Overweight Cat? The Hidden Cause and Solution

Updated April 2012

Many cats are more overweight and less healthy than their owners realize — I speak from experience here.

But, I’m happy to report that the hidden cause of cat chubbiness is not that hard to remedy – and I’m not talking about just cutting back on calories.

It’s not really your fault, and it’s not your cat’s fault either.

Most of us have assumed that a dry cat food called “holistic,” “premium,” “science-based,” “veterinarian-recommended,” “weight maintenance,” or “natural” will be very healthy for our cat buddy. It seems so logical!

The problem with those and other dry cat foods? The cat food industry is a slow learner.

Dry cat foods – especially most weight control ones! –  are almost always 25 – 50% carbohydrates, according Elizabeth Hodgkins, DVM, former director of technical affairs for a high-end pet food company (before she went rogue).

The shocking truth is that most dry cat foods are the health equivalent of sugary cereals for kids.

You know how sugary cereals are just fattening carbs pumped with vitamins and flavors? Most dry cat food is basically the same thing.

It turns out your cat’s body was designed for a much lower carb intake – more like 5% carbs.

Here’s what happens when your cat eats high-carb cat food, as described in Dr. Hodgkin’s Your Cat: Simple New Secrets to a Longer, Stronger Life:
1.  The starchy carbs force your cat’s body to have high levels of circulating insulin
2.  Those high insulin levels:

  • Cause your cat to store an unusually high amount of fat
  • Cause your cat’s blood sugar to fall too low later, triggering a natural biological response called, “give me more food MEOW!” Munch munch munch, crunch crunch crunch

Though humans can handle more carbs than cats, the refined carb/high insulin problem is an issue for humans too, which is why this concept immediately made sense to me as a nutritionist.

Your cat is not naturally an overeater

Many people assume their cat is just a compulsive overeater, but Dr. Hodgkins explains that when you feed cats proper protein and fat levels, the fat and protein trigger the natural satiety signal in the cat’s brain once they’ve had enough food.

She has helped hundreds of feline patients transition to low-starch food and watched them lose excess weight without portion restriction.

She acknowledges that sometimes a cat has developed an overeating habit due to the “nutritional inadequacies of their previous diet,” but the habit is typically outgrown with cat-proper high-protein nourishment.

I would like to acknowledge though that, in rare cases (like our cat Joel!), some cats will eat as much as you give them no matter what kind of food it is. These are cats who had starvation trauma as lost or feral kittens. They get psychologically stuck in that mode and may never grow out of it. The good news is they will get to a healthy weight on a low carb food, especially wet food, as long as you feed only the normal amounts.

So what to feed?

PLEASE avoid most so-called “diet” and “senior” cat foods because they usually have more carbs – not less! As a nutritionist, this drives me nuts. The only way those foods ever work is by calorie restriction, but you’ll still have a hungry cat who isn’t getting the right balance of  nourishment.

Instead, unless your cat needs a special diet for other health reasons, get your sweet-bundle-of-fur a high-quality, high-protein, low-starch cat food – here’s a list.

I describe how to make the transition in No more cat hunger strikes: Life-saving tips on switching foods.

If all this is true, why haven’t we heard about it until now?

While this information is coming to light through some new books, DVMs like Dr. Jean Hofve and Dr. Hodgkins, and some cat food creators, the pet food industry currently saves itself plenty of money by using lots of starch to round out caloric content. It takes a long time to turn a giant ship around, so denial is common. (Dr. Hodgkins points out that a 2005 study that most pro-starch people rely on did not use a true low-carb food.)

I say the proof is in your experience. Old beliefs die hard–that’s okay, just do what works anyway.

Wait – why are some outdoor-ish cats able to stay fit while eating dry cat food?

Cats who spend a lot of time outdoors can often get away with a dry food diet at home because they are wisely supplementing it with:

  • High-protein hunts
  • Lots of roaming and climbing exercise

All of these natural resources are enormously helpful in balancing your cat’s insulin levels, and therefore keep most outdoor explorers reasonably fit and healthy.

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7 Responses to Overweight Cat? The Hidden Cause and Solution

  1. S.G November 29, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    Do you have any advice on how to convince my mom that dry commercial petfood is not good (for our extremely overweight indoor/outdoor [hunter] cat in particular)? she gets SO defensive when i try to broach the topic of changing food, because “petfood is good for them or they wouldn’t sell/make it,” or alternately, “pets have evolved to eat petfood”. “raw diets made my friends’ cats SO sick they had to go to the emergency vet!” “healthy is too expensive with 3 cats!” the cat i’m most worried about definitely weighs over 20, probably over 25 pounds. he is a large cat, but he has gained so much weight in the last MONTH and a half since i saw him last, i don’t know what to do because I’m away at school. they have unlimited access to purina (!) dry food 24/7. i don’t know what to do anymore! no matter how carefully or sensitively i approach it, she takes it as me criticizing her care of her babies, and when i emphasize long-term health problems, she says, “so you think i don’t CARE about them and i’m slowly killing them?” i didnt say “YES!” but i wanted to!

    • Liz-cat November 29, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

      SG,
      My friends and I have noticed a trend with moms: they don’t like to take advice from their daughters, perhaps especially when it comes to health matters–feline or otherwise. I can’t explain it. Perhaps someone who is a mother can.

      In the mean time, I feel for what you are going through.

      You might quote veterinarian Elizabeth Hodgkins, who specializes in feline diabetes and left her position as a head nutritionist in the commercial cat food industry when she realized that high carb, dry cat foods were ruining cats’ health. In fact, her own cat got diabetes—this is how she started questioning things. Feline obesity & diabetes has become an epidemic thanks to the starchy dry cat food that is so common now. Hepatic lipodosis is a threat too—can be fatal to overweight cats, which is why cats like your Mom’s cat need to lose weight slowly (not too fast!) and NOT go without eating.

      Here’s the quote: “In my many years of practice, I have never seen a diabetic cat that was eating canned food only. Also, I have never seen an overweight cat that was eating canned food only. The onset of obesity and diabetes is triggered by constant flooding of the cat’s system with refined carbohydrate from the dry diet, day after day, month after month and year after year. This steady sugar rush finally exhausts the small pancreatic capabilities of the carnivore because the cat’s evolution never prepared it for a constant high-sugar diet.” http://yourdiabeticcat.com/faq.html

      • joyce parfitt November 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

        Thank you so much I have three indoor cats one of whom is rather large not obese but could become so It has worried me and I have been struggling with her food which consists of both wet and dry After your advice I shall stop feeding this product and use raw and wet pouches to see if this helps It was enlightening to read your information So heres hoping for a solution .

  2. Michelle July 19, 2016 at 7:12 am #

    I have a female cat who will only eat dry food she is neutered and did eat wet food as well as dry food up until a year ago. All of a sudden she stopped eating wet food and will not even touch chicken or other meat I cook for myself. I have three other cats all eat wet and dry food and their weight is fine but my female has become overweight since she stopped eating wet food.

  3. Cathy Bevilaqua October 19, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    The article said, “Here’s a list.” I scrolled down and never saw a list. Our kitty over eats and needs to lose weight.

  4. courtney November 9, 2017 at 6:49 am #

    LINK NOT FOUND >> for cat food list:
    “Instead, unless your cat needs a special diet for other health reasons, get your sweet-bundle-of-fur a high-quality, high-protein, low-starch cat food – here’s a list”.

    Missing link, appreciate if anyone has the “list” avail – thanks!

    • Liz November 9, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

      Linked fixed! Thanks for letting me know.

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