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Confessions of a Fat Cat Owning Veterinarian

Many times people will ask us about our own pets.  Unlike a few of my colleagues, I’ve limited my “herd” to a small number.  Two cats and one dog.  The second cat is a more recent addition but the Original Cat, The Beloved Ancient Cat is my subject today.


This is Django.   He came into my old emergency clinic as a probable hit-by-car in 2001.  He was as thin as a rail (8 pounds) with a terrible crush injury to one of his back legs.  I repaired it as as well as I could (he was missing about 1/2 of the bones of his foot) and his leg is now functional although not perfect.

Gosh he’s thin I thought.  I’ll get this boy fattened up…

And so I did, to nearly 19 pounds.

If you are unfortunate enough to be a veterinarian’s pet, sometimes things don’t get noticed.  After 12 or 13 hours at the clinic, I do remember to check food and water and will actually recognize signs of illness.  But fatness is another story.

Fatness creeps.  I notice when I’ve gained weight due to strangely tight pants.  Lucky for Django, I don’t dress him up (unlike some childhood cats of mine) but since he doesn’t wear a belt, neither he nor I noticed his expanding waistline for some number of years.

He was also in a sort of witness protection program since I avoided bringing him into the clinic for some time.

Tragically, he did go to the clinic a few years ago where his majestic figure was noticed immediately by all of the staff.  “Dr. White, your cat is FAT!”, said the throng of concerned technicians and assistants.  “He is?” said I.   They promptly weighed him to complete their intervention.

Convinced and with fresh eyes, I set about to modify his diet.  Tiny portions of Terribly Low Calorie Food (the  prescription R/D) were fed religiously for two years.  To say that I was mortified is an understatement.  I am known in the clinic as being hypervigilant about our patients’ weights.  We have great evidence in every species studied (humans, dogs, cats, horses, you name it) that maintaining a healthy body weight is a cornerstone of disease prevention.  Less arthritis and a longer lifespan in dogs, less diabetes in cats and people, even the greying of dogs is delayed by maintaining a healthy body weight.  And I was raised by a lifetime member of Weight Watchers.  My mother, having fought weight through college, became the Dr. Ornish of our household.  I was raised on skim milk, brown rice, salad and lean meat.  Never was there a french fry, a potato chip, or butter in our house.  She was healthy and active through her 90th year, still walking 3 miles a day, going to the senior fitness center three times a week and swam every morning.  So I of all people should notice when my cat is fat.

After two years, Django had lost about 4.5 pounds.  Weight loss is not easy when you are an elderly cat (I estimate that he is about 13 or 14 years old but he failed to come with a birth certificate when the Good Samaritan brought him in).  His mobility improved (he has polyarthritis) and he was able to jump on the bed.    He was a little hungry, as cats should be.  I did learn that I could not leave a bag of food out without certain predations….


(Good kitty that he went into the bag from the top and not the bottom.  You can see why I like him.)

Now I must complete my confession by admitting that the last two years have seen some back sliding.  When my mother became ill, I spent many of my days off in Corvallis, leaving Django with heaps of cat food in his bowl during my absence.  Since my mother passed away, I’ve acquired her cat and now have two to feed, one who prefers obesity and one who needs a renal diet so the days of portion control are again over.

So when I discuss weight with our clients, I am the first to admit that weight loss is tough, especially with cats.  Very especially with multiple cats.  And cats, like most species, have adapted their physiology to maximize calorie intake whilst minimizing activity.  This makes sense when you have to work for your food but is a bit maladaptive in a world of freely available calories.  Weight management should be tailored to the individual situation — for young cats, tiny portions of grain free diet may have the best evidence for success but that can be challenging in a multi cat household or a household where people are gone for many hours during the day (like mine).  Automatic cat feeders are great but currently don’t deliver small enough quantities.  My mother, who was infinitely sensible, pointed out that she fed her cat “mouse sized” meals through the day since that is what cats are designed for.  If I had some engineering know how I would design a “mouse-sized meal feeder” (with apologies to the mice) and name it the Virginia Drew White Automated Tiny Cat Meal Delivery System.

It would have her picture on the package since, despite the fact she was an English major, she was the wisest nutritionist I’ve met.

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