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Fat cats: Veterinarians, pet owners weigh in on animal obesity

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Felines Bella and Lexi used to have 24/7 access to a bowl of cat food with a gravity dispenser, eating helping after helping because it was always there.

“They didn’t know when to stop,” said the cats’ owner, Sara A. Cotleur of Watertown. “They would eat too much out of boredom. The weight gain was so gradual that it was hard to notice.”

The cats became fat, straining their vital organs. Bella weighed 20 pounds and Lexi 18 when Mrs. Cotleur and her husband, Justin A., took them to Animal Doctors veterinary clinic in Watertown earlier this fall. The cats, both 4 years old, had trouble going to the bathroom due to their weight and would cry in the litter box because of pain. Thick fat rolls made it tough for the felines to clean themselves, leading to skin problems. They’d scoot their bottoms along the floor to scratch infected areas.

The Cotleurs’ situation isn’t uncommon: 58 percent of cats and 53 percent of dogs are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarian, according to a 2012 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, which polled 121 veterinary clinics in 36 states. The number of overweight cats reached an all-time high in the survey, climbing by 3 percent from 2011.

“It all starts at the bowl, when (pet owners) keep filling it up and cats keep eating,” said Dr. Stephanie H. Young, an Animal Doctors veterinarian who developed a special diet for Bella and Lexi.

Dr. Young sends all of her clients who have overweight pets home with a measuring cup to emphasize the importance of portion sizes and encourages owners to find creative ways to exercise pets. For example, a laser pointer can be used as a cat toy.

“Some people say they use coffee cups or bowls to measure food, but you can’t be accurate doing that,” Dr. Young said. “About 80 percent of my clients have multi-cat households with a competitive atmosphere where (the animals) are competing for food.”

Equally important is for pet owners to address weight problems before they spiral out of control, Dr. Young said. Posted on her office wall is a chart that includes a body condition scale of 1-9, with illustrations of cats and dogs ranking from light to heavy. Cat owners often wait until pets are “obnoxiously fat” before they seek professional advice, Dr. Young said, adding: “They don’t have a conception of what’s overweight.”



HEALTH ISSUES

Due to a severe bladder problem, Bella’s health was in jeopardy when she visited Dr. Young in July, and she underwent surgery. When Lexi visited in September, she weighed 18 pounds and had urinary problems. A series of body mass measurements determined her optimum weight should be 8 pounds.

“This was an 8-pound cat stuck in an 18-pound body,” said Dr. Young, who issued prescriptions for Bella and Lexi for Hill’s Prescription Diet cat food. The bags of dry food and cans of wet food include a weight-loss formula with high protein, which aims to boost metabolism.

The cats now are fed at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily and are only allowed to eat for 30 minutes at a time in areas made separate by plastic fences, Mrs. Cotleur said. They are given 1 cans of wet food each day, supplemented by a quarter-pound of dry food.

The Cotleurs already have noticed results from the diet: Bella is down to 18 pounds, and Lexi to 16.6. The owners said they expect their pets to be at their preferred weight of 8 pounds a year from now. The cats also take vitamins to keep their bones strong, along with other medications for bladder-related problems.



DIET PLAN

Although Bella and Lexi have suffered health woes, some felines can avoid them while reaching an extreme weight.

One of these animals is Kit Kat, a 4-year-old orange tabby cat with long hair who reached a peak weight of 22 pounds in May. That’s when owner Sonya N. Van Vechten, of Watertown, put her on a diet. Kit Kat’s two cans of Meow Mix each day were dropped to one.

The aggressive cat used to compete for dog food with the household’s Black Lab and American Eskimo dogs, but Mrs. Van Vechten is taking extra steps to prevent that.

“She’ll finish her food as fast as she can in the morning, then run over to try to get food from the dogs,” Mrs. Van Vechten said. Additionally, “The cat has a challenging time cleaning herself because of her weight, but she is given baths once every two weeks to prevent skin problems.”

Mrs. Van Vechten is combatting Kit Kat’s weight problem without help from a veterinarian. She wants the cat to shed pounds before her husband, David E. Jr., a Fort Drum soldier now in Afghanistan, returns from overseas in January.

“I’d be concerned if she kept gaining weight, but she’s still in good health,” Mrs. Van Vechten said. “I would like to see her lose 5 to 8 pounds. She has a large bone structure, so I think about 15 pounds is her normal weight.”

Kit Kat has lost 1 pound since the diet started. Although Mrs. Van Vechten would like to see faster results, she said she is willing to be patient. Meanwhile, her 12-year-old son, David E. III, said he’d like to get the cat back into shape.

When she was a kitten, “she used to be an acrobatic king and jump in the air to catch birds,” he said. “She would bring in mice all of the time.”

Dr. Alayana M. Rust, a veterinarian at Town & Country Veterinary Clinic in Ogdensburg, said society’s acceptance of overweight cats is the root of the problem.

Dr. Rust said some people mistakenly think cats are supposed to be “big, fluffy house pets that sit around and do nothing. We typically think of this image as Garfield,” she said.

One health risk that Dr. Rust commonly sees in overweight cats is a fatty liver syndrome. Cats that are put on diets need to have meal portions reduced slowly to avoid risk of the disease, she said.

“It’s a sign of a fatty liver if a cat stops eating or loses a lot of weight,” Dr. Rust said. “The body (transports) the fat that is stored into the liver, which makes them feel sick and not want to eat anymore. Left untreated, it can lead to liver failure and risk of death.”

Dr. Rust said one of the most effective exercises for cats is to have owners place litter boxes and food bowls in different parts of the house, forcing felines to walk to burn calories.

“The cat is one of the most difficult species to get them to do what you want,” she said. “But putting their necessities in life on opposite ends of the house forces them to move.”



FOOD CHOICES

At Petco Animal Supplies on Towne Center Drive in Watertown, row after row of food can make it challenging for customers to zero in on the best choice, according to store manager Lindsay R. Schmidt. Numerous brands offer “healthy weight” cat food, which contains 10 to 20 percent less fat than more common varieties such as Iams, Merrick and Purina Pro Plan. The store even has a refrigerated and frozen food section that touts food and snacks made strictly with natural ingredients.

Customers should always check the ingredients on the label to see what kind of meat is included, Mrs. Schmidt said. When dog and cat food contains high protein with real meat ingredients, pets are less likely to feel hungry after meals.

“People should grab bags of food and Google the ingredients to see what they’re actually feeding their pets,” she said. “Real food fills them up faster, and they’ll get hungry less often. When you feed them less, they’ll go to the bathroom once a day and be healthier.”

Pets, particularly dogs, also master the art of begging, leading owners to feed them too many snacks and table scraps. That approach led to the obesity of Schwartz, a 10-year-old Chihuahua owned by Watertown resident Santina M. Lavancha.

The dog’s weight had risen to 20.5 pounds when it was taken to Watertown Animal Hospital for treatment of arthritis and a collapsing trachea, which induced him to cough.

Schwartz’s optimum weight is 8 pounds; his diet now calls for a quarter cup of food twice a day.

“We used to refill his bowl often, and he’d get a lot of table scraps every meal,” Mrs. Lavancha said. “We’re really careful, but it’s so hard.”






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