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"Fat Cats" Slim Down with Help from VT

Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

If you sleep much of the day, never go outdoors, and cry for food at all hours, you are, very likely, a cat. Or more to the point of this story, a ‘fat cat.’  It’s estimated that more than half the indoor cats in this country are overweight and many are dangerously obese. But veterinarians at Virginia Tech are working on changing that.

Dr. Lauren Dodd is a resident in Clinical Nutrition at The Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.   “Yes, let’s just go ahead and weigh him.” she says, lifting a not too heavy cat onto the scale.

Erin Shibley and Chirag Rathode of Blacksburg are cat parents to, “Miko Angelo – Miko for short.”

Miko has proved to be an ideal candidate for this weight loss study. He’s an indoor cat, with no illnesses, who’d packed on the pounds.

“We didn’t ration his food.  It was totally our fault. I feel so guilty.” They say, copping to the problem.

Of course, they did it out of love for Miko Angelo, who, despite his name, is not inventive enough to open his own bags of cat food.

Shibley laments with a sad smile, “I used to just share whatever I was eating with him, if he wanted it, which was really bad. It got to the point where, throughout the study, he would try and take my food and I felt like a monster because I’d say ‘no.’  But she says she knows, getting him healthy is a lot more important than just feeding him in that moment. “

Credit Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine
Here's how he looks now.

Miko was down to 14 pounds and change, from a little over 17, which was too much for his frame.

Megan Shepherd is Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the vet school.  She points to the "Food is  love,” phenomenon that is so common, for cats and for the rest of us. “So, it’s really no wonder that we have an obesity problem in our pet population.” she says.

Sure, some felines can self-regulate when it comes to food.   Spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle, once remarked that he has known cats who were actually Zen masters in fur.  “I have lived with many Zen masters in my time, all of them cats” is how he put it.

But, those rare breeds are not easy to find. Most indoor cats need help keeping the pounds off and this study is testing how best to do that.  It starts with an assessment on the body weight scale.

Shepherd says a score of “1” is emaciated, a ‘9’ is obese, “And we have cats that are off the scale.”

When Shibley and Rathode brought  Miko in they thought he might be a 7.  Turned out he was a  9, a sobering realization, sort of like when we humans wear baggy sweat pants for too long and get that same surprise when we finally get on a scale.

They study feeds the proper amount for the 'inner cat,' that is the weight s/he should be wihtout that fat pad surrounding their bodies.

For this study, they’re feeding a low calorie dry food made by the Purina cat food company, which is sponsoring the study.

There are other weight loss diet foods available, Shephard says, that are ‘nutrient enhanced per calories, which means we can restrict calories and we’re still getting them the protein, vitamins and minerals they need.”

Say goodbye to ‘all day grazing.”  Portions are controlled, which for some cats, can be as little as three eighths of a cup per day.

Weight loss takes time and tenacity.  It could be a year before cats reach a desirable weight. And as cat owners know, they have ways of getting their needs heard; wailing all night or jumping on heads, keeping everyone else from sleeping, one cat in the study ate a whole bag of gluten free bread in protest.

“If you have a cat that’s screaming for food and we still need to keep those calories restricted...”Shepherd says, perhaps the biggest takeaway from this study is that cats will and should eat vegetables.  It’s a great way to keep them satiated

Dr. Dodd says her cat loves zucchini. She says he is not overweight, could that be why?

But cats have a reputation of being finicky for a reason. And if the vegetable swap won’t cut it, Shepherd and Dodd say, that connection between pets and their people is probably the biggest factor of all in successful weight loss.  There are the monthly check ins that keep the humans engaged and pets on track, the attention to feeding time, all of which provides a support system.

Dodd says one woman with a cat in the study went on a weight loss program with her cat. “Her cat needed to lose.  She needed to lose.”  So, doing it together helped.  “She was able to tell her cat ‘no’ if she couldn’t eat, the cat couldn’t eat either.” During one of the ‘check ins’ she told Dodd she’d lost around 20 pounds.

Results like that demonstrate what they call the ‘one health mission’ at the Vet school; ‘looking after the health of pets, humans and the environment.’ 

And the doctors doing the cat weight loss study are glad to consult with vets to help cats lose weight. To talk with them call 540-231-5621

***Editor's note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech