By Tara Cavanaugh
Don’t call Angela Foor’s 30-plus-pound-cat fat; that upsets him. Instead, Foor says, he prefers to be called “soft.”
Pepper the cat hasn’t always been this big. In fact, when he first came to his Ann Arbor home at three months, he was average-sized at just four pounds. But after getting fixed and declawed, Foor says, Pepper’s pounds just kept piling on.
Foor says her family has tried everything to slim Pepper down, from diet food to outdoor walks on a leash, but still, he’s as “soft” as ever.
Pepper isn’t alone in his weight loss difficulties. According to veterinarian Mike Petty, the pet population is seeing higher rates of weight problems in cats and dogs – well, especially in cats.
“Cats have really spiraled out of control,” he says. “I have at least a half a dozen (clients’) cats that are having to get insulin injections.” The cats get the injections to treat diabetes, which results from being overweight.
One cause of this, Petty speculates, is that few cats spend time outdoors. When he started practicing at the clinic he now owns, Arbor Pointe Vet Hospital in Canton, Mich., more than 20 years ago, it was unusual to have a totally indoor cat. “Now it’s the exception to have an outdoor cat,” he says. “Partly it’s that people act like it’s evil to let your cat outdoors.”
With traffic, isn’t it dangerous to let a cat out? “It depends on where you live, I guess,” Petty answers. “But I think most of us live in neighborhoods that have low traffic. Cats are usually pretty wary of things like vehicles.”
Getting a cat or a dog to slim down isn’t as simple as encouraging more outdoor time, Petty warns. In fact, with a dizzying array of options – from special diet food to medications – getting a pet back in shape can be as complicated and time-consuming as getting a human back in shape.
“The first thing that someone should do is go to their veterinarian for help, before any animal starts on some kind of a diet, especially cats,” Petty says. “They need to be very aware of the animal’s health status. They also need to know what pitfalls to watch for as they’re trying to get the animal to lose weight.”
What kind of pitfalls? Well, for one: death.
Cats can suffer from a fatal liver disease if they stop eating in protest of a new diet food they don’t like, Petty says. If not fatal, it’s expensive to treat, and can result after a just a four-day hunger strike.
“You can’t force a cat to do a lot of things,” Petty muses, “including eating what you want them to eat.”
So how does a pet owner get a cat or dog to accept the diet food?
“You slip in the diet food, a few kibbles at a time, get that taste in their mind that it’s OK to eat that stuff,” Petty says. Over a period of a week – or even longer, depending on how finicky the pet – owners can start feeding more of the diet food and less of the regular food.
Different food brands take different approaches to weight loss, just like with humans, Petty says: “There’s high fiber diets, there’s low calorie diets, there’s high protein diets, there’s all sorts of approaches to it. And not every one will work for every animal, so sometimes it’s really frustrating.”
Some special diet food is even available by prescription, but even that isn’t always a sure cure.
One prescription that Petty highly recommends is called Slentrol, which is only available for dogs. It targets a molecule in dogs’ bloodstreams that turns off their appetites.
“Dogs that are on this often don’t finish their food, they eat only when they’re truly hungry, and we’ve had some really good successes from it,” he says. But his clients are usually reluctant to put their pet on Slentrol.
“People are emotionally tied in with their animals,” Petty says. “The dog expects five treats a day, and if you suddenly cut those out, they stare at their owners, their owners feel guilty…” Petty trails off. He’s not being judgmental; he understands the difficulty in helping a pet lose weight.
“When I first got out of veterinary school, I said, ‘the dog doesn’t open the refrigerator, the dog can’t get out the can opener and open up a can of food, so what’s the issue here?’ But it’s not just about calories in and calories out,” he says. “It’s about the dynamic between a dog and the owner.”
Just like in humans, losing weight isn’t just about making a few small changes – it’s about changing a lifestyle.
Petty says it’s not difficult to convince owners that their pet needs to lose weight, but it is difficult to move the owner to action and to keep up with a pet’s weight loss goals, which can take a year or more to reach. He cites a study from pet food brand Purina, which showed that “dogs that are on the low side of normal – in other words, skinny dogs – live on the average two years longer than dogs that are not,” he says. That’s often an incentive that spurs pet owners to action.
But back in Ann Arbor, Pepper the cat is pretty comfortable with his lifestyle, and he doesn’t seem to want to change it any time soon.
He’s been cut off of wet food and people food, and his last indulgence seems to be his dry food, which he eats right up. “We have to fill his bowl every day,” Pepper’s owner Foor says. “You take that away, and he could wake up the dead with his howling.”
Foor keeps up with 7-year-old Pepper’s regular vet visits, making sure his joints are OK – especially his hips and knees, which are often problematic for overweight pets. “We’ve had all that checked out,” she says. “Everything is fine. He’s just… a big cat.”
Scaling down the scale
Weight loss is a gradual process, says Dr. Michael Petty, a veterinarian who has practiced for more than 20 years. “They didn’t put it on in a month, they aren’t going to lose it in a month,” he says. (Sound familiar?) Petty encourages owners to keep up a healthy pet lifestyle for at least one year before achieving big weight loss goals. Along the way, here’s some help:
Pet food now comes in as many diet varieties as human food: low fat, low calorie, high fiber, high protein, over-the-counter or by prescription. But what works for one pet may not work for another, Petty warns, so anyone who is trying to help a pet slim down should consult a veterinarian.
The great outdoors
Yes, even cats – who are natural hunters – can and should go outside to get their exercise.
Slentrol is a prescription medication for dogs that helps suppress appetite, and is very effective, Petty says. The only side effect clients have reported is that some dogs feel so full they vomit; this side effect usually subsides within a week.
“I probably see less overweight cats in two cat households, where they have someone that they play with,” Petty says. Doesn’t this sound like a fabulous excuse to buy another puppy or kitten?