cats companion animal research

Can pet tech help your cat lose weight?

A newly published study is small, but promising

Being overweight impact a significant number of pet cats — current estimates are that up to 60% of cats are overweight or obese. An overweight cat is at greater risk for medical problems, such as diabetes and joint disease, and will likely face some behavioral challenges as well (such as being able to groom themselves or use a litter box consistently). Despite this epidemic of overweight among pets, cat guardians often do not recognize the problem, and if they do understand that their cat is overweight, they often face difficulties getting their cat to lose weight.

A new study, recently published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, looked at whether the use of technology could out help cats and their owners on a feline weight-loss journey. The researchers worked with local veterinary clinics to recruit 45 cats who met the inclusion criteria: being overweight, with a body condition score (BCS) of 7 to 8 out of 9; indoors-only, otherwise healthy and spayed/neutered; eating a dry food diet; between 1 and 12 years of age; and living in a 2 or 3-cat household.

The cats were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the tech group, and the traditional intervention group. Both groups were given an initial physical examination and placed on a prescription veterinary diet (Hill’s Metabolic). The veterinarians indicated for each owner specifically how much food/calories each cat should receive for safe weight loss.

The tech group was provided with the following equipment: a baby scale, a SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder Connect for each cat, a FitBark activity tracker for each cat, and a Pet Cube treat camera to monitor the cats’ behavior at the feeders. All participants were asked to make sure that at least 90% of each cat’s daily calories were from the prescription diet. Participants were also expected to stick with the study for a period of over three months to assess weight loss.

Unfortunately, as is common to any research with owned cats in the home environment, there was a high drop-out rate. Of the 20 tech cats and the 25 traditional weight loss cats, only 6 tech cats and 9 traditional cats completed the study. Whenever someone asks, “why hasn’t someone studied X, Y, or Z,” I think about how hard it is to get people to sign up and stick with a research program that lasts any length of time (owner “personal issues” were the reasons that 25 cats were removed from the study). With this study, it is also possible that people who were not observing any noticeable weight loss in their cat decided to drop out rather than continue.

With such a small sample remaining, it’s hard to make any strong conclusions about the tech intervention. However, the results did show some promise! Five out of nine cats (55%) in the traditional group lost weight , but ALL of the cats in the tech group lost weight by the end of the study, and they lost MORE weight. The cats eating from the SureFeed also showed more of a grazing pattern (slower, longer meals) by the end of the study. All cat owners reported an increase in their cat’s quality of life during the course of the study, but there was no relationship between weight loss and activity as measured by the FitBark.

Based on feedback from participants, a major challenge in multi-cat households is the “prevention of food stealing between cats.” The SureFeed, which only allows cats with the “correct” microchip to open and access available food, prevents food stealing, and based on the results, may also allow cats to eat with less stress from competition, adjusting their feeding style to something that suits them, rather than just trying to scarf down as much food as quickly as possible. The SureFeed used in this study also has a scale that measures the food, so cat owners could be aware of precisely how many grams of food their cat was receiving at each meal. A previous study showed that weighing food is much more accurate than using a scoop for doling out meals.

Ruby using her SureFeed

I’ve always had cats with a normal BCS, so when my current trio of cats went to the veterinarian for their yearly checkup and I was told they were too chunky, I was a bit disappointed in myself! These were active, 1-year old cats using food puzzles. It can happen to any of us!

Since then, we’ve been on a feline weight-loss journey that has involved technology. I have written before on the importance of weighing your cat: I weigh my cats weekly on a baby scale – they are all trained to get on a scale voluntarily (it helps to put an antiskid mat and a fleece on the scale, and then give them treats). I also use the SureFeed for two of my cats who are more of the grazing/slow feeding type. I’d like to think our catio and daily play sessions have helped too! Between Coriander, Ruby, and Professor Scribbles, we have almost 2 pounds less cat than we did six months ago. It’s been a slow journey, with a little more left to lose.

My own cats’ weight loss journey

All cat owners in the tech group found the pet tech to be helpful, but unfortunately, they all stated that they would not be willing to pay the retail price for the smart feeders or baby scale.

Although the smart feeders are NOT cheap, I’ve found them personally incredibly useful for tracking what my cats are eating and allowing them more control over when they eat. I’ve also had so many clients who can attest to the fact that they are much easier than trying to manage food-stealing in a multi-cat household! In many cases, the investment is well-worth it to have happier, healthier cats (and less stressed humans too).

Reference

Hadar, B. N., Lambrecht, K. J., Poljak, Z., Coe, J. B., Stone, E. A., Verbrugghe, A., & Bernardo, T. M. (2021). A technology-enhanced weight-loss program in multiple-cat households: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X211044412.

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