For Northshore Veterinary Hospital staff, it was an all-too-familiar scenario: a severely obese cat named Cinderblock was surrendered to the facility because her owner was no longer able to care for her. What was notable about the cat’s story was what happened next. The staff posted a video online of the overweight grey cat reluctantly moving one paw on a treadmill, her face reflecting her displeasure and discomfort. Within days, the 22-pound Cinderblock was an internet celebrity and viral video star.
Social media users around the world shared the video, and some viewers thought Cinderblock was funny and fat or chubby and cute. Many people expressed solidarity with the chunky cat because they could relate to Cinderblock’s situation; overweight, overwhelmed, and unsure how and where to begin to get healthier.
Sadly, the truth is that Cinderblock’s weight problem is neither funny nor cute. Obesity is just as serious a disease in pets just as it is in humans, and Cinderblock is far from alone in her weight struggles. Almost 60% of all cats, roughly 50 million, are at risk for weight disorders such as obesity. How did our cats become so overweight, and what can we do to keep them healthy?
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The Causes of Chunky Cat Syndrome
Obesity in cats results from an accumulation of excess body fat. Veterinarians consider a cat obese when they are 20% higher than their ideal weight. A cat can become overweight or obese through a variety of means, including genetic predisposition, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise.
However, researchers have found that a significant reason why cats gain weight is their owners. Just as obesity is increasing in pets, it is also rising in people; more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. The issue is the “fat pet gap,” wherein owners don’t realize that their cats are overweight because fat has become the new normal. Much like children of obese parents are likely to become obese themselves, it appears that pets are at a similar risk.
Another way that cat owners contribute to their feline’s weight gain is through overfeeding, specifically “stress feeding.” Owners who are experiencing anxiety or stress may indulge their cat with more treats or food than is healthy to feel better about themselves. That issue, combined with high owner attachment, a lack of owner self-control, and an owner’s preference toward immediate food rewards result in fat cats who are prone to other illnesses and diseases.
When a cat such as Cinderblock becomes obese, the results are painful, uncomfortable, costly and even life-threatening. Here are some immediate and long-term effects of obesity in cats:
- Osteoarthritis and joint disease cause painful inflammation in the shoulders, hips, knees, and elbows, and makes it hard for cats to leap and jump. Overweight cats are five times more likely than slim cats to develop severe lameness.
- Diabetes is challenging to manage and may lead to other health issues like hypertension, malnutrition, dehydration, and death.
- Urinary tract disease is most often caused by obesity in conjunction with inactivity and a dry food diet.
- Cancer rates are significantly increased in obese felines, possibly because fat cells promote cancer growth, or cancer is a result of insulin-resistance.
- Hypertension and kidney disease may occur as fat tissue is the cat’s largest endocrine gland, and excess fat results in high blood pressure and damage to the kidneys.
- Quality and length of life is negatively impacted in fat cats. Research shows obesity causes a variety of other illnesses and shortens a cat’s lifespan.
A Lack of Affordable Nutrition
Veterinarians recommend that obese cats go on a diet and start exercising like Cinderblock, paw by paw. For many cats and owners, a diet means switching from inexpensive, easy to find foods to premium, pricier, nutritional food. Unfortunately, those healthy, natural cat foods are often the most expensive on the market.
Cats are carnivores and need high amounts of protein, moderate quantities of fat, and minimal amounts of carbohydrates in their diet. But for many pet owners, especially those who are struggling to make ends meet, spending more money on high-quality, higher-priced cat food isn’t possible, even if that food is better for their pet.
Cheaper, processed dry cat foods are readily available at drug stores, grocery stores, and even corner stores. These foods primarily consist of meat byproducts, grains, grain byproducts, sugars, corn meal, and other fillers that provide no nutritional value to your cat. Also, dry food has a longer shelf life and can be left out for cats to “free feed” from, a habit that often leads to obesity. Even inexpensive wet canned food, which provides more moisture content, fails to offer cats a nutritionally complete meal.
Cinderblock’s owner surrendered her because he could no longer afford to keep her. Sadly, that reality is one reason why animal shelters and rescues are overflowing with pets. There is a scientific link between obesity and an owner’s income — the poorer the owner, the more likely it is that owner and cat are overweight — it is crucial that quality foods become more affordable or more accessible for poverty-stricken families and their pets. Additionally, cat owners who face financial challenges can look for pet pantries in their area, as these donation and distribution centers often have high-quality pet food available for those in need.
The Purrfect Fit Cat and Owner
How can a cat owner begin to address their cat’s weight problem? It turns out, similarly to how people manage their weight issues: by changing their habits. If your cat is plump, talk to your veterinarian, and start a weight loss program for her. First, switch to a nutritional, balanced diet that meets the cat’s dietary requirements, then schedule planned and portioned meals at specific times of the day. Biannual veterinary checkups to measure the cat’s weight loss and blood pressure are essential for a cat’s overall health.
Cat owners want the best for their companions, but as research shows, that means taking care of themselves, too! Make your cat’s weight loss program a part of your own. Engage your cat with toys that she can chase after, such as feather wands or laser pointers. Most of these toys are reasonably priced at pet stores, and can provide hours of fun, exercise, and bonding for both you and your kitty.
Get on your feet and keep moving by placing a few treats in new places around a room. Your cat will be up and on the hunt. If your cat is inclined, you can get a leash for her and take her outside for a walk. By working toward this goal together, you and your cat will be happier and healthier.
The Big Meow
Many factors that promote obesity in cats also promote obesity in people. Cinderblock’s story took the world by storm because so many people in the world see themselves in this cat. Now, Cinderblock is an Instagram star and a symbol of exercise, health, and productivity. Her story has called attention to the state of our pets’ weight, which is indicative of a larger issue about the obesity epidemic in America. The worst thing we can do for ourselves and our pets is to normalize this disease.
Help your cat, and yourself, avoid weight gain by working together toward this common goal. Be mindful of the human-animal bond that you have with your cat, and don’t make feeding the main contact point between you both. At an average weight, your cat will not only be healthier, but she will be by your side, purring happily, for many years to come.
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