(Q) Six-year-old Delilah is an indoor cat who lives in the lap of luxury and is also rather overweight. I went to see my vet with her two weeks ago when Delilah started to mess on the carpet instead of using her litter tray. Delilah came home with the all-clear from a health perspective, except for her weight issue. I need help in getting her to be less of couch potato as well as looking at her diet. Please can you assist?
(A) Behaviourist Peter Neville says: Obesity is an increasing problem with indoor cats – mostly brought on by the lack of opportunities to be active combined with a dietary calorific intake that exceeds the cat’s metabolic requirements. It’s a simple equation – more energy taken in than going out equals weight gain.
An indoor cat simply doesn’t get much of the energy-using excitement that goes with exploring a garden territory, nor use as much energy to patrol the smaller territory. Food is provided on a regular basis and so sometimes the most active he’ll be all day is when he’s walking to his bowl.
Some indoor cats become ‘comfort eaters’ due to the lack of mental and physical stimulation. The extra weight then restricts the cat’s activities even more as he gets breathless or feels uncomfortable moving around too much or too quickly – so often he soon doesn’t want to play with his owner either.
Missing this pleasurable activity he wants to eat even more to compensate to try and maintain a ‘normal mood’ state.
This was exactly what had happened to Delilah. Andy had brought her home from a shelter when she was nine weeks old.
He couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to his new best friend, and he felt the best way to keep her safe was to keep her indoors.
Unfortunately, he was away from 7am until 4pm with his job, which meant that Delilah was left to her own devices. Initially she would play with Andy whenever he came home, but shortly after her third birthday, Delilah seemed to lose interest in play. This coincided with her having become noticeably ‘podgy’.
It seemed that Delilah spent most of her time either asleep or sitting at the window sill looking outside.
When she first started having ‘accidents’, Andy put it down to her being unhappy with him since he had just been away on a short business trip. However, when these accidents continued to happen for more than a week, he decided to take Delilah to the vet.
Delilah’s litter tray was kept upstairs in his bathroom. She had messed in the dining room on a rug – it seemed that she had simply become too overweight to climb the stairs to get to the bathroom! She would use the tray when Andy had carried her upstairs and, of course, during the night, when she was already close by. However, the exertion of climbing stairs to use a tray with a full bladder was simply too much for her. So, my first recommendation was to provide a second litter tray for her downstairs.
I explained that Delilah was eating because she had nothing else to do. By removing her one food bowl and instead feeding her smaller portions throughout the day, we could encourage her to be more active by making her spend time searching out her meals.
I asked Andy to divide Delilah’s new weight-loss diet (recommended by her vet) into a daily allowance into portions of no more than ten kibbles. These were to be placed in small bowls hidden throughout the house, initially just downstairs until she had lost some weight and might be more willing to tackle the stairs on her own again. Andy was to hide the bowls in a different place every day to prevent Delilah from learning the new pattern. Searching would not only give her mental stimulation, but would also make her physically more active! In the evening she would ‘earn’ the rest of her daily ration through playing with food dispensing toys and from rewards earned for playing with her owner.
Apparently, Delilah used to love chasing fishing rod-style toys, so I suggested using these interactive-style toys again.
Andy was quite anxious about letting his cat out, but I felt it would be good for her to have the opportunity to explore outside. He had already trained Delilah to walk on a harness and lead for ease of handling on trips to the vet, so this was a real bonus. I recommended a longer lead for walks outside in the garden to allow Delilah to have some freedom to explore.
My, my, my Delilah!
At my next visit, Andy was proud to show off an already much slimmer Delilah! Initially she hadn’t been sure about having to search for her food, but after she figured it out, she quickly began exploring the house to find her meals.
At this point Andy confessed that he was still feeding Delilah titbits from his dinner plate. After further discussion, he gave me his word that that he would stop this habit in order to help Delilah lose more weight.
Unfortunately, despite Andy’s best efforts, Delilah seemed reluctant to play, preferring to passively watch the toy being whizzed around for 15 minutes or so in front of her!
I had taken along a feather on a cord and wand dangly cat toy and began to encourage Delilah to play. I knew she would figure it out – she had just forgotten how, so I had to help her to remember this skill. It took quite a while – but after 20 minutes of me twitching the wand back and forth, swishing it around corners and flicking it just out of Delilah’s reach, she eventually got so excited that she couldn’t help herself – she lashed out with a paw and deftly caught the feather! As a reward we gave her a small piece of chicken (a ‘legal’ low fat occasional treat!).
Delilah’s interest was now definitely aroused and I managed to get her to chase after the toy for over five minutes before she ran out of energy. I showed Andy how to use the wand toy to encourage Delilah to play, and explained that the chicken should be used sparingly as an initial reward, and to use her weight loss kibble as a reward.
What happened next?
Andy emailed me ten days later: “I can’t describe how pleased I am with Delilah. She has lost almost 2kg in a month, and my vet is thrilled! She’s more active now and we just love our daily walks in the garden. I have even taken the lead off, and she just meanders around where I can see her and she comes when I call her to go back inside.
“I must also thank you for showing me how to play with her. We both love this part of our daily routine. There’s a few pounds more to shed but I’m sure we will soon have Delilah back to her fighting fit weight! Thank you for helping Delilah be a proper cat again and for helping me to be a better owner!”