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.