Many people feed their cats treats on a regular basis, much to the delight of their feline companions. If you feed an occasional treat as a training reward or as a token of affection, you probably will not add too many calories to your cat’s diet. If you feed treats frequently throughout the day, offer human food to your cat, or if you are guilty of opening the treat bag and pouring a small pile for her to snack on, you could be altering your cat’s overall caloric intake drastically and putting her at risk for obesity-related health problems. Just as with human children, our pets rely on us to make healthy eating decisions for them.
Types of Cat Treats
There is no shortage of cat treat varieties available on the market today. In addition to being available in a variety of shapes, textures and flavors, cat treats are also heavily marketed to consumers with associated health claims such as reducing hairballs, cleaning teeth, or lowering anxiety. Dr. Deborah Linder, a board certified veterinary nutritionist who heads the Obesity Clinic for Animals at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, warns pet parents to be realistic when it comes to health claims and treats: “Any product that claims to treat or cure a disease is strictly regulated. Therapeutic diets can be used under the supervision of a veterinarian, but I would be wary of treats that imply that they are intended to manage diseases.” She notes that any dry kibble or treat can claim dental benefits because of the mechanical or abrasive action that happens when they’re eaten. But only those treats or diets with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal have been tested and shown to retard plaque and tartar. Because treats should be fed only on a limited basis, they should not be expected to deliver clinically important health benefits to your cat.
Human Food and Your Cat
In addition to feeding commercially available treats, many people like to offer human food to their cats. Humans eat a diverse diet and many of our foods are extremely high in fat and oils, which can cause gastrointestinal disturbances in cats. Sharing food with our cats also can lead to undesirable behaviors such as begging, climbing on counters, and rummaging through garbage. Cats given milk may also experience gastrointestinal upset; most cats are lactose intolerant. Healthy treat options for cats may include small portions of catnip, or cat grass.
Tracking Calories from Treats
The calorie counts of a limited number of cat treats are available on the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention website, but calorie count information for pet foods is not as readily available as it is for human foods. Dr. Linder says that this will improve: Beginning in 2015, pet food manufacturers will be required to include calorie counts on their packaging, although this regulation will not cover treats. The average 10-pound cat has a daily calorie requirement of around 275 calories, although this can vary by individual. Discuss your cat’s specific requirements with your veterinarian. Most cats should consume less than 30 calories a day in the form of treats, including any human foods you might be sharing with them. A 2-inch slice of cooked chicken breast, for example, is about 27 calories.
Obesity and Cats
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, an estimated 58 percent of cats are overweight or obese. The association also reports that as many as 45 percent of guardians of overweight or obese pets are unaware that their animals have a weight problem. They offer a “pet weight translator” to help put the problem in perspective for pet parents (check with your veterinarian for specific ideal weight amounts for your pets). Extra weight can directly impact life expectancy and overall health of our feline friends, and Dr. Linder works to educate clients about the consequences of obesity in pets. She lists diabetes and feline lower urinary tract disease as the most common medical consequences of obesity in cats, among other threats. “Even if clinical signs are not apparent,” Linder says, “obese patients have higher anesthetic risks and medical costs, and will require special consideration when dosing medications with narrow safety ranges.” She recommends annual veterinary checkups for your cat so that your veterinarian can track changes in weight and overall body condition from year to year.