Even when he was a kitten, Hercules was a big boy. Or, as his people called him, an “unashamedly fat, fat cat.”
“Since the time he was a kitten, he gained weight so astronomically fast,” recalls Erika Kathryn, a health worker in the Toronto area. “I called the vet and just got the general advice to feed him less.
“I’d say, ‘I’m trying, but it’s still expanding vertically and horizontally.'”
That was 13 years ago. Sadly, Hercules passed away just before the Christmas holidays last year, after a lifelong battle with pancreatitis – an unrelated condition. Also sadly, when he crossed that rainbow bridge, he was almost at his fighting weight – 20 pounds. That may sound like a lot for a cat, but Herc, who was part Maine Coon, was very tall. But not long enough to carry 30 pounds, which he somehow managed at his heaviest.
Despite this, he lived an “excellent” life, even becoming an internet sensation after his people began describing his weight loss journey on his personal website, Fat cat Hercules, and social media. Hercules, a self-proclaimed educator for obese cats, had a quarter of a million fans on TikTok.
“What he was famous for was that he was just unashamedly fat,” Kathryn said. “The persona he had online was that he hated his diet and didn’t know why his people weren’t embracing the body positivity movement.”
Herc’s life may have been remarkable, but fat cats are far from uncommon. It is estimated that 50 percent of middle-aged cats in North America are obese. And once they are overweight, it can be very difficult, as Hercules taught, to lose the excess.
The good news is that there may be some hope for a preventative solution, thanks to researchers at the University of Guelph exploring the importance of choline — a micronutrient associated with fatty liver disease.
“It actually started with a collaboration with Marica Bakovic, a nutritional biochemist in the department of human health and nutritional sciences,” explains Adronie Verbrugghe, a professor at the U of G’s Ontario Veterinary College who studies animal nutrition and obesity. “She found that mice with a choline deficiency developed fatty liver and when they supplemented with choline, that fatty liver disappeared.”
Earlier this year, Verbrugghe and Hannah Godfrey, a PhD student in biomedical sciences, published the results of their research on cats, inspired by the mouse study. They found that kittens eating a choline-enriched diet ate less and gained less weight than the control group that ate according to current dietary guidelines. (There are already minimum recommended choline levels — the real question is whether they’re high enough.)
And one of the most exciting things about all of this is that the kittens have been spayed and neutered. As many cat owners know, that’s huge, because that’s when most cats start to gain weight. It’s a hormone thing. And four out of five domestic cats are spayed or neutered, putting them at risk for obesity.
Verbrugghe hopes this is an important step to re-evaluate the nutritional needs of cats.
“The goal of this research,” she explains, “is really to call on the pet food industry to change currently available diets and include higher levels of choline — not just the minimum needed to avoid deficiencies, but an extra volume that would support optimal growth and benefit the fat metabolism.”
However, what about the cats that are already overweight? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that increasing choline will help with weight loss.
“Cats are very tricky when it comes to losing weight,” says Verbrugghe. “If you restrict too many calories, you can cause the mobilization of fats in the body and storage in the liver and that can sometimes lead to hepatic lipidosis.”
Hepatic lipidosis can be a deadly condition in cats, which is one of the key messages Hercules tried to spread with his social media campaign.
“If there’s one thing I can tell people, it’s that if you think your cat needs to go on a diet, you should do it under veterinary supervision,” Kathryn said. “And if your vet doesn’t have the tools to help you with that, get a second opinion. Or a third opinion.
“The last thing you want to do is randomly cut your cat’s food in half and cause a life-threatening condition.”
And of course there is always movement. However, it is difficult to convince a cat to train. Few cats like to walk. Facebook Marketplace is full of never-used cat exercise wheels. Kathryn didn’t even buy one for Hercules because she found it was over the recommended weight for safe wheel use.
“We tried toys and let him chase the laser and all that stuff and it kind of worked when he was younger,” she recalls. “My vet said we could put him in the bath and let him swim. So we put him in the tub and he was so fat he couldn’t float.”
that specific TikTok video got about nine million views. However, Hercules didn’t find it as funny as his fans.
To hear him tell it on Insta, it didn’t even seem healthy. From his point of view, it felt a lot more like “floating, floating murder time.”