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Cinder-Block is the reluctant poster cat for a pet obesity epidemic, vets say

A video of a fat cat named Cinder-Block sitting still at the edge of an underwater treadmill went viral after her veterinarian posted it to Facebook. (Video: Brita Kiffney, DVM, DABVP via ViralHog)

The video of Cinder-Block the obese cat went viral last weekend, a few days after her veterinarian posted it to Facebook: Sitting still at the edge of an underwater treadmill, the 22-pound feline moves one wet gray paw with the belt and meows plaintively to an off-screen vet tech encouraging her feeble workout.

Cinder-Block’s instant fan base had a word for her: relatable.

Veterinarians had another: typical.

“We see cats that fat every day. Every day,” said Brita Kiffney, an associate veterinarian at Northshore Veterinary Hospital in Bellingham, Wash., where Cinder — the cat’s name before the clinic added “Block” in a nod to her stoutness — has resided since being relinquished by her owner two weeks ago.

An obese gray cat achieved online fame after refusing to workout. Her vet says she’s one of about 60 percent of U.S. cats that are overweight and obese. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t see 25-pound cats,” said Ernie Ward, a veterinarian who founded the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, adding that the Cinder-Block video keeps popping up in his text messages. “Nowadays, 20 pounds is the new normal.”

America has a fat cat problem. A fat pet problem, really: More than 50 percent of dogs are overweight or obese, according to estimates by Ward’s group. But it’s worse among cats. Ward, who surveys vet clinics every year, found that 60 percent of cats qualified last year — and of those, more than half are obese. Cinder is just one among the masses, and their numbers are rising.

Veterinarians have been talking about this for years, and they say they cringe every time a roly-poly cat becomes an Internet superstar. Part of the problem, in their view, is that we see Cinder-Blocks as cute or, at least, funny.

“When I see that cat, I don’t see the excess fat. I don’t see the size. I just see the disease,” said Ward, who characterized the cartoon cat Garfield as his field’s biggest enemy. “He’s eating pasta! By making light of that, we’re saying it’s not so bad — a fat cat is a happy cat.”

But fat pets live shorter lives. A cat as large as Cinder-Block is highly likely to develop diabetes, Ward said. Like many overweight pets, she has arthritis, which can make jumping to the floor or even walking painful.

How did we get here? Not knowing what a healthy cat body looks like is one way, veterinarians say. Showing love through treats — and a perpetually full bowl — is another. U.S. cats are more likely to live exclusively indoor lifestyles than they used to, so they’re not pouncing and chasing and climbing as much. They are also skilled at demanding food, often at dawn.

Deborah Linder, a veterinarian who heads the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals, recalled working with a personal trainer who owned a 20-pound cat. She asked what he would tell the cat if it were a client.

“He said, ‘Oh, I’d make him do kitty pushups and make him cut out the calories. But, well, she meows at me,’ ” Linder said. “That really hit home for me that this is much more about the relationship people have with their pets.”

Other factors can contribute to pet weight gain, veterinarians say. Genetics play a role. Hypothyroidism, a rare ailment, can cause cats to pack on pounds. Even an animal’s microbiome may be involved, Ward said.

Incredibly, Cinder-Block is slimmer than she used to be — at one point, she waddled about at 25 pounds, Kiffney said. Her previous owner had multiple pets and struggled to keep Cinder-Block’s feedings separate from those of her slimmer feline housemates.

Her girth eventually was challenging for the owner to manage: “She’s so fat that she gets poop stuck to her bottom,” requiring frequent wiping, Kiffney said. The cat was also getting regular urinary tract infections, causing her to urinate in the house.

Cinder-Block will stay for a while at Northshore — in a room “bigger than a bedroom,” all to herself, Kiffney said — as she works toward her goal weight of 12 pounds. She’ll eventually live with the office manager.

Meanwhile, she’s getting more famous as fans follow her weight-loss journey. Northshore’s Facebook page had just under 2,000 followers before the treadmill vide. Now this animal hospital in a small city has more than 15,000, and its Instagram account has 42,000 — three times as many as Cedars-Sinai, a large human hospital in the megalopolis of Los Angeles.

Cinder-Block’s regimen involves prescription weight-loss food and low-key play. Kiffney said they use the underwater treadmill — one of only two in the county — because it reduces the weight on her joints. The clinic has taken some flak on social media for “torturing” a cat with water, Kiffney said, but she said she thinks Cinder-Block is the rare kitty that can cope.

“She has a really placid attitude,” she said. “She’s just easy going, friendly, like a dog when you talk to her. She’ll flop on her side so you can pet her belly.”

The treadmill is typically used for dogs, Kiffney said, though one other feline patient, a cat named Fatty, also relied on it to drop pounds. (His video didn’t go viral.)

Kiffney said she hopes Cinder-Block can become a sort of poster cat for the pet obesity epidemic. She’s getting lots of questions from people with fat cats, and she advises that they talk to their veterinarians and follow their advice, plus conduct regular weight checks.

Linder suggests using food puzzles, which make cats work for food, and always “feeding to the ideal weight” — when consulting the chart on the back of a bag of kibble, choose the amount that correlates with what the cat should weigh, not what it currently weighs.

When it comes to cats, reducing food is much more important than exercise, Ward said. He warned that weight-loss is slow-going — usually only a half-pound a month at best.

At that rate, Cinder-Block will need nearly two years to reach her goal. So far, she’s lost three-tenths of a pound, Kiffney said. A more recent video shows the cat walking on the treadmill with a tad more vigor.

“We’re still working on her enthusiasm for that,” Kiffney said.

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