Should we adopt an overweight cat?
April 3, 2017 5:21 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are looking to adopt a cat, and just met a lovely one at the shelter. She's a mellow lap cat who loves to be pet. But she's also noticeably overweight and I'm worried about possible health complications. Should we adopt her and try to help her slim down, or keep looking?

The cat in question is a six-year-old spayed female. We don't know her exact weight, but my best guess would be 18-20 pounds. Based on the cat weight descriptions and images here, I might even say she's in the "obese" category. According to the shelter (one of the most reputable in our area) the cat doesn't currently have any health issues, but I know that overweight cats are at increased risk for diabetes, heart problems, cancer, etc.

We'd be happy to take steps to try to help the cat get down to a healthier weight (e.g., feeding only wet food, dedicated daily play time, even taking her outside on a harness). However, we live in a moderately sized 1.5 bedroom apartment, so there's not a ton of room to roam and there are no stairs for exercise. We can afford regular veterinary care and the occasional emergency/special circumstance vet visits or medicine. But I've heard that overweight cats are prone to develop chronic and life-threatening conditions like cancer or diabetes. I feel some conflict about adopting a cat who might be more likely to suffer from serious health issues since I'm not sure if we could afford expensive long-term treatments.

Excluding our worries about her weight, we thought she would be a wonderful cat for us. She was very laid back and sweet and seemed happy to have us pet her (lots of purring!).

Am I just overthinking this weight thing? Or is it a legitimate concern that justifies proceeding with caution? Could the cat lose weight as a solo indoor apartment cat, or should she be in a big house with other kitty playmates?

I don't really have any experience with overweight cats, so it would be very helpful to hear advice and experiences from others who do.
posted by oiseau to Pets & Animals (27 answers total)
Just being non-depressed can be extremely helpful for that, I've been told (by shelter workers). Has she been in the shelter for a while? Do you know anything about her life before that?

The hardest thing about managing a cat's weight, I think, is trying to regulate her diet while there's another animal free-feeding in the same house. If you don't have other animals, and don't plan to get other animals, I'd say it should be pretty easy to slooowly reduce her caloric intake so she gets back on track.

This is assuming that she really doesn't have other health issues and doesn't guard food or break in to the cabinets or something. Really, though, she's probably just got nothing else to do but eat and sleep right now, and living with you should change that enough to help.

(not a vet, just someone who reads)
posted by amtho at 5:42 AM on April 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Of course!
posted by spitbull at 5:43 AM on April 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had an obese cat who lived to be about 16 years old with no health problems. This was before all the low grain/no grain foods, too.

I agree with amtho - getting her home and active would be a big help. (also not a vet)
posted by getawaysticks at 5:43 AM on April 3, 2017

Yes, but only if you promise to give us pictures of her (it's a requirement for all cat questions!).
posted by easily confused at 5:44 AM on April 3, 2017 [17 favorites]

we thought she would be a wonderful cat for us.

Then adopt her. You are overthinking the weight thing.

The only thing you have to do to get her weight down is to feed her strictly wet food. You don't even have to have dedicated exercise time.

She might beg a bit. Which is to say she wants dinner to be sooner by meowing loudly whenever you're in the kitchen/dedicated feeding area. Or she'll want some of the food that you're eating so she might get in your face about it.
posted by INFJ at 5:45 AM on April 3, 2017 [13 favorites]

I think it may even be easier to help an indoor cat slim down. In my experience, restricting food has a lot more impact than encouraging exercise (which could very well be unsuccessful, since cat). Because the cat is indoors, you can 100% control what it eats and it is unlikely to feed itself by catching creatures or getting fed by strangers. Good quality, grainfree and low salt catfood also goes a long way in keeping your pet healthy. Especially switching to grainfree food really made a difference for our cats in terms of weight (and they got such a shiny coat!) and a low salt diet helps to prevent bladder and kidney problems that cats are prone to. Our vet is always amazed how good looking and healthy our old cats are and changing their diet definitely was worth it.

So I’d say go for it. She sounds lovely and you like her and that is the most important thing!
posted by leopard-skin pill-box hat at 5:45 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're willing to feed her right and play with her daily, there's no reason to pass on her. Your smallish apartment will be the same issue for any cat -- even if you got an underweight cat, you'd need to be just as diligent about playing with it and feeding it right. There's a risk that any cat can develop an illness or injury, regardless of their weight -- that's part of the risk you accept if you want to be a cat owner. The good news is that she's been checked out and it sounds like she's healthy at the moment. If you like this cat and she likes you and you're willing to do your best by her, then you should bring her home.

I agree that being in the same house as other cats might actually be worse for her, as it would likely be harder to monitor her food intake. I speak as the owner of a kitty who became obese when living with another (free-fed) cat, and who has lost weight when we moved away from the other cat and I was able to portion his food and switch him onto grain-free wet food. He's now about 15 years old, still a little overweight, but he's been healthy and active his whole life. The biggest health problem he's had is that he's starting to develop a bit of arthritis, which is treatable (as per my vet's instructions) with inexpensive glucosamine supplements. He's been an awesome companion, and I bet your cat will be, too.
posted by ourobouros at 5:50 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

If she has been a big ol' squish for six years without any health issues she's doing just as well as any other shelter cat, if not better. Adopting any cat means accepting a certain level of risk, and let's be real, all cats get old, infirm, and die, no matter what weight they are. My childhood cat was a super energetic wisp of a thing who got diabetes and joint pain, my college years cat was an enormous overweight fluff and then enormous muscular fluff who died suddenly of leukemia - it's roulette of the worst kind but I have two cats right now anyway because I love them and my life would be incomplete without at least one feline companion.

In short, you are overthinking this from the angle of should you get this specific cat, and maybe underthinking this from the angle of will you be happier with any cat and all the ups and downs it will bring, or no cat at all.

I want to be clear though, I am like 90% of the time totally on the side of yes get the cat the cat will love you ten times more than you love it you guys will have great times! But I've been witness to some folks who have been incapable of handling their cat's illness and/or demise in anything approaching a healthy way and daaang. Is that gonna be you? Probably not, right? Get the chubby kitty and see what weight she settles into after a couple months in a stable loving home with quality food. A mostly sedentary indoor cat can be comfy on a very low number of calories, so if she turns out to not be a big player you still have things you can try to help stave off joint stress. The thing that slimmed down my giant fluff cat was a feeder ball, because she preferred dry food but gobbled it too fast - it slowed her eating down to a few bits at a time and so she actually felt fuller by the time the food was all gone, and it got her moving for a while every mealtime. Lots of options for you depending on your cat's weirdnesses.
posted by Mizu at 6:31 AM on April 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

If she's been living in a shared room at the shelter with other cats, she's probably been free-fed. Just changing to timed feedings will likely make a world of difference.
posted by shiny blue object at 7:10 AM on April 3, 2017

I've had lots of cats with special needs who lived a long time. Obesity isn't even something I'd think twice about. Please adopt her, she will likely be able to slim down in a less stressful environment with fixed feeding times and regular play.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:16 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anecdotal evidence but I had a cat that was over weight 18 of his 20 years of life. He finally lost weight when he became blind due to an accident and couldn't hunt mice in our barn any more. He had bad arthritis in later years that the vet said may have been due to his weight all his life, burr a heated cat bed and some light medication for the last few years kept him happy. If you have concerns most vets will be happy to answer your questions for you, take him in for a check up when you get him home if you're worried.
posted by wwax at 7:24 AM on April 3, 2017

She might slim down, and she might not. It's worthwhile to try by feeding her high quality wet food and giving her lots of opportunity for exercise. Some cats just can't seem to lose weight, but that doesn't mean that this cat won't have a good life in your home. The nice thing about cats is that they are completely unaware of any human hang-ups about weight, so being overweight doesn't upset them that much.
posted by Kurichina at 7:29 AM on April 3, 2017

I was told not to put my fat cat on a diet, as the vet thought the risks of dieting were worse than the benefits of being slender. Consult a vet, and don't impose your feelings about weight on a pet.
posted by studioaudience at 7:40 AM on April 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

Being an only cat will make it so much easier for you to help her lose weight. The number one obstacle for cats on a diet is the other kitties in the house.

The feeder ball mentioned upthread is a great idea for combining food with exercise, and you can feed her regular portions of delicious, low carbohydrate wet food instead of free-feeding kibbles.

And believe me, Kitty doesn't need a ton of space to get exercise if you find toys that she likes! Automatic toys like this one can be fun for when you can't be right there to play with her.

The best thing about adopting adult cats is getting to know all their little idiosyncrasies and personality traits and that have already formed. And it goes without saying that the best thing you can do for Kitty is to post her picture here.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:41 AM on April 3, 2017

Yes, as studioaudience says, you should consult a vet about whether or not losing weight should be a priority. I assumed that went without saying, but since I've had cats all my life I probably shouldn't make assumptions.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:45 AM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

If she's only been on dry food, you must move to wet slowly or risk serious issues.
posted by idb at 8:00 AM on April 3, 2017

Yes, to second studioaudience: you should only try to slim down your cat with consultation with a vet. Cats are more sensitive to reductions in diet than humans are, and you can do serious damage to a cat's health if you restrict their food intake too much.

You should adopt this kitty. Unless she's morbidly obese, you're talking about a broad, statistical tendency in large populations of cats. Individual variation is so high that you just can't make really meaningful predictions for this cat. I have had (and known) plenty of pudgy cats that lived long, heatlhy lives.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:06 AM on April 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

We had a comically overweight cat who lived fifteen years. In the interest of full medical disclosure, he had severe megacolon when he was about five and had to have part of his colon removed, but that's a rare condition and I don't think it was related to obesity (and he lived another ten years with no further complications). In our case, diets backfired because even a 26-pound cat can get on the counter if he's hungry enough. If I could go back in time and change anything about his life, I would have been more proactive in giving him regular play.

One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes very fat cats have trouble reaching their nether regions for grooming purposes, so you may occasionally need to go back there with a damp washcloth. Good times.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:10 AM on April 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Adopt her! (My overweight cat agrees.)
posted by SisterHavana at 8:21 AM on April 3, 2017

It's entirely possible that she is a chubster because her former owner overfed her, or she was given a lot of human food tidbits.

I used to volunteer at the SPCA, and there was once an incredible fattypuff cat there who seriously could have been used as a footstool, she was so big and square. She couldn't groom herself because she was so round, so we volunteers used to take it in turns to go in and brush her.

She had lived with an elderly person who doted on her and fed her all kinds of delightful treats and probably overfed her as well -- if your cat keeps meowing for food, you'll feed her to shut her up, right? So this cat was "overloved," as we call it.

Once this cat you've fallen in love with is under your roof and is adjusting to a new life and your food regime, I'm sure her weight will drop.
posted by vickyverky at 9:33 AM on April 3, 2017

My wife's two cats - which she has had since they were kittens - turned into absolute tubbos, both breaking the 20+ pound marker. She made a conscious choice to change their diets and got them back both to healthier weights. They both just turned 17 years old.

In other words: go get that cat. A few extra pounds isn't an immediate death sentence.
posted by komara at 10:11 AM on April 3, 2017

Yeah, if your cat loses weight too fast it can get very sick. Also, do let her settle in for a while before you change her diet at all; even if the shelter food is _terrible_, nutritionally, keep her on that until she feels mostly at home.

Of course, if you decide to get a different cat, that's completely OK. Do respect your own feelings of attachment, though. If it won't ruin your life to get this cat, then go ahead and love her. Love is worth a little risk, right? You can handle it.
posted by amtho at 10:26 AM on April 3, 2017

Oh, also: I've heard that cats are sensitive to food scarcity/availability in a new environment. Mostly I've heard this as an explanation for why adding new cats to a place worries them so much, so I'm extrapolating a bit here.

Still, it's probably a good idea to let her feel "not hungry" for a while in her new home -- in fact, having food right there when you open the carrier could help.

If she starts worrying that there's never enough food, then she could become a bit obsessed with it and stressed in general. So, reducing portions gradually, in low-stress ways, seems like something to strive for.
posted by amtho at 11:01 AM on April 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Regarding putting a cat on a diet, it depends on what you want. What's best for you or what is best for the cat?

A cat at a lower body weight will absolutely have a better life in the long term - they will be healthier and able to exercise more vigorously with less strain on their joints and bones. They will be more active, explore more and try to go vertical in your place.

On the other hand

A fat cat is way more peaceful for the owners. Less likely to get into trouble. Less demanding. More sleepy. Less likely to wake you up early.

There is a reason why most pet cats are overweight.
posted by srboisvert at 12:39 PM on April 3, 2017

Response by poster: Wow, thank you all for sharing your thoughts! We are going to fill out the adoption application tonight. If all goes well hopefully I'll have a photo or two to post later this week.
posted by oiseau at 1:41 PM on April 3, 2017 [8 favorites]

Great! One comment is that while people have given some generic advice, I'd highly recommend taking your new cat to a vet and getting some more specific advice (or maybe the shelter can help with this, although establishing a relationship with a vet is nice in case of future emergencies).

For example, while lots of people recommended against dry food, my on-a-diet cat is on dry food at vet's recommendation due to other issues. The vet can also give you some idea of how much to limit food safely.

The main problem I've had with overweight cats is not health but behavior. Not in a terrible way, just they really _want_ to eat more than I should let them, which can lead to noisy/attention-seeking behavior at inconvenient times :) (Or just me feeling guilty because cat is giving me the "I'm soooooo hungry. Why are you so mean? I just want a little food, is that too much to ask for such a wonderful pet?" look.)
posted by thefoxgod at 1:56 PM on April 3, 2017

We had a big fatty lovable cat we inherited when my Mom died but he had teeth issues that meant he had to go on wet food. Lo and behold, he dropped the extra weight. And he barely moved if he didn't have to, so it wasn't exercise.

You can do it.
posted by emjaybee at 2:54 PM on April 3, 2017

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