Fat Cat Syndrome: Feeding a Multi-Cat Household

Way back in my rookie years, I had a telephone call from a customer who was complaining that our weight loss cat food wasn’t working for their cat. After three months the cat still hadn’t lost any weight. I started to explain that changing the food alone may not achieve weight loss for all cats, and that the amount of food that they feed may have to be reduced for their cat. She responded with “Well if I do that he will just eat the other cat’s food.” “Other cats? What other cats?” “I have three cats, two are OK, and one is overweight. The overweight cat finishes his food and then goes and eats the other cats’ food.”  I have had many stories of similar situations repeated to me over the years, and because of the first incident I started referring to the situation as Fat Cat Syndrome. It involves a multi-cat household where one cat is overweight. For some reason, it often involves a household with three cats. The problem is how to control the food consumption of an overweight cat when there are other cats in the house.

The natural eating habits of cats are significantly different than dogs. Dogs evolved eating in packs, where there was competition for food, so even with all the alterations in their genetics most dogs still eat their food rapidly, at one meal. Cats evolved as solitary hunters eating many small meals in a day. To use animal feeding behaviour terms, dogs are meal eaters, and cats are nibblers. In today’s cat population, the majority of cats nibble at their food if it is left out during the day. However, at least a third of all cats meal feed. The problem in a multi-cat household is free-feeding the food, which works for the nibblers, but it does not work if one or more of the cats are meal eaters. The meal eater, especially if he is dominant, will gladly eat everyone’s leftover food.

What to do?

No more free-feeding your cats. The nibblers will need to learn to meal feed. If your cats have had a communal feeding dish, the first step is to get separate dishes. A feeding schedule has to be established where every cat has their own dish and their own space. With some cats it is best if they can be fed in separate rooms. Most often, the cats can still be fed in the same area, but don’t line their dishes up all together. To separate the dishes you may need to get a partition, like a baby gate. If you have an aggressive-overweight cat, you can try a feeding crate, where the entrance is small enough so the overweight cat can’t get into the crate or box. You could also go vertical. Most cats love to climb and will feel quite at home feeding in an elevated spot. Initially you will have to supervise their entire feeding, but your cats will soon learn when and where to eat. Start by having the food available for 30 minutes and then pick up any uneaten food. As your cats learn to meal feed, pick up their dishes after they walk away, don’t leave the food down.

Slow it down

To slow down your fast meal eating cat, try using a bigger dish where the kibble is only one to two layers deep. This will make it harder to pick up the kibble and therefore force him to eat more slowly. If you are feeding wet food, add some water to the food to slow down their consumption, but not so much that they turn away from their food.

Sometimes separate rooms, partitions, or elevated dishes are not practical or possible. There are foods which can help in these situations, because the same food can be fed to all cats. The most common are multicat foods, which have carnitine which helps burn more fat in an overweight cat and is still very healthy for your other cats. Recent research has shown cats fed lower carbohydrate foods are better at controlling their appetite, much like the Atkins diet for humans. The carbohydrate level is not something you will see mentioned on the label of a cat food. However, what you can find is the guaranteed  protein level. For almost all foods there is an inverse relationship between the level of protein in the food and the level of carbohydrates. Therefore, higher protein cat foods typically have less carbohydrates.

High protein foods often also have higher fat levels, which may seem counter intuitive to what we normally think of for a weight loss food. The amount of the food fed has to be less than for a weight loss food, but because the carbohydrate level is lower, the appetite is suppressed. For this reason many cat parents have had success in feeding or supplementing with wet foods that have high meat protein and moderate fat content. There are also dry cat foods which also have higher protein levels. Look for the ones that are high in protein and low in fat.

The Performatrin Ultra Slim Care is a weight loss food that is formulated to be lower in carbohydrate to help reduce appetite. In addition there is a blend of fast and slowly absorbed carbohydrates to stave off a spike in blood glucose after eating. To help the overweight cat burn more calories, included in the recipe is Carnitine and green tea extract.

By Dr. Dave Summers

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