.

I mentioned in my last nutrition article that Cats are “obligate carnivores”, meaning they must have a diet high in meat / protein consumption for optimum health. But unfortunately, most cats nowadays consume overly processed, high carbohydrate diets.

Believe me, I do understand the convenience of feeding dry cat or dog food. We all lead such busy, and sometimes chaotic lives.  And it’s so easy and convenient to scoop up some dry food out of a bag, place it in a food bowl, and feed it to our hungry pets.  I get it.  But … what is the cost of this ?

For cats, it’s no surprise that we are seeing so many more diabetic cats than before.  For those of you with some knowledge of diabetes (high blood sugar), there have historically been Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes (now the “types” have expanded, but we’ll keep it simple for now). Type 1 Diabetics are due to genetics. This is the type that we see more commonly in dogs. Type 2 Diabetics are due to lifestyle and diet.  And this is the form that we see in cats, and is epidemic in people … and disturbingly, even in children.

Why is this distinction important? With lifestyle and dietary changes, many Type 2 Diabetics can get off the medications (insulin, for example) that we commonly use to manage the diabetes.  With proper dietary management, a large percentage of cats can be taken off insulin.

So how can we help get these obese cats to lose weight ?  If you have indoor cats, you certainly aren’t going to start putting them outside to help increase their activity and exercise. It’s a great idea, but not practical. But you can control the dietAnd to get these kitties towards a more natural, healthy dietary state, it means introducing and/or switching to canned cat food.

I totally understand the groans that I hear. I know your resistance: Canned foods are more expensive … they are inconvenient to open … they may have a funky aroma … I gotta scrape the goo out of the can … I might cut myself on the sharp edge of the lid I just pulled off. OK, no argument here.  But I ask again: what is the cost of NOT doing this?

Consider this: Would you rather feed your cat a canned food???  … Or … Would you rather spend money on veterinary visits … purchasing insulin (not cheap) … actually giving the insulin injections to your kitty (a terrifying thought for needle-phobic pet owners) … checking your cat’s urine sample daily for sugar (glucose) in the urine … spending more money for veterinary visits to see if you’re controlling the diabetes effectively …  and stressing your kitty by going to the vet for blood tests??? I’m just saying … you get to choose.

If you’re not willing to go all in for canned food for your cat, would you be willing to meet me halfway???  At the very least, start mixing canned food in with the dry food.   Or at the very, very least, start adding water or broth to your cat’s food to insure she or he is getting an adequate amount of water. You may not see any measurable weight loss for months as long as you’re still feeding dry food mixed with canned food, but if you can at least stop additional weight gain, that’s a worthwhile goal.

Dr Lisa Pierson has created a website packed with a tremendous amount of valuable information on feeding cats: She makes it clear that ALL cats should be on a diet of canned cat foodOn her site, Dr Pierson has also accumulated a comprehensive list of all CANNED Cat Foods (as of 2017), comparing protein, fat and carbohydrate levels for each:  The comparative list of hundreds of different cat foods is via the following link:

As I said in the past, as adults we typically get to choose what we eat.  But our pets don’t choose ~ they can only eat what you give them. For the overall well-being of your cat, I encourage all of you to stop feeding dry commercial cat foods and start feeding them canned cat food. It’s worth the minor inconveniences as your kitties  will most certainly lead happier and healthier lives.