By Cynthia Minter, DVM
Has your cat been getting just a bit bigger every year? Is your veterinarian starting to describe your cat as “overweight” or even “obese” at the yearly check-up?
It’s estimated that almost six out of ten cats in the United States are overweight or obese. Cats who are overweight are at increased risk of a number of health conditions, including diabetes, arthritis, and lower urinary tract disease. Overweight cats also struggle to groom themselves thoroughly and can have a matted or greasy hair coat, particularly over their rump (the hardest place for a chubby cat to reach). While getting your cat to lose weight may seem like a daunting task, a few lifestyle changes often can have a huge benefit. These five tips will get you on track to help your kitty get in shape.
1. Set a weight loss goal and track your progress.
The first step in getting your overweight kitty back to a healthy weight is determining what that healthy weight should be. Your veterinarian can help assess your cat’s current body condition score (BCS) and determine their ideal body weight.
Once you have a target weight, begin tracking your cat’s progress toward that goal. Cats on a weight
loss plan should be weighed at least monthly; once weekly is ideal. You can use a regular bathroom scale. Weigh yourself, then weigh yourself holding your cat and subtract your own weight from the total (some scales will even do this math for you). Track your cat’s weekly weigh-ins and bring this log every time you visit your veterinarian to discuss your cat’s progress. Ideally your cat should lose no more than 1% of their body weight each week, as faster weight loss than this can be dangerous to their health.
Graphic courtesy of American Association of Feline Practitioners
2. Feed fewer calories.
Just like people, cats need to cut calories in order to lose weight, so you will need to reduce their caloric intake. A common misconception is that cats don’t need to be fed regular meals like dogs do – that they can have constant access to a bowl of food and regulate themselves. But the majority of cats don’t have such self-restraint, and continuous feeding has contributed to the high rate of obesity in pet cats. Try to measure how much you are currently feeding (how big is “one scoop”?) and bring this information to your veterinarian when you discuss your cat’s weight loss plan. Your veterinarian will help determine how many calories your pet is currently eating and what their initial caloric goal should be. Calorie reduction should always be done under the supervision of a veterinarian to avoid rapid or unsafe weight loss.
3. Feed a canned diet.
Canned cat food is often lower in calories compared to the same amount of dry food. The increased water content in canned food helps your cat feel full and satisfied after meals without adding extra calories. Feeding the canned version of your pet’s current diet can be an easy way to decrease the calories the cat is receiving. Being able to feed a larger amount of food for the same number of calories can reduce begging behavior as well.
4. Switch to a low-calorie or prescription weight loss diet.
While pets who are just a bit overweight can sometimes lose weight by simply eating less of their current diet, pets who are very overweight may need to eat a diet specifically designed for weight loss. There are a number of over-the-counter cat foods that are mildly calorie-reduced and may be labeled as “low-calorie,” “light,” or “healthy weight.” These may be a good starting point. However, cats who are significantly overweight or obese may benefit from a prescription weight loss diet. These diets are specially formulated to be low in calories, high in fiber, and nutritionally complete, even when fed in very restricted amounts. These special weight loss diets need to be prescribed by your veterinarian. If making a diet change, always transition gradually from the old diet to the new diet by mixing in slightly more of the new diet each day to avoid stomach upset.
5. Get up and move!
While managing your cat’s caloric intake is going to be the most important part of their weight loss journey, increasing physical activity will help them build muscle and raise their resting metabolic rate. Consider providing toys that encourage activity, such as laser pointers or feather toys. Attempt to have at least one active play session with your cat daily. Make sure your home has vertical space for your cat to explore, such as a cat tree or cat shelving. If your cat enjoys the outdoors, short walks with a leash and harness may increase their physical activity and provide mental enrichment. If outdoor walks are part of your cat’s fitness plan, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about using a monthly parasite prevention product.
Making sure your cat is at an appropriate weight is one of the most important things you can do for their health. Frequent rechecks and conversations with your veterinarian are important when implementing your cat’s diet plan to ensure that weight loss is occurring safely and effectively.