Jason is only four years old, a beloved orange tabby whose Chico family was shocked to be informed by his veterinarian that he was “too heavy” and needed to lose weight. Admittedly, his family had neglected to have him examined for two years, thinking that as an inside-only cat, he didn’t need medical care or an examination.
There are many reasons to have a young cat come in to Chico Hospital for Cats regularly and this is one of them. Learning how cats think about food and how their environment can impact consumption is part our doctors’ job to teach the people who love Jason. Like people, it is far easier to maintain a healthy weight than it is to lose weight.
Jason is the same cat as those who came into our lives 10,000 years ago when humans began to store grain for food. Cats found this new development delightful as it attracted mice and other small rodents foraging for food. Mice are the perfect solitary hunter’s meal, just enough to hunt, chase, pounce and polish off.
Cats are not very efficient hunters, so waiting until they are hungry is perilous. That’s why there is a separate part of the brain that calls cats to hunt even if it doesn’t feel like mealtime. If they aren’t hungry though, they’ll hunt less enthusiastically because eating and hunting are very connected in a cat’s brain.
This deep connection with his “primal” cat makes Jason a natural hunter. Yet he was being fed dry food in a bowl that was always available. He didn’t need to do any work beyond sauntering up to the bowl or reminding his caregiver that the bowl needed to be refilled.
His doctor prescribed a work-for-food program along with regular active play times with his family. They discussed beginning to transition from dry food to high protein canned food, too. Because it contains more water and less carbohydrates, Jason’s carnivorous appetite center would be satisfied sooner. He had grown up on dry formulas so it would be a slow process to find a high protein canned food with the right aroma, flavor and “mouth feel” that Jason would appreciate.
To begin, small meals replaced the constant availability of food. Because his home had more than one floor, meals were strategically placed to require climbing stairs. One family member, his Dad, was placed in charge of feeding as he was home more often. No treats were permitted unless he “worked” for them by playing with a laser toy or the interactive feather toy he loved. When the family was gone, small meals were hidden in the cat tree, the book shelf and other places where Jason could search for a snack.
His doctor prescribed a food that would provide reduced calories without reducing the protein he needs to keep his muscles healthy. Too little protein and he would lose muscle, a sure sign of declining health. Lowering calories without lowering protein is essential for weight loss to be successful. As is true of all mammals, people included, the better the muscle tone, the more calories burned. The better the muscle condition, the healthier the body.
These are the first steps to a healthier future for Jason. In 3 months he was approaching his ideal weight. By creating a plan that was easy to execute and honored Jason’s ancestral needs, the doctors and staff at Chico Hospital for cats gave his beloved family the tools they needed.