Notes From the Field

Karina Paape's picture

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), pet obesity in the U.S. continues to rise, affecting nearly 59% of cats and 54% of dogs last year. These percentages equate to an estimated 41.9 million dogs and 50.5 million cats. Thats a lot of fat cats and dogs sharing our households!

Over-feeding is the number one culprit behind these staggering statistics, specifically the free-feeding of dry food and generous distribution of treats and table scraps. Yes, we want our pets to be happy, but at what cost?

“Obesity is a disease that kills millions of pets prematurely, creates immeasurable pain and suffering, and costs pet owners tens of millions of dollars in avoidable medical costs,” says APOP’s founding veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward. Similar to their human counterparts, our pet’s excessive body fat increases the risk of preventable health issues, such as diabetes, urinary tract disease, and kidney disease. These issues can shorten your pet’s lifespan.

So why do we let our pets get fat? For one thing, we have a hard time recognizing that we ourselves are overweight or obese. So how is the pet owner expected to critically assess their fur-baby’s weight and reach the conclusion that they need to get weight off their cat or dog?

The APOP survey found that only four-percent of pet owners recognized that their pet was overweight in the first place. This is especially true among cat owners who have been de-sensitized to what a healthy cat should look like by the image of Garfield, the always-hungry, orange tabby cartoon cat. This makes it hard to look at our pudgy feline and recognize that “Morris” or “Muffin” is overweight and at risk of a shortened lifespan.

An especially insidious consequence of those extra pounds and pockets of fat is diabetes. While diabetes is a common and manageable disease, it is a death sentence for many cats. I learned this first hand recently and was devastated to lose my nine-year-old, 15-pound Maine Coon cat “Tanner” to diabetes.

My failure to note that Tanner was 2-3 pounds overweight ultimately cost him his life. And, of course, I blame myself. He wasn’t helping himself to the food and treats, I was making them available around-the-clock and on-demand. I of course loved Tanner to the moon and back and never meant to harm him. His size and personality made him a giant marshmallow of fur and purrs who didn’t give a hint of illness. But when he stopped eating and started hiding I knew we were in trouble.

Since cats are particularly good at masking pain and sickness to ward off predators, it is often too late to safely intervene when a cat is finally diagnosed with diabetes. That’s what happened with Tanner. His big, orange feline self always seemed happy and content. He followed me everywhere like a dog, greeting me at the door and taking up the arm of the sofa, my desk, and my bed depending on the time of day or night.

There were no signs of illness, pain, or discomfort. He still loved to be brushed and petted and kept the other three cats in my household off the bed at night. His other trick to ensure that he had me all to himself was to position himself in the opening of the sliding glass door through which my cats entered and exited the lanai. I referred to him as my “little thug” because of these bullying tendencies, but when I look back on these standoffs it was really quite flattering. Obviously Tanner considered me to be his “person” as much as I considered him to be my cat!

Tanner and I were merrily going about our lives together. I’d be gone most of the day, and frequently overnight also to take care of other people’s pets. When I was home Tanner expected treats starting around 6 p.m. and breakfast shortly after 5 a.m. In fact, if I wasn’t out of bed fast enough I’d open my eyes to see him sitting quietly and staring at me from two feet away. I thought of him as my “alarm” kitty!

I noticed he didn’t get up on the bed for two nights in a row and one morning he didn’t even bother to show up for breakfast. I was concerned when I found him hiding in my closet. I knew something serious was going on. When a cat stops eating and starts hiding it usually means they have gone off to die. But how could this be? Tanner was only nine years old - I expected him to be around for at least 10 more years!

I got him to the vet within the next 24 hours. The vet examined him and found a couple of nuisance issues: fleas, yeast infection of his ear, and a bad tooth. She was convinced, however, that these issues did not account for his hiding and not eating. We talked about the fact that Tanner was overweight and most likely had diabetes. I was sure she was wrong and that he just needed his tooth pulled and antibiotics for his ear infection and probably a strict diet to get two or three pounds off his 15-pound body. Then we’d take care of the dental problems and return to our merry life together.

When the vet called me 36 hours later with the diagnosis of diabetes I was upset. When she told me to bring him in as soon as possible I was alarmed. The vet wanted to do another blood test and get a urine sample. She was afraid he had a fatty liver and ketones in his urine which would turn bad news into horrible news.

Tanner and I hung around the vet’s office for a couple of hours on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend awaiting the results of the additional blood work and urinalysis. In the meantime the vet outlined the journey ahead. The first step would be to get his diabetes under control. This would entail trial and error with insulin dosages as well as regular blood sugar tests. The next task would be to pull his bad tooth and address his gingivitis. The procedure would be made trickier by the fact that she’d be using anesthesia on a diabetic cat.

Once the diabetes and dental issues were under control, I’d have to put Tanner on a rigid diabetes and weight loss diet. This would be very hard to do with three other cats in the household, all of whom were given 24 hour access to food. I’d have to serve two meals a day, after each of which Tanner would get an injection of insulin, then a blood sugar test.

But given the fact that Tanner was dehydrated and not eating it would be near impossible to manage his diabetes. And given that we were going into a three day holiday weekend I’d have to administer subcutaneous fluids to keep him hydrated. It was also likely that the insulin regimen would cause him to “crash” and I’d be rushing him off to the nearby emergency vet clinic. This was not the life I wanted for Tanner.

He’d be a “patient” for the rest of his days and his quality of life would never be what it had been. I’d be chasing after him morning and night to give him insulin injections then try to prick a blood vessel on his ear to test his blood sugar. He wouldn’t get treats anymore and would probably hate the high-protein diabetic food he’d have to eat. And food access would be highly regulated.

My boy was not that kind of cat. He was more of a street cat, a feral kitten I’d trapped in 2008 for a local no-kill cat shelter. After fostering him for seven weeks I ended up adopting him. But he was more of a cat’s cat than a pet. It was years before he enjoyed being handled. He bonded with my other rescue kitties and didn’t have much interest in human contact. Taking all of these things into consideration I made the devastating decision to escort Tanner to the Rainbow Bridge so as not to prolong his suffering. It was the third time in six months I’d had to bid farewell to one of my cats and send them on their journey across the Rainbow Bridge.

I mentioned earlier that I blamed myself for Tanner’s diabetes. However, the vet reminded me that he had not manifested the traditional symptoms: loss of weight, increased appetite, increased thirst, increased urination. His diabetes had turned into the often fatal condition called ketoacidosis indicated by loss of appetite, lethargy, weakness, and dehydration. His hiding was his way of telling me he didn’t want heroic measures implemented to prolong his life. I wanted to remember him as the feral ball of orange fur I’d brought home in a trap to foster; I wanted to remember him as the kitten who stole my heart!

So just what is diabetes? Diabetes is a complex disease in which a cat’s body either doesn't produce or doesn’t properly use insulin. During digestion, the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins that are consumed in the diet are broken down into smaller components that can be utilized by cells in the body. One component is glucose, a fuel that provides the energy needed to sustain life.

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and is responsible for regulating free flow of glucose from the bloodstream and into the cells of the body. When insulin is deficient or ineffective, the cat’s body starts breaking down fat and protein stores to use as alternative energy sources. As a result, the cat eats more yet loses weight. Additionally, the cat develops high levels of sugar in the bloodstream which is eliminated in urine. In turn, sugar in the urine leads to excessive urination and thirst.

While diabetes can affect any cat, whether their weight is normal or excessive, it most often occurs in older, obese cats; male cats are more commonly afflicted than female. In a future blog I’ll discuss how we should be feeding our cats so as to optimize their health and protect them from the leading causes of feline death: diabetes, kidney disease, and urinary tract infections

Karina Paape's picture
About Karina Paape
Karina grew up in Annapolis, Maryland and is a full-time, professional pet sitter. Karina wrote a column about cats for the "Coastal Breeze" from 2012-2016, all of which can be viewed on this site under "Naomi's Blog."