Researchers Help Fat Felines Battle the Bulge

Jenny Craig might want to recruit a new type of client — the kind with whiskers, paws and pointy ears.

About 25 percent of American kitties are overweight, according to the latest statistics, and vets say the number of fat cats prowling — or rather, waddling — around is growing.

Fearing that fleshy felines will lose some of their nine lives to obesity-related health problems, researchers have begun chasing down a way to get Fluffy's figure purrfect.

The Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University (search) recently launched a study testing diets on pet cats to see which regimens help them shed pounds and halt cravings for more nibbles.

And the pet food company IAMS has added a nutrient to its weight-control dry food that quickens metabolism and helps the furry family members maintain muscle mass. IAMS has also launched the "Friends in Fitness Challenge" initiative, which encourages owners to monitor their cat's weight and offers tips on how kitties can get in shape.

Dr. Dan Carey, a vet in IAMS' research division, said potbellies are a particular problem for indoor cats with overeating owners.

"Cats and dogs enjoy the same lifestyle as the people they live with," Carey said. "More and more people are also keeping their cats totally indoors. The indoor cat is going to use up fewer calories than the outdoor or the indoor-outdoor cat."

As with people, exercise is a key to trimming Mittens' waistline. Carey suggests cat owners take their pets on leash walks, entice them to play with toys and even hide their food around the house so they have to hunt for it.

Sedentary and chubby cats are in just as much danger for health problems as heavy humans, according to Cornell animal behavior resident Dr. Emily Levine, one of the study's researchers.

"[Obesity] predisposes them to certain health risks," Levine said.

Those risks include diabetes, arthritis, respiratory troubles and skin problems because fat cats have trouble grooming. Extra weight can also delay wound healing and increase the anesthesia risks during surgery.

But some cats seem to stay super-sized no matter what their owners try.

That's the case with 12-year-old Smokey, who has always been a big boy despite efforts by owner Tracy Sullivan to get him in shape. The 25-pound feline was accepted into the Cornell study and is so far the pudgiest participant, according to Sullivan.

"He's a lovable, big, fat cat," said the 32-year-old police officer, of Ithaca, N.Y. "He's so large and I knew it was a health concern, so when I saw the Cornell study I said, 'That's for my cat.'"

Smokey's obesity has affected nearly everything he does.

"He doesn't play like other normal cats," said Sullivan. "He doesn't sit on my lap because he's too heavy. And as he's getting older, he's having more trouble getting up."

Coaxing Smokey to eat less has been a challenge to say the least.

"He's torn up furniture," she said. "He'll cry and whine constantly — he has the loudest meow I've ever heard. He'll get underfoot and rub up against me. He tries to open the door where his food is. He'll even eat my dog's food if there's no cat food in his bowl."

Those "feed me!" behaviors are a focus of the Cornell study, which asks owners to monitor their kitties' actions so researchers can determine if they're satisfied or still ravenous.

"We're testing diets that make them feel full all the time," Levine said. "I hope we can find one to satisfy them so they won't engage in behavior that makes it difficult for owners to keep them on a diet."

To keep bias out of the results, neither the researchers nor the owners know what kind of food the cats are getting. The study uses three diets, with 20 cats on each for 10 weeks. And owners must bring in their fluffy friends for weigh-ins.

Sullivan hopes the Cornell diet leads to a slimmer Smokey.

"I want to get his weight down for his health," she said. "I don't want to put him down at 13 years old. I want him to live to be 17 or 18. That's why I decided to do this."