Post Published on March 15, 2012 | Last Updated on July 15, 2021 by Jenny
Thank you to Dr. Jean for taking the time to talk to me about obesity in cats.
You can learn more about cat health by reading Dr. Jean’s book, The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook.
You can listen to the Obesity in Cats with Jean Hofve recording (click here) or you can read the interview below.
Jenny: What are some of the causes of obesity in cats?
Jean Hofve: Well, the main cause of obesity in cats is free feeding of dry food. It’s pretty rare for a cat to get truly obese with anything else.
Jenny: Yeah. Can neutering and spaying contribute to it?
Jean Hofve: No, they can…but the problem is, people don’t understand how calories work. We don’t understand it in people. The problem is that people are not educated on how to correctly feed. The way to feed a cat is really to feed in small meals, two, three, four times a day, whatever your schedule allows. Don’t leave food out all the time. Don’t follow the directions on the label because they will mislead you. Caloric needs are so individual and they depend on the day and the time of day and the lifestyle. For example, if there were more moths in the house today so that your cat got more exercise. We don’t eat the same exact thing or amount every single day and it doesn’t make sense for a pet either. We have to use some common sense and say, “well, you know yeah, we were really active today” or there was a blizzard and nobody moved. So, what I find with my cats is that they’ll eat different amounts different days. So, the best way to feed them is to put the food out and leave it out for half an hour or 45 minutes and then pick it up. Allow the cat to decide how much he eats in that period of time. Once you’re on a meal feeding schedule, time to meal feeding schedule, your cats will understand that they need to eat as much as they require in that time or they are not going to have another chance for awhile.
Most cats will do a pretty good job with self regulating on that schedule. Not necessarily perfect, but you are not going to have nearly the problems that you could. The other thing is the high carbohydrate load of the dry diet. So, if you are feeding dry food, you are probably going to have a problem with weight gain in a cat. Now, spaying and neutering do affect the cat’s metabolic rate. The whole metabolic rate actually slows down and it slows down the minute those organs are removed. So, what I recommend doing after spaying or neutering surgery, is to cut the amount you are feeding by 25 or 30% and keep it low-that low for a couple of weeks, until the cat has a chance to re-regulate at that lower metabolic rate.
They just don’t need as many calories. Being intact for cat, they need a lot of calories. They are more active, they have more muscle tone, so, you know, spaying and neutering are important and they are necessary, but they are not the most natural thing for the cat. A cat that’s not spayed or neutered is going to be more active. Of course, a part of that activity is going to be howling and spraying the sofa and doing things that you don’t necessarily want them to be doing. And it is really important for overpopulation and for future disease prevention, but it does make a difference in their caloric needs and so you need to adjust their calories immediately. Also I recommend that you go from a kitten food to an adult food at the time of spaying and neutering, because that’s really what that’s about.
Kitten food is pretty high in calories.
Jenny: Yes, and fat, right?
Jean Hofve: Yeah, and fat because kittens have a very high need for fat, but when you neuter them, even young, they don’t have the same needs. You don’t want to restrict a kitten, a young kitten in what it eats, so you do want to give them as much as they want, but I still recommend to give it to them on a schedule. You know if you’re feeding on a schedule, there is a host of benefits to that. You know, that you always have the expectation and they are not bugging you at different times even though that’s what cats love.
The cue for feeding the cat can be your feet hit the floor, let the cue for the cat is going to be fed hearing the shower go off or hearing the coffee machine stop dripping or some other cue, not you getting out of bed because then they’ll get you up.
If they have a reliable schedule, it’s beneficial for everyone. Then you know if you have multiple cats, you know who’s eating and who’s not because you know who is showing up. You can catch problems a lot earlier that way and you are not going to run into the problem of overeating and obesity.
Jenny: Okay. So, are there certain breeds that are more prone to obesity at all, I mean, will that ever be a factor?
Jean Hofve: It can be because some breeds are just a little more lazy than other breeds. Bigger cats, the Maine Coons and the Ragdolls, they tend to be a little less active, but they don’t have to be. Any cat, if it were out in the wild would be necessarily active or it wouldn’t eat. Maine coons are really good hunters and you can play hunting games with them with fishing pole like toys and they’ll be happy to get the exercise.
Even if a Persian cat is going to be happy to get exercise given the chance. It’s funny because I don’t see that many overweight Persians, but they don’t tend to be that big of eaters either, but it just depends on the cat and how it was raised, what it ate as a kitten. So many of their food preferences are formed very young and so it’s really important when you get a kitten to expose them to a wide variety of foods so that they are willing to eat anything you give them. Variety is so important.
Jenny: Right. I agree to expose them to everything.
Jean Hofve: Yeah. I had a lady who called when I worked for the Animal Protection Institute and she just didn’t know who else to call. She was grasping at straws. Her cat liked Friskies Ocean White Fish, but not just only that but only if it was canned in a certain canning facility which you could tell from the code on the can. It wouldn’t eat it if it came from a different cannery. And the problem was that Friskies was closing that cannery and she had 141 cans left and she had called all over the country, she had gotten every one she wanted, but if she couldn’t get that cat to eat something else, when she ran out of those cans, he was going to die, to starve to death. It was–you know, if he wasn’t going to eat, he was going to die and that is the danger of not providing variety. They get finicky. They get addicted and then if they start reacting to that food, if that cat had become allergic to fish, she would have been in real trouble. So, variety, variety. You know, try and get them to eat all kind of different things. People food, pet food. You know, you want them to not be that fussy. They’ll only eat one thing.
Jenny: Hmm. It makes it…you know I’m trying to stay on the topic of obesity, but it makes me want to talk about food too. I know that it’s connected and I want to start asking you questions about how do youget an adult cat that’s not used to it to…but we can cover that in a food conversation.
Jean Hofve: Yeah, because the whole topic of switching food, we can do an hour on that because it’s not easy.
Jenny: Yeah. I did the whole dry food switch. Yuck, but worth it.
Jean Hofve: Absolutely.
Jenny: You mentioned calories and obesity before. We don’t really understand it in humans. Do you know if there is a daily intake suggested amount for calories for a cat?
Jean Hofve: Um, there is. There is a formula that you can put numbers in. Your average cat is going to be a couple, two or three hundred calories a day, but, you know it’s so individual. Really what you want to do is not just say this many calories a day, but, if you’re feeding in meals, your cat is really going to tell you how much it needs. It’s been really cold here, so my cats have been eating big meals twice a day and they’ll do that for a couple of weeks and then I’ll feed them in the morning and they won’t touch it.
So, it’s like they get caught up in their caloric needs and then they don’t eat as much for awhile and it depends on the weather and it depends on the activity levels, you know, if there are a lot of birds in the bushes outside and they are running from window to window all day or we have extra time to play and we really have some good play session. They burn more calories that way and then they’ll be hungrier. We had a pretty good snow storm. We had about 17-18 inches of snow and I wasn’t moving and they weren’t moving. I was in the chair, I had four cats on me and that’s how it was for a couple of days. You know, nobody moved a muscle because it was freezing if we weren’t all piled up together.
So, it’s a very individual thing and it varies and I think people would be better off understanding that this is a fluid thing and what you want to do is monitor and make sure that they are getting enough food and they are getting enough exercise over time and they are not gaining or losing weight, that their coat looks good and their energy levels are good, that they have a good appetite, that they are enjoying their food and that things are coming out the other end correctly. It’s not, it’s not like you dish it out and then you walk away and forget it. You are monitoring their needs every day and it’s like with children. They are our kids and maybe Johnny is really, really hungry after school today because he really ran around like crazy at recess. Especially when we’re at work all day. We don’t know what they’re up to; maybe they’re sleeping and maybe they’re not, you know.
Younger cats tend to find things to occupy themselves. You know, you want to just pay attention to what’s happening and-and learn to gauge it kind of day to day. You can have a basic amount that you feed but if they are coming back to you in 15 minutes and they are scouring the plate and there is nothing left. Well, yeah, maybe that’s the day that they did need more calories and you can go ahead and give them a little more food. If they only eat half of it, then the next meal you give them less food until you get caught up again, until they are ready to eat more. It’s a fluid thing. I don’t like it when people say, “Well, you give them this many calories a day and you do this and you do that.” You know, they are cats. This is not a box. It’s not something you can set your dials and that will never change. It’s a living, feeling animal and it’s needs will change over time.
Jenny: Yeah. That’s good to hear because my mom’s Caymus he’s not much of a mover, but often times, the Caymus was on a wet, dry diet and was moved to all wet food about three or four months ago. He finally is at what the vet considers his ideal weight, but he’s often hungry and my mom does have very, very regiment feeding times, whereas I just go by when the cats are hungry and I have the ability to do that because I’m at home.
Jean Hofve: Yeah, I do the same thing. You know, for a long time I was feeding them just one meal a day because that was all they were eating and they would prefer to eat at night, so I would feed them in the evening and they would be fine. They wouldn’t even be interested until 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 the next day and then all of a sudden one morning, they were bugging me at 6 in the morning. They were moving around my feet. So, I said, “Okay, so you want breakfast today?” I gave them breakfast and they snarfed it down. So, right now that is the schedule that they’re on, they are eating a lot and they are eating twice a day and they’re not gaining weight and they are not losing weight. They are eating what they are given and then they don’t bug me until the next time they’re hungry. When you work and you’re not home and able to move, I would feed in the morning and as soon as you come home from work and at bed time. You know, you are going to waste a little food feeding when you’re gone but, you can just give them a little more than you think they are going to eat and see how that goes.
And if you see a lot left over, you pick it up. They are going to learn about that. They are going to learn that they only have a limited opportunity and, when it’s gone, it’s gone and they’ll adjust to that.
They’re hungry at different times every day. I don’t eat at the same time every day. I’m not hungry at the same time every day. I don’t eat the exact same food every day. I mean, what I just hate about pets and feeding pets and talking about it is that we’ve been so brain washed by the pet food companies. You are too stupid to feed a cat. Come to us and we’ll tell you how to feed a cat. Well, yeah, then how come we have so many nutritional related diseases if you are so darn smart.
Obesity is rampant, over 50% of cats are overweight and way too many of those are obese, which is extreme overweightness and we screwed them up. We have all kinds of bladder and kidney problems because of the food. We have allergies because of the food. Why did we suddenly abandon our common sense and say, “Oh, the pet food companies know,” and “Gosh, they say to feed a cup and a half of this food every day?” Well a cup and a half of cat food is probably enough to support about 50 pounds of cat. So, if you only have one cat, it is going to be big.
Jennifer: You know when you go to the vet’s office, they’ve got the bird’s eye view of the back of a cat to show you how fat they are or what’s normal, what’s skinny, what’s obese. How can you tell without comparing photos?
Jean Hofve: Well, that’s a good question because, you know, because not every cat is the ideal shape even when they are thin.
But you should be able to feel their ribs easily. I’m feeling Puzzle, because she’s right here and, you know, I can feel her spine but it doesn’t stick out. She’s got meat on her bones. She’s got a little bit of a tummy, but she has a waist. I noticed this when I was first in practice, when you spay a kitten, even the youngest kitten, their stomach droops because you cut those muscles and they droop like instantly. It’s really funny. Cats do have that abdominal fat pad and even a thin cat will have that because that is the cat’s storage bin. It’s the last resort. So, a cat that’s starving, that is the last reserve of fat and they will preserve that until the bitter end. So, I don’t get too excited if they have that little waddle swinging back and forth as long as they have kind of a waist and, when you feel their ribs you don’t have to push down real hard and it’s like “Oh, yeah, yeah I feel a rib. Yeah.” I mean really. The skin should slip across the ribs and they should be easily palpable without pressing too hard. You know, they don’t need to have a washboard or six pack or anything like that, but one thing that is important to know though is that the shape that most people would probably consider ideal is a little bit too much. Cats and dogs should be a little bit on the thin side from maximum longevity.
They should be a little hungry. Because, you know, that’s their natural state.
Jenny: Right. That makes sense. Well, I had a vet tell me one time that as long as your cat can clean his bottom with his tongue, then he’s not too fat.
Jean Hofve: Seriously?
Jean Hofve: Well, once you get to the point that you have to clean their bottom, you have gotten way past too fat.
Jean Hofve: That’s, that’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.
Jenny: I know. It makes me laugh still. So, what are some of the things that you can do if you have an obese cat?
Jean Hofve: Well, let me go back and pick up on something we touched on earlier is that it’s not just a matter of calories. Veterinary nutritionists is a very strange breed apart and they say ingredients don’t matter, only nutrients matter and the form of calories don’t matter, only the calories matter. Well, if that was true, this country wouldn’t have the weight problem that it has in multiple species, starting with people and going on down from there. It isn’t as simple as calories in and calories out. There is individual variation on, you know: What’s your metabolic rate? How active are you? What breed are you? What species? Ingredients do matter because, if you are going to feed your cat…say you figured out….you’ve got a pretty good sized cat and it needs to get around 250 calories a day, let’s just make up something. If you feed 250 calories a day as a vegetarian, high carb kibble, you are going to get a different result than if you feed both 250 calories of free meat and fat.
Diabetic cats are put on canned kitten food now because they need high protein, they need high fat, they need high moisture. So, the first thing to do is get them off the dry food, watch the treats. Think about what a cat ought to be eating, which is mice, you know, rabbits and birds and things like that. What we want really is rat in a can because that is actually how Purina first referred to it because they knew that that’s what cats prefer to eat is something that’s like a rat that’s got about 55% protein, about 30% fat…30 or 40% fat and about 10% or less carbohydrates. That’s the ideal cat diet and it’s about 70% moisture. So, we need to think more about the form of calories and how the cat is metabolizing them. You know those stupid high-fructose corn syrup commercials that are promoting, you know, “Your body can’t tell the difference between fructose and glucose, it metabolizes both the same.” Well, that is a total lie. The scientific fact is: your body absolutely knows the difference between fructose and glucose and it will metabolize them completely differently. They go through different pathways. They have different results. So, yeah, ingredients matter and sometimes you can’t just say I’m going to give 250 calories and not pay attention to what form those calories come, because your cat will metabolize meat differently from cookies.
Jenny: I know that exercise is one of the things that you can do for an obese cat.
Jean Hofve: Yeah and you know, it’s not easy to get a cat to exercise. I have seen on Youtube there are videos of cats on treadmills.
Jean Hofve: Some cats will run on the treadmill. It’s pretty funny actually and there is now, like they make a giant hamster wheel that’s big enough for cats.
Jenny: Oh, yes I saw that on My Cat from Hell.
Jean Hofve: Yes, and for some Bengals, Siamese really high energy cats, that might be a great thing. I don’t know if you are going to get an obese cat to even step up into it let alone do much besides find it a comfortable place to sleep, but almost any cat will fall for the right toy.
And Da bird is a really good one. It’s the one Jackson uses on My Cat from Hell. It’s a terrific toy. It’s got feathers on the end. The feathers are in a configuration that is really funny looking, but when you swinging it through the air it makes a flappy noise. You know like bird feathers. It actually sounds like a bird flying and my cats love it and they make a couple of different toys like that: Cat Dancer is another one. But the thing is you have to be on the other end of the toy.
You can’t trust your cat to exercise himself. You need to participate. If you want your cat to be healthy, that is the most important thing because you are engaging and you are improving your relationship. You’re getting off your butt, not a bad thing. After all, laughter is the best medicine, as they say, and believe me, a cat that really gets going on one of these things, is hilarious.
And you get to have fun, you get to be the bird. You get to be the mouse. You get to run around the corner of the couch and you get to see them crouch down and wriggle their butts and come flying across the room. It’s hysterical! It’s really, really good for everybody. 10 or 15 minutes of rigorous play is maybe enough for most cats. In a wild, they don’t spend all that much time hunting you know comparatively. I remember seeing an article on human hunter/gatherers and they really didn’t spend a lot of time hunting and gathering. It didn’t take that much effort to feed themselves and that’s how humans managed to develop things like art and music and civilization and things like that. An efficient hunter like a cat doesn’t spend a lot of time hunting, but they are moving around quite a bit in a day, a lot more than what they are moving around most of the time if they are living in an apartment and just being a couch potato because they don’t have any encouragement to do anything else.
It’s good to have 2 cats because two cats will play with each other or at least annoy each other. One will be annoyed enough to get up and walk away. That’s better than just laying there.
I have the food bowl toys and you can put treats or little things in there that…I put a little bit of dry food in there when I’m going to be gone so that they can roll it around and get, you know, a couple of kibbles here and there. I don’t recommend feeding kibbles or dry food, but I use it as a treat. It is not necessarily horrible as a treat, but it is not there main sustenance. It’s a treat.
And I use it for training and to distract them and if I start piling up too many cats between me and the computer, which there is room for two but that’s not always all that wants to be there. Then we start having…we start generating World War III and, it’s very simple for me to have a little box here of treats that then I can just throw across the room and then they all go after that and then they have something better to do than get all wound up fighting about who gets the best sleeping spot.
Jenny: Right. Charlie’s and Tigg’s vet recommends that too. If you are giving them treats, instead of putting it down in front of them, throw them so they have to chase them.
Jean Hofve: Yeah, throw them across the room. I’ve got cats running every which way. It’s hilarious and it gets them off their butts.
Jenny: Yeah. Actually I product test a bunch of different products for Floppycats. I’m going to say it wrong, but there’s a Swedish designer, Nina Ottosson. The Company of Animals but the cats have to figure out how to remove the bone or they have to slide something over to get to the treat.
Jean Hofve: That’s mental exercise, it’s physical exercise. It’s fabulous.
Jenny: Yeah, I think that it’s great. So what if your cat’s fat? I mean, what sort of problems does obesity cause? Why should you care if your cat is fat?
Jean Hofve: Well, fat is not a passive tissue. It doesn’t just sit there. It produces hormones. It produces inflammatory factors. It contributes to a lot of chronic diseases. Diabetes is always the one that everybody always points to because cats get Type 2 Diabetes, which is what humans get from eating high carb, crappy diets and Diabetes, boy that is tough to treat in a cat. You would really, really, really rather not go there. I see more bladder problems. I see more crystals and stones and urinary tract infections. I’ve never taken stones out of a skinny cat.
Fat cats tend to get a lot more digestive problems. Constipation is a big one. Boy there is nothing worse than a 20 pound constipated cat. That is not fun to deal with for anybody. They just… they get more Inflammatory Bowel Disease and those kinds of inflammatory diseases. Of course, the extra weight comes extra pressure on the joints. They develop arthritis, usually they wouldn’t have otherwise. Their heart and blood pressure can be affected. It’s still a little, teeny, tiny, cat heart and it has to pump blood to 20 pounds of cat. Boy, that ain’t good.
A little cat heart is not a whole lot bigger than the heart that you’d find in a chicken. You know, if you get a whole chicken at the market. That is not a very big heart to be moving blood around a great, big kitty. So, you can create a lot of heart disease. I see more asthma in fat cat and more allergies. The other really tricky thing is if your cat is fat and for some reason stops eating, it has a much higher chance of developing liver failure: hepatic lipidosis, fatty liver disease because the fat metabolism is already is screwed up and the liver is very sensitive. When you disrupt the food supply to an already kind of schizophrenic, you know already going, “Woo, woo”, you know it’s under a lot of pressure. You know, it’s-it’s the liver has so many jobs to do and the liver will just freak out and shut down. You don’t see, I’ve only seen that in a skinny cat once.
Jenny: How simple it could be by just eliminating the obesity.
Jean Hofve: Yes. Well obesity is usually just a matter of feeding a diet that is more in tune with what a cat needs and feeding it in an appropriate fashion, not just feeding it out all the time. You know, horses graze 24 hours a day, cows graze 24 hours a day. Cats should not be grazing 24 hours a day.
There have been studies done and they’ve find that cats left to their own devices will eat 15 to 20 times a day. Well, hello, if you are a cat in a lab and you don’t have anything better to do 24 hours a day, yeah you are going to eat out of boredom, and you are going to eat out of competition if you are in a colony. I don’t think those are realistic at all. Your average field cat if left to its own devices would eat probably 8 or 9 mice a day, but it would go out and it would catch 2 or 3 at once, eat them and then go sleep it off.
It wouldn’t catch a mouse and then in an hour catch another mouse and then in another hour catch…and then 50 minutes later catch another. You know, that’s not how it works. It doesn’t make sense. Yeah, I mean if somebody left a pile of Oreos on my table – no matter how good my will power might be, I’m probably going to eat one every time I walk by. You know, that’s temptation and dry food is like the Frito and Twinkie Diet. I love Fritos and I love Twinkies. I’m allergic to both of them, but that doesn’t stop me. You know, you are going to eat them if given the choice, but why give them the choice? We are the grownups here! We should be feeding them what’s good for them, what they are designed to eat. You know, I actually have a philosophy. I don’t feed them what they like the best. I feed them what is best for them. If they don’t like it that much, they’re not going to eat as much. They’re not going to eat when they are not hungry. I think that it’s kind of a better situation. You give them healthy food and they are more apt to eat a more appropriate amount of it.
People buy food based on their animal’s preferences. Would you do that with a kid? One thing is certainly true, the more we learn about nutrition and pets, the better we eat. I guilted myself into eating a lot better when I started researching pet food because pet food is just left over of the human food industry. What I learned about pet food scared the crap out of me. I eat much better now than I did before I knew all this stuff.
Jenny: Yeah. That’s funny that you say that. It makes me think twice too.
Jean Hofve: Yeah. I mean, we know about where all those preservatives are, we know that there’s… I mean Danger! Danger! You are the grownup. You get to say what’s for dinner.
Jenny: Right. Well, those were all the questions I had concerning obesity. Did I miss anything that you think is important to cover?
Jean Hofve: I don’t think so. It does have to do with calories in and calories out, but it does matter what kind of calories and, you know, I think that’s where the nutritionists and so called experts are really falling down. We need to apply some common sense here because everybody else seems to have forgotten it.
Jenny: I agree. Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your time and your knowledge and your fun stories. I like the visual of the wiggling the butt thing because that’s one of the things that makes me laugh all the time.
Jean Hofve: Let me tell you my favorite fat cat story. I had a guy come in with a 25 pound cat. And I said, “What do you feed him?” He said, “I feed him a quarter cup of WD a day,” which is a weight loss food.
A quarter of a cup, that isn’t very much food. Now, you know, when you are that fat, your metabolic rate goes down, you start conserving calories, but that’s not enough to support a 26 pound cat. I asked, “Anything else?” He said, “Well 16 treats a day.” 16! Are you kidding me? 16! Well, I told him what I thought and I never saw him again. I hope the cat did okay. He didn’t want to hear, “I want you to do what’s right for the cat and give him the best nutrition possible.” He wanted to do what he felt like doing and having his cat large because he gave him 16 treats a day. You do remember those hidden calories, you know. For dogs, a lot of treats, can be high in fat. I know we are talking cats, but you’d be surprised how many calories are in some of these treats. It’s pretty shocking. So, just be conscious that everything that goes into your pets mouth counts.
So, just pay attention. Pay attention. Use your head. Cut the fat.
Jenny: Okay, well. Thank you again. I really appreciate it. Hopefully we can continue with the cat food discussion and the transitioning thin in another podcast.
Jean Hofve: Yeah, I never get tired of talking about food.
Jenny: Me neither, not after I’ve seen the success of the transition. I mean, probably everybody that emails me with a cat poop or a constipation problem or the stools too loose or whatever, their animal is always eating dry food and it doesn’t matter…some will say, “Yeah, it’s dry food only” or “Just a little bit of dry, mostly wet,” but every single time there is dry food involved.
Jean Hofve: Yeah. I had a diabetic kitty that was overweight and the owner gave him 8 kibbles in the morning and the evening so he’d have something to do while she gave him his Insulin shot and we could not regulate this cat for any amount of money. There was no way, and I finally said you’ve got to stop the kibbles and she stopped. Those 16 little pieces of kibble a day, those little, tiny, round, little…That’s nothing. You would think that wouldn’t make a difference. We regulated that cat instantly. It was amazing.
Jean Hofve: That’s how disruptive to blood sugar kibble is. It really screws them up. I can talk to you about the dangers of dry food. We can have a whole thing on that.
Jean Hofve: Everybody says raw food is dangerous. Well, how many outbreaks of Salmonella have we had in people than dog food? How many die from dry dog food? A zillion! Now, where’s the danger? You know, we can go on for weeks with that.
Jean Hofve: And we will. We shall! We shall conquer!
Jennifer: Well I love it. I’m excited about these; I think that it will help a lot of kitties.