Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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No Crash Diets for Your Fat Cat

Pet Column for the week of March 1, 1999

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Sarah Probst
Information Specialist

"Hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver syndrome, is an accumulation of fat in the liver
and is a very common and very serious occurrence in fat cats who are not eating. This
disease is deadly if not addressed, but almost always treatable and curable when presented
to a veterinarian in its early stages," Dr. Howard Gelberg, veterinarian and professor formerly with the
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, explains to me and other
second-year veterinary students in the special pathology lab.

"Why would a fat cat not be eating?" he asks us, and we start throwing out ideas: "Bad
teeth." "Intestinal blockage." "Stress."

"Sure, all good answers, but not the most common reason," Dr. Gelberg says.

"Owner goes on vacation." "Hairball."

"Sure, but think about it. Cats like their food because they can smell it. So if a cat can't
smell its food, it's not going to eat. What could cause a cat to lose its sense of smell?" he

There is a brief silence. "Upper respiratory infection?" a students pipes.

"Absolutely. Cats get upper respiratory infections all the time. So you have a fat cat that
gets the flu and can't smell. The cat stops eating. What is the body's reaction going to be?"

"Mobilization of fat to the liver," says one.

"Right. You have anorexia in the presence of abundant fat stores. The body will try to feed
itself by moving body fat stores to the liver to be converted into fuel. The liver can't handle
this fatty saturation and liver dysfunction ensues," explains Dr. Gelberg. "This doesn't
happen to thin cats. They don't have enough fat available to mobilize and create this

I have a fat cat. She came to me nice and slim from the humane society, but her slothful life
as a veterinary student's pet has made her look like a Christmas tree when she sits. We've
been working on her weight. She's on a low-fat diet, and I encourage exercise with her
toys, but I admit, if she got an upper respiratory infection and stopped eating, she would be
a prime candidate for hepatic lipidosis. If I didn't know this, I might make the mistake many
owners do.

"Many owners do notice that their cat is not eating, but they think, 'That's all right, Tiger
needs to lose a few pounds,' " says Dr. Gelberg. "And then after a week or two of no
appetite, they start to get worried and finally bring their animal to the veterinarian. If they
don't bring their pet in and the cat gets hepatic lipidosis, death is likely."

"So what do you think a veterinarian can do for a cat with hepatic lipidosis?" he asks us.

"Tube feed?" a students asks.

"Yes, you can hospitalize the cat and feed it through a tube. You could also encourage
eating by buying a smelly cat food-something your cat could sniff through its cold. Smearing
some food on a paw is another means of encouragement. Even if your cat will not eat, it will
still clean itself," Dr. Gelberg suggests.

After your cat has recovered from hepatic lipidosis or before your fat cat gets hepatic
lipidosis, you should put your cat on a veterinarian-recommended low-calorie diet.
Encourage exercise via catnip or toys. Monitor your cat's intake carefully in times of stress
(for example, the addition of a new pet). And weigh your cat weekly to make sure it is
losing weight.

By slimming Tiger down, you could save him from hepatic lipidosis and other
life-threatening diseases related to cat obesity.

For more information, contact your local veterinarian.