Visiting Vet: Bored cats can overeat

Where did they learn that?

A cat entertained with interactive toys and games may be less likely to overeat. —Madalyn Cox

A few years ago at her annual appointment, I mentioned to Augusta’s owner that the cat was a little chubby. OK, maybe I said fat. Having battled my own weight all my life, I am naturally sympathetic to my fluffier patients. I also used to tell owners of such pets that if I had someone else who would control how much food I got each day, I would be in much better shape. In other words, they could help their pets by taking responsibility for food choices and portions. Unlike many owners of overweight animals, Augusta’s mom took my admonitions very seriously. Over the years, she tried a variety of different commercial diets, as well as different feeding protocols to try to slim the kitty down. We found a plan that seemed to work, keeping Gusty in the “pleasantly plump” range, but her owner still worried. I reassured her repeatedly that Augusta was fine, but recently they came back to see me. Gusty’s owner was now concerned that the middle-aged cat always seemed hungry.

We popped Agusta on the scale. Mazel tov! She weighed exactly the same as last year. Pleasantly plump, but stable. I palpated her thyroid gland. Hyperthyroidism is a very common metabolic abnormality in middle-age cats, and often presents with a history of polyphagia (eating excessively). Other signs may include increased drinking, increased urination, weight loss, behavioral changes, increased heart rate, and an enlarged thyroid. Gusty had none of these symptoms, other than a hearty appetite.Her thyroid felt normal (though up to half of cats with hyperthyroidism may not have a palpable thyroid mass). Her heart rate was normal. She was well-hydrated. Diabetes is another disease that can cause polyphagia.

“She looks healthy to me,” I said, “but let’s do basic bloodwork just to rule things out.” I wanted to make sure everything was normal — kidneys, liver, blood glucose, electrolytes, thyroid hormones. I also advised her owner to bring us a fecal sample to test for evidence of intestinal parasites. As an indoor cat, her risk of parasites was low, but not zero. There are many benefits to keeping your cats 100 percent indoors. It keeps them safe from injury from cat fights, dog attacks, and cars. It keeps them safe from catching most infectious diseases. It protects wildlife, especially birds, from feline predation. But being kept inside all the time also predisposes cats to boredom and obesity, which in turn predisposes them to diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and behavioral problems.

All the lab tests came back within normal limits. “I think she just likes to eat,” I said. I can relate. Me, too. “Tell me how you are currently feeding her,” I asked. Her owner explained she fed Agusta measured portions of food, both wet and dry, divided into two daily meals. Which led me to my usual spiel about feeding felines. “Cats like to eat multiple small meals throughout the day,” I advised. Think about it. In the wild, cats don’t sit down to one meal of four mice in the morning and one meal of four mice at night. No. They hunt them down one at a time, eating a little bit every few hours. Cats like to graze and nibble all day long. Some cats can be fed “free choice,” leaving dry food out constantly, but not overeaters like Augusta. I suggest for these cats that owners get one of those glass candy canisters like grandmothers have in their living rooms. Measure out a daily ration of dry food in the morning. Put it in the jar. Then dole out little bits all day long until it is gone. This technique helps owners to not overfeed, while still satisfying a cat’s natural feeding rhythm.

My very smart assistant, Fawn, then suggested we talk to Gusty’s owner about environmental enrichment. Yes! I should have thought of that. After all, half the time when I overeat, I’m not hungry. I’m bored. Or stressed. Cats get bored (and stressed) too. Especially indoor cats. In the wild, they keep busy. They forage, scavenge, hunt, stalk, catch, and kill their food. Fun! But indoor kitties just waddle over to their bowls. Here are a few ways to make mealtime, and life in general, more entertaining.

Get a thing called a “lick matt” if you feed canned food. These flat silicone plates have bumps, troughs, nooks, and crannies you can smear with the food. It takes more time and attention to lick it up this way. Don’t want to buy a mat? Smear canned food on a paper plate. Put the plate on the linoleum floor, so it slides and she has to chase it across the kitchen. Dry food can be hidden in ways so Gusty gets to hunt for it. The simplest is to put small portions in a toilet paper tube and fold it up so she has to bat it around to get the kibble out. There are also many commercial food puzzles and dispensing toys. Doc and Phoebe’s Cat Co. makes fake plastic mice with furry fabric coverings you can fill with kibble, then hide around the house. Don’t want to buy anything? If you don’t have a dog (or toddler), you can just scatter bits of dry food around the house. Up high. Down low. Here … and there. So she has to hunt for it. Just clean up what she doesn’t find. Otherwise you will be swearing at me when the mice move in.

Start simple. Then, as Augusta learns to hunt for her food, there are even more complex puzzles and interactive games you can get to keep her entertained and not overfed. Fawn also introduced me to, a website with other cool tips for kitty care. All you ailurophiles should check it out. Augusta’s mom is excited about engaging with her cat in new ways. Gusty can continue to enjoy her meals with gusto. She just gets to play with her food first.