Housecats Are Getting Fatter, and It's Our Fault

I have a cat that has a bad relationship with food. I took him in as a stray a year and a half ago, and even hundreds of meals later, he still growls and glares at my other two cats if they even THINK about getting near him when there's food in his bowl. What's worse is that he also finishes their leftovers after every meal. Truthfully, he can't leave any food behind -- not a single crumb or anything that might resemble a piece of food. I have seen him move the bowls out of the way to reach a hidden piece of kibble. It's not pretty.

Admittedly, I let the problem go on too long. I assumed he was just an obsessive, aggressive eater. And hey, he kept the food mats totally spotless in the kitchen.

It wasn't until two months ago that I noticed my cat was propping himself up on the wall to clean his belly. Indeed, he was so fat that he couldn't bend. The same weekend, we had a party during which three people separately remarked on how "adorably fat" my cat is. Look at that big belly!

That's when I snapped out of it. He might have looked endearing like a real-life Garfield, but an overweight cat isn't a healthy cat. Obesity in cats is associated with all sorts of health problems, including kidney disease, cancer and diabetes.

I also learned I'm not alone as a fat cat owner, and the problem is getting way worse.

A five-year study of nearly 9,000 animals found cases of diabetes in cats and dogs have skyrocketed since 2011. The research, conducted by Animal Friends Insurance in the UK, notes that cats have a higher risk of developing diabetes than dogs do -- with a whopping 1,161 percent increase in the past five years. Dogs, on the other hand, have seen an 850 percent rise (still staggering).

Considering this is a UK study, you might be thinking that perhaps British pets are just fatter than American pets. Guess again. In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimated in a 2014 survey that 57.9 percent of U.S. cats are overweight or obese. Furthermore, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that diabetes affects one in every 200 cats and one in every 400 to 500 dogs in the U.S.

Aside from letting our cats nosh too much, what are we doing wrong? Dr. Stijn Niessen of the Feline Diabetic Remission Clinic in the UK told the Daily Mail that part of the problem is the rich, tasty food that cats are not biologically built to process. Genetically, cats are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago when hunting prey was a larger part of their daily lives. However, those ancient genes that would have once helped cats store energy until their next meal now predisposes them to diabetes, Dr. Niessen said.

It makes perfect sense, but other than cutting out unhealthy snacks, what can cat owners do to keep Fluffy at an appropriate weight? According to the Cat Hospital of Chicago, one of the key actions in preventing obesity is to promote exercise (you mean, just like humans?! Get out of here!) and avoid allowing them to graze freely on dry foods -- which tend to have a high carbohydrate content.

Measured meals, exercise, and reducing bad habits sounds easy enough. And, to keep the normal-weighted cats from being slighted with meals, the Cat Hospital suggests a "Kitty Caf," which is essentially a box with a hole through which only normal-weighted cats can fit to eat what's inside. I have not personally tried the Kitty Caf suggestion, because I'm picturing a scene much like that of the Kool-Aid Man bursting through a wall when my fat cat realizes there's food he can't reach.

After the party (the one at which my cat's belly was the topic of too many delighted conversations), I put my cat on a leaner diet and got into the habit of promptly removing the other cats' leftovers after mealtime. Guess what? He's way more playful, which is a win-win, and he can bend without assistance from the wall. We might have also dodged a serious diabetes bullet.