Image via iStock.com/sae1010
By Dr. Ken Lambrecht
Smart technology for cat weight loss? You must think I am kidding, right?
This (not so) futuristic solution is actually not as far-fetched as you think. It’s a modern approach to one of the toughest challenges in pet health to date—getting and keeping cats at their healthy weight. These devices have been tested and shown to be effective, and they are getting more affordable.
For the record, I’m not against simply using puzzle feeders, cat toys and hand-feeding—they work for some households perfectly well! I am addressing those households with 2 or more cats where at least one is overweight.
How Cat Obesity Became Such a Prominent Issue
In short, we have failed over 60 percent of our feline companions!
According to the 2017 Pet Obesity Survey Results conducted by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 60 percent of cats in the US are overweight or obese, and that number has been increasing every year since 2005. The Global Pet Obesity Initiative Statement now defines pet obesity as a disease.
We have brought these wonderfully athletic, inquisitive and incredible hunters indoors without much hunting (if any) to do. On top of that, we have completely changed the way they consume food.
Factor into that the limited amount of time most of us have to actively engage in exercise and play with our feline family members, and we have a perfect storm leading to overweight cats!
We now feed them cat food that is, in general, much more calorically dense and palatable than their natural diet. Most of us don’t feed the six to eight meals that their feline ancestors or feral counterparts have naturally been accustomed to.
For example, a cat whose ideal weight should be 10 pounds and who should eat 180 calories per day would ideally be fed six times a day and 30 calories each time (the average mouse is 30 calories!).
The American Feline Practitioners Association published a consensus statement called “Feline Feeding Programs: Addressing behavioral needs to improve feline health and well-being.” This is a wonderful leap forward in addressing not just what to feed, but how to feed cats properly using “strategies to allow these normal feline feeding behaviors, such as hunting and foraging, and eating frequent small meals in a solitary fashion, to occur in the home environment—even in a multi-pet home.”
Where to Begin With Your Cat Weight Loss Plan
Cats are true carnivores (unlike dogs) and have a very unique and sensitive metabolism.
A veterinarian will be able to provide you with a cat weight loss program that will help you to understand which type of food is best, how much food you need to feed, how many calories your cat needs and how to redirect cat behaviors associated with weight management.
It is strongly advised that before any cat with a body condition score (BCS) of over 7/9 is put on a diet, a complete physical exam and nutrition consultation is performed by a veterinarian.
Along with your veterinarian’s weight loss program for your cat, you can implement smart technology to help deliver food in a way that is more aligned with their natural feeding behaviors. This technology can also help to prevent problem feeding behaviors that occur in multi-cat households.
You can track your cat’s progress by weighing them at home with a reliable baby scale or at the vet’s office when you have your follow-up appointments.
How To Help Your Cat Lose Weight With Automatic Cat Feeders
The amount of food and caloric content for each cat in the household must be known and controlled for any weight management plan to be effective.
That is precisely where the first smart device comes in: an automatic cat feeder.
There are three criteria to look for when choosing an automatic cat feeder:
- Portion control/timer: There are many types of automatic cat feeders available that allow cat owners to easily control the amount of food fed per day and the number of feedings per day. Depending on your preference, you can control these settings from your smartphone or directly on the device.
When purchasing an automatic cat feeder, you’ll want to consider whether the device can accurately portion out six to eight meals per day and if it can deliver them in small enough portions to work for weight management. The Petnet SmartFeeder automatic pet feeder meets this criteria, and it has an excellent smartphone app.
You can talk with your veterinarian to find out how much and how often you should be feeding your cat so he can reach a healthy weight.
- Cat-controlled: A cat-controlled feeder will only grant access to the cat of your choosing. In a multi-cat household, this is a must to prevent cats from “sharing” or stealing food from each other.
These automatic cat feeders can control which cat eats by scanning their microchip, microchip tag or RFID tag. All but the microchip require the cat to wear a cat collar. The SureFeed microchip small dog and cat feeder is not completely foolproof but very, very close!
- Wet vs. dry cat food. Currently, there are no cat-controlled, time/portion-controlled feeders that can feed canned food. This would truly be a major step forward, as many feline practitioners prefer wet food, as it is closer to a cat’s normal diet. For cats with certain diseases (urinary, for example), it is universally accepted that wet food is preferred.
Note: Getting the cat used to the new feeder is very important. All of these feeders make some noise when opening and closing, so the introduction should be gradual. Many cats, once used to the devices, will come flying across the room when it is feeding time. I try not to be in their way when it occurs in my home!
Using Pet Cameras to Monitor Feeding Behaviors
If you have your cat on a weight loss program but your cat still struggles to lose weight, you can use a pet camera to get to the bottom of it.
This is especially useful for multi-cat households. Cats need their own individual feeding station away (out of sight) from others to eat in peace and not to create stress. As we are away from the home so much, how would we know if all is well, especially since feeding behaviors will change (an increased desire to hunt) if calories are restricted. Since cats are sometimes prone to stealing, you can catch your kitties in the act and seek a solution (such as an automatic pet feeder).
The Petcube Bites is also capable of flinging cat treats to your feline family members while you are away, which can help keep your cat active when he would otherwise be resting. As my colleagues are aware, my phone battery is often drained from sharing videos from the one mounted in Bugs Cat Gym above my clinic!
Fitness Monitors That Can Track Pet Activity
While the algorithms on pet fitness monitors are not near what they have for people, they have become much more useful.
One resource available for pet parents that allows them to track their pet’s activity levels is Babelbark; this digital platform allows pet parents and veterinarians to share their pet’s health information and track weight loss progress. This information can help you and your veterinarian create the best weight loss plan possible for your pet.
Why Are Smart Cat Gadgets Worth It?
As a veterinarian, I see overweight cats develop diabetes mellitus because their body mass has simply outstripped their endogenous supply of insulin.
The cost of a typical diabetic workup (very common in overweight cats) would be easily more than the cost of a few smart technology cat gadgets. More importantly, many of the incalculable costs of osteoarthritis, inflammatory diseases related to obesity and general loss of vitality could be saved or prevented.
We have had many clients try these devices in our Pets Reducing for Rescues (PRFR) annual cat and dog weight loss contest and in our year-round overweight cat fostering program. Over the past 10 years, PRFR has gotten hundreds of pets to their ideal weight.
We also recently completed a pilot study in conjunction with Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) in Guelph, California, to determine if a smart pet home technology ecosystem (PHTE) could improve outcomes while respecting the human-animal bond.
If you have an overweight pet, Bug Ventures will work with your veterinarian to help, and rescues will win too! Please visit the Pets Reducing for Rescues Facebook page for more details. We are a veterinary-led group that will work directly with your veterinarian and their team.