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Vet school looking to put fat cats on purr-fect diet

Vet school looking to put fat cats on purr-fect diet


You risk life and limb — OK, maybe not life, but certainly limb — to stuff your cat inside a carrier and endure the bawling from the back seat on the annual crosstown voyage for booster shots, only to have the vet say what you plainly can see but refuse to hear.

You have a fat cat.

For the love of Puff, what can you possibly do about that? It’s not as though he’s a dog, eager for an extra walk and oblivious if slipped green beans instead of biscuits at bedtime. Your dog is going to love you no matter what.

But your cat? The one who herds you into the kitchen before the sun rises and worries incessantly over his food bowl? A diet? He’ll be one unhappy fellow.

If the very thought of Your Cat On A Diet causes such anxiety that you unthinkingly reach for a spoon and a pint of Moose Tracks ice cream, relax. There’s a fat cat study going on at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine that just might help.

Its purpose is to find a way to keep the family purring while kitty loses weight.

“We want to look at the owners’ perception of the weight loss plan,” said Dr. Lauren Dodd, a clinical nutrition resident. “If they feel their cat is unhappy, begging for more food, really, the owners are concerned about quality of life.”

The cats’ or their own, she didn’t quite say.

Half of Americans’ cats are overweight. Few will have much success going on a diet or sticking to it. As with people, obesity leads to an array of illnesses and early death.

“Just recently I heard from a vet who said she has 10 different ways to explain to owners that their pet is obese. Most of them turn a blind eye,” said Dr. Megan Shepherd, clinical assistant professor. “Certainly, if it’s not presented appropriately, it can be offensive to just come out and say, ‘Your cat is fat.’ There’s finesse to it.”

For those pet owners willing to admit it, Dodd and Shepherd want to see if cats are better able to lose weight and lead a higher quality of life as perceived by their owners if given an individual weight loss plan.

The researchers are looking for 60 fat cats. Well, just 59 now.

Sophie, a sweet gray tabby, is their first volunteer.

Her person, Susan Heinze of Blacksburg, said Sophie isn’t quite as hefty as she was a month ago. She’s quicker when climbing steps and can now jump on counters.

Sophie didn’t appear to be nervous during her recent weigh-in at the vet school in Blacksburg.

“The first time she threw up in the car on the way here. And on the way home, she was frothing at the mouth and pooped in the carrier,” Heinze said. “This time wasn’t as bad.”

As everyone fussed over Sophie, nutrition services coordinator Montez Vaught wiped a little spittle off the cat’s face, the only sign she wasn’t pleased. Vaught serves as the intermediary between the researchers and the cats and their owners.

She hands off the cat to the researchers to weigh and feel for progress and relays information to the owners.

All the cats will eat the same prescription diet food that is being provided for free by Purina, the study’s sponsor. The amount of food will vary, not because of the study design, but because of the heft of the cat.

The researchers know the variables that have to do with owners’ instructions, but they do not know which cat will be randomly assigned to which variable. Vaught knows everything, but the cat’s got her tongue. The variables are not being disclosed because the owners cannot know anything beyond what Vaught tells them.

About five or six cats are awaiting enrollment. Dozens more are needed. Their owners must be willing to bring them in once a month for a quick visit and to fill out a form rating how well their cat eats, grooms, rests and plays with people, pets and toys.

Heinze scored Sophie as slightly more playful.

Dodd and Shepherd soothed her before putting her through the drill. Her waist seemed smaller, but she could have just been standing taller.

While a cat’s weight is objective, the researchers need to also assign a body condition score, which can be subjective. The score comes from a chart, which most pet owners have spotted hanging in an exam room, that depicts cat shapes along a number line, with 1 being anorexic and 9 being grossly obese.

Ideally, cats should fall in the 4 or 5 range. When viewed from above, they have a waist. Their ribs can be felt when a hand glides over their sides, and they have a nice abdominal tuck.

The goal is to get the fat cats to fall in the ideal range. For most house cats, that’s about 10 pounds.

The problem, Shepherd said, is “obese is becoming the norm. So when pet owners see ideal, they think that’s too skinny.”

Sophie, at more than 15 pounds, scores in the 7 to 7.5 range.

To take part in the study, a cat needs to be healthy, hefty enough to score 7 or above and between 1 and 10 years old. Sophie is 8.

“She’s really sweet,” Dodd said while lifting up the feline to look at her ample belly. “That’s the other thing with the criteria. You have to be able to handle them.”

“They can’t get too stressed out, or they’ll hate us,” Shepherd said.

And they have to come each month for nine months. Weight loss of a half pound to two pounds a month is a good pace.

The cats must be willing to eat kibble — no wet food is allowed. And they should come from single-pet homes or have owners like Sophie’s who are willing to separate them at feeding time.

Heinze said she’s standing watch while Sophie eats her one-third cup of food twice a day. She has no idea how much Sophie used to eat.

“She was a very small kitty when I got her. She just kind of liked food,” Heinze said. “Anything you put in front of her.”

Sophie would gorge, upset her tummy and throw up.

She seems OK with her diet, and, Heinze said, is less grumpy.

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