The case of the tubby tabby

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

The family cat of my youth was called Brunswick because he looked like a bowling ball in a fur coat. Round is not the best shape for a cat. Obesity will shorten his life and make those years less interesting and less comfortable than they could have been.

If you think your cat may be overweight, he probably is. Ask your vet at the next visit. Meanwhile, run your fingers over your cat's rib cage. If you can't feel the individual ribs, you have a tubby tabby on hour hands.

Crash dieting or fasting is not for cats. Either can cause a dangerous and potentially fatal condition called hepatic lipidosis. Instead, you want to orchestrate a very gradual weight loss of no more than a half-pound a month for a 15-pound cat.

Start by weighing your cat. Pick him up and step on the bathroom scale. Note the gross weight. Put down the cat and weigh again. The difference between the two numbers is the cat's starting weight.

Free-feeding, leaving dry food in a bowl for munching throughout the day, is the primary cause of cat obesity.

Cats are not grazing animals. They are designed to get hungry, hunt, eat, sleep and get hungry again. Most domestic cats get along fine with two meals a day. (Actually, any number of meals from two to four is fine for an adult cat.)

If you have been free-feeding, the shift to separate meals it is going to take some tough love. Cats hate change of any kind, so expect complaints.

At breakfast time, put your cat's usual food in a bowl and leave it on the floor for 20-30 minutes. Then put it away. Repeat at dinner time. It'll take a few days, but the cat will adapt. If his complaining sends you on a guilt trip, go somewhere else out of earshot. Within a week, you'll see great enthusiasm at feeding time and concentrated chomping immediately thereafter.

If there is food remaining in the bowl at the end of the 20-30 minute meal, serve less next time. You want the meal to end with an almost-empty bowl and a full, happy cat washing the crumbs off his whiskers.

Some cats, like some people, don't know the meaning of "full." They are compulsive eaters, bottomless pits. To find the right size serving for them, start with the suggested daily amount on the cat food bag or can and adjust it downward until the cat's weight starts to decline.

Monitor the rate of weight loss by weighing him at least once a month.

Consider introducing a new cat food that is higher in protein. Read the labels for protein content of canned cat food or buy dry food that is formulated for weight control. Start by mixing a small amount of the new food with your cat's usual fare. Increase the proportion of the new food until it completely replaces the old.

Make sure he is getting some exercise by spending some time each day playing with him. Recent studies by a respected veterinary school showed that the favorite interactive toy of most cats was the fishing pole kind.

When it came to toys that stimulated cats to play alone, the runaway favorite was the circular plastic strip you tear off when opening a jug of milk.

Researchers also suggested tying a length of household twine around your waist and letting it dangle behind as you walk about the house. Adjust the length so there is 4 to 6 inches dragging on the ground. Most cats will follow you all over, pouncing on your "tail."

My cat, Annie, enjoyed this so much that I replaced the twine with parachute cord, available by the yard where camping and boating gear is sold. The lively action of the parachute cord added a whole new dimension to the game.

So did the arrival of a pizza delivery guy last month. He had the funniest look on his face after I'd walked away with the pizza and come back with the cash.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats.

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