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How to help a cat lose weight

How to help a cat lose weight

 

giving a black cat a treat

I know exactly how you feel. You indulge your cat because you love him. You love the joy you know he feels when you offer his favorite treat. You love feeding him because you love taking care of him.

 

But you’re reading this post because you’re afraid you might have “loved” your cat a little too much. You are certainly not alone. In 2018, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that nearly 60% of cats were overweight or obese.[1]

 

What does obese mean in relation to cats? An obese cat is one who is 20% over her ideal weight.[2] So, let’s say your cat should weigh 10 pounds, but instead she weighs 12 pounds. That means she’s 20% overweight. (As a side note, the average weight for a house cat is eight to 10 pounds.)

 

What’s two measly pounds, you say to yourself. That doesn’t sound so bad. But two little pounds on a cat is the same as 30 extra pounds on a person who should be 150 pounds. That’s a lot of extra weight on a tiny cat body.

 

What’s wrong with my cat being a “little” overweight?

 

fat gray cat

Those two pounds mean a whole lot more to your cat than two pounds should mean to anybody.

 

An overweight cat will have less time with you, as obesity shortens a cat’s life. And the time he does have is more likely to be filled with illness and discomfort. If you help your cat lose the extra pounds, you’ll be helping him live a longer, more enjoyable life.

 

You’ll enjoy him more, too! A cat at a healthy weight is more inclined to interact with his human family, to be more energetic, and more playful. When you have “less” cat, you actually end up with “more” cat.

 

Those two little extra pounds above a cat’s ideal body weight puts her at risk for some very serious medical conditions.[3]

 

Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is a condition in which a cat’s body doesn’t produce enough of the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar, or doesn’t use the insulin the way it should. An obese cat is three times more likely to develop diabetes than a normal-weight cat.[4] Diabetes is a very serious disease, which, if untreated, can lead to death.
 
Heart disease. Carrying extra weight puts an extra burden on a cat’s heart and vascular system.
 
Arthritis. Arthritis refers to the wearing-away of cartilage, the cushioning tissue in joints, that normally keeps the ends of bones from rubbing against one another. Extra weight increases the force on a cat’s joints with every step she takes. For the same reason, being obese can also aggravate hip displaysia (a genetically inherited malformation of the head of a cat’s thigh bone) in a cat who is disposed.
 
High blood pressure. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can cause blindness, organ damage, strokes, aneurysms, and even death in cats.[5] The link between hypertension and obesity in cats is not well understood, but scientists know that the disease is more common in overweight cats.
 
Difficulty breathing. Extra fat in the chest and belly means that a cat’s lungs don’t often have the space they need to expand.[6]
 
Skin infections/bladder infections. Overweight cats cannot groom themselves as well as normal-weight cats. They simply can’t reach all their parts! This can lead to skin infections, and even lead to bladder stones or lower-urinary-tract infections, in female cats especially, as bacteria from the anus finds its way inside the vulva.[7]
 
Cancer. We once thought that fat cells were just sitting there, doing nothing. But we now know that fatty tissue is very active, producing inflammatory hormones that can lead to many diseases, including cancer.[8]

 

fat cat lying on the ground next to a cup of coffee

One of the very worst things about obesity in cats is that it makes it easier to overlook serious illness. If a cat is already lazier because he is overweight, a cat owner might not notice the cat is more lethargic than usual. Lethargy would have otherwise been a warning sign that something is terribly wrong.

 

What predisposes my cat to obesity?

 

Not every cat is equally likely to become obese. Here are some factors that make it more likely for a cat to put on too much weight.

 

Being an overweight kitten. A fat cell can become larger or smaller, but it will never go away. Once new fat cells are formed, they are permanent. Cats who are overweight as kittens may have more trouble maintaining and losing weight as adult cats.
 

Being male. Male cats have been shown to put on weight more easily than female cats.[9]
 
Being spayed or neutered. These important surgical procedures do not cause cats to gain weight directly, but they do cause a loss in certain hormones (estradiol and testosterone) and a change in others, like leptin, that affect appetite and the control of blood sugar. These changes, in turn, can cause weight gain.[10]
 
Sedentary lifestyle. Being indoors confers so many advantages on cats. The disadvantage is that some indoor cats don’t get enough exercise and mental stimulation. Boredom can lead to overeating, which can lead to obesity, and the lack of exercise is a missed opportunity to burn calories.
 
Old age. As a cat’s ability to exercise diminishes due to age-related changes, she has less opportunity to burn excess calories, leading to weight gain in many older cats.
 
Free-feeding, as opposed to meal-feeding. Combine boredom with a 24-hour buffet, and what do you have? An overweight cat.

 

How do I know if my cat is overweight?

 

veterinarian weighing a cat on a scale

I am not a veterinarian. You are not a veterinarian. Let your veterinarian tell you whether your cat is overweight or not, and by how much.

 

But there are signs that even everyday cat lovers like us can use to tell whether or not obesity is becoming an issue. Examine your cat’s physique in this way:

 

Run your hands along both sides of your cat. Can you feel ribs beneath a little layer of fat? If so, your cat might be a healthy weight. If you can’t feel ribs due to a thicker layer of fat, it’s probably a sign that your cat is overweight.
 
Look at your cat from the side. If you notice a layer of low-hanging fat at the belly, it could be that your cat is overweight. Do not confuse fat with a cat’s “primordial belly,” an area of loose skin around a cat’s stomach that is a perfectly healthy and normal part of a cat’s anatomy.
 
Run your hands across the spine. You should be able to easily feel the cat’s backbones beneath a layer of fat.
 
Look at your cat from above. Look for a little dip between the ribs and hips that is your cat’s “waist.” If that space bulges instead of narrowing, your cat might be overweight.[11]
 
If you think your cat may have put on a few ounces or pounds, it’s time to visit the vet.

 

Can’t I just put my overweight cat on a diet?

 

No. Non. Nein. Nu. How many ways can I say it? You cannot just put your cat on a diet. You must consult with a veterinarian first.

 

Why? If a person gains too much weight, he can just cut back. No need to involve a professional.

 

overweight beige cat

A cat is not a person. When a cat stops eating, or isn’t eating enough, a terrible and weird thing happens: triglycerides start to accumulate in the cat’s liver cells and very quickly the liver becomes unable to function. The disease that results is called fatty liver disease or hepatic lipidosis. If cat misses his meals for just two days a row, he can die from hepatic lipidosis.[12] It happens that easily and that quickly.

 

That is why you must put a cat on a diet under the supervision of a veterinarian. It’s the only way you can be sure that your cat is losing weight slowly and safely.

 

How much should I feed my cat to help her lose weight?

 

Your veterinarian can help determine a healthy weight for your cat based on his size and build, and can apply a formula to determine the number of calories your cat will require to lose weight safely.

 

Usually, your veterinarian will suggest interim goals. Let’s say your cat weighs 18 pounds and her ideal weight is closer to 10. Your vet may put your cat on a diet with a goal of safely reaching 15 pounds, after which you can all reevaluate.

 

black cat on a scale

Cats need only 20-30 calories per pound of body weight per day.[13] Your vet can look at the nutritional information in the food you are already feeding to help you determine exactly how much your cat should be getting each day to reach her weight-loss goals. Note that cat foods have varying calorie counts, so a half-cup of one formula is not the same as a half-cup of another.

 

Should I consider a veterinary weight-loss diet food?

 

obese calico cat

If your cat needs to lose a significant amount of weight, your vet should work with you to  determine the best weight-loss strategy.

 

Commercial weight-loss diets are available over-the-counter for you to purchase at your convenience. There are also prescription diets that you can only purchase with approval from a vet.

 

The value of a prescription diet, or, really, the value of any commercial cat food, is beyond the scope of this blog post. You should discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each with your vet when deciding what to feed an overweight cat.

 

Different brands and types of prescription diets focus on delivering different advantages to an overweight cat. Purina Proplan OM and Royal Canin Calorie Control, for example, both address the problem of obesity with high-protein, low-carbohydrate formulas.

 

Royal Canin Satiety has a high fiber content which supposedly helps a cat feel fuller and beg less.  

 

overweight tabby cat on a downed tree limb

Hills Prescription Diet Metabolic is formulated with L-carnitine to help cats burn calories more quickly. L-carnitine is a chemical similar to an amino acid that is produced within the cells of a cat’s body.[14] A 2000 study published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine showed that cats on a reduced-calorie diet lost weight at a significantly faster rate when they also received L-carnitine.[15]

 

Only your vet can help you decide if any of these will meet the needs of you and your individual cat.

 

How to introduce a new weight-loss food to your cat

(Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.) 

Should you decide, in conjunction with your veterinarian, to try a new weight-loss food formula, you shouldn’t just plop the new food down in the cat bowl and expect magic.

 

gray tabby eating kibble off the floor

For one thing, some cats really like their food and object to any change. The last thing you want is for your cat to stop eating (see hepatic lipidosis, above) or to develop an aversion to the new food simply because you tried to make the transition too abruptly. A gradual transition to a new food will also prevent gastrointestinal upset and diarrhea.

 

Slowly, slowly, slowly transition your cat to the new food. Give yourself and your cat two to three weeks, or even longer if you’ve got a finicky one, to make the switcheroo.

 

Start by offering a tiny amount of the new diet in a separate bowl. Just let it sit there. It might be sitting for days or even weeks until your cat decides to try a bit. (Obviously, don’t let wet food sit out for longer than a few hours at a time. Provide a fresh “taste” every time you put down a meal of the old food.)

 

Once your cat is eating the new diet, start by mixing ¼ of the new diet with ¾ of the old for two to four days.

 

After that, increase to half and half for another two to four days.

 

Put ¾ of the new food in the bowl, but only ¼ of the old food for the final few days. And finally offer only new food.

 

To make the new diet more appealing, you can try warming it, or adding a probiotic that is also a flavor enhancer like FortiFlora. A bit of juice from a can of salmon or tuna can also encourage a cat to try a new food.

 

How to weigh your cat to see if her weight loss is on track

 

cat on a scale

There are two ways to weigh your cat to keep track of his progress. If you already have a bathroom scale, you can weigh yourself holding the cat on this scale, and then weigh yourself with no cat. The difference is the approximate weight of your cat. Most human scales aren’t accurate to fractions of an ounce, however, so it can be hard to see slow, initial progress this way.

 

If you want to more closely monitor the loss of every ounce, consider investing in a digital pet scale or baby scale. I like this one by Beurer because it doesn’t have a tippy platform and measures in 0.2 oz increments.

 

But don’t obsess over daily weight fluctuations. Weighing a cat monthly is enough. The goal is for a cat to lose only 1-2% of his body weight per week. Remember that faster weight loss can be dangerous.

 

If after a couple of months your cat has not lost much of anything, reconvene with your vet to see what changes need to be made.

 

For your cat to lose weight, you’ll have to change the way you feed

 

white ceramic measuring cup

If you want your cat to lose weight, you must restrict calories. That’s a given. But helping your cat lose weight requires a three-pronged approach: calorie restriction, changing the way you feed, and exercise.

 

To change the way you feed your cat, start with a measuring cup. You may have shaken a bag of Friskies into the bowl before, but those days are over. The only way to be sure that the right number of calories are going into your cat is to know how many you are putting in the bowl. Do not eyeball it.

 

If you’re free feeding, stop free-feeding. Free-feeding works fine for some cats, but if your cat is overweight, it is not working for yours. Some cats will eat out of boredom or just for the fun of eating. (I feel you, cats.)

 

orange cat and blue alarm clock

Were you using a gravity feeder to prevent a kitty alarm clock in the morning? If so, you’ll have to switch it out for a a timed cat feeder like this PETLIBRO model and fill it only with the proper amount of food for a single meal.

 

If your cat is pestering you all day long to be fed, you can break the total number of calories that she should be eating into four to six (or even more) individual meals and feed these several times a day. 

 

Does your cat wake you in the wee hours, demanding food? Make sure that one of his tiny meals is offered right before you go to sleep at night.

 

Does your cat keep you up at night? Read this blog post, “Why does my cat yowl at night?”

 

And consider, too, that sometimes a "hungry" cat is just bored. Try offering affection and playtime in lieu of food.

 

For your cat to lose weight, he’ll need more exercise

 

Exercise is the third prong.

 

man running with a blond dog on trail

Ah, if only you had a dog. You could strap on some running shoes, snap on a leash and off the two of you could go, losing weight together.

 

Cats, if you haven’t noticed, are not dogs. Dogs (and humans) are inclined to exercise – we’re cooperative hunters, while cats are stalkers who expend very little energy in the pursuit of their next meal. They don’t go far from their territory to go hunting, and they don’t go on long chases after their prey. Most wild cats stalk, stalk, stalk, and then put in a quick burst of effort to capture their prey. Then, they nap.

 

So, a cat is never going to be your gym buddy. There are some tricky ways to get cats to exercise. Here are some ideas:

 

Move the food bowl around the house, so the cat always has to walk somewhere to get his next meal. Don’t put the bowl anywhere near his favorite lounging spot. That’s probably how it became his favorite lounging spot in the first place.
 
Use a feeding ball so that the cat has to work to get his food out. This PetSafe FUNKitty Egg Cersizer is a good choice, but if you think the egg shape might be too challenging for your cat, consider a simpler, round one, like the PetSafe SlimCat. Or simply make your own. We put together this video about homemade cat toys and a few of them could be used as a puzzle feeder to slowly dispense a cat’s next meal.
 
Toss your cat’s food to her so she’ll have to chase it at meal times. This obviously only works with dry food!
 
Play chase for 10 minutes twice a day. Use feather toys, laser pointers, and paper or foil balls. Variety is important to keep things interesting for you and your cat.
 
Take your cat on a walk. Yes, you CAN train a cat to go on a walk with you. You’ll need to buy a special harness and leash first. My favorite is this escape-proof harness by CatAboutUSA.

 

 

 

How do I help one cat lose weight in a multi-cat household?

 

There are exactly two ways to deal with issue of a multi-cat household where some cats are on a special diet and some are not.

 

Scottish Fold cat eating from an orange bowl

The cheapest, and possibly easiest thing to do is to separate the cats when feeding. Put each cat in a separate room, provide the meal and give them each 15 or 30 minutes to eat. After that remove the food.

 

If your overweight cat cannot climb, you could also feed the cats at different levels, instead of different rooms: the healthy-weight cats can be fed up high, while the special-diet cat can be fed from a dish on the floor. But this doesn’t prevent the healthy-weight cat from stealing the special-diet food, or carefully measured meal, from his housemate. You’ll have to supervise closely.

 

The only other choice is a commercial feeding station that recognizes your cat’s microchip and only opens the door to the food for the right cat. The only product like this that I am aware of is the SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder. You will have to buy two: one for the cat on the special diet, and one for the other cats, and they are very expensive.

 

(If you haven’t microchipped your cat yet, read this post to find out why you should.)

 

How long will I have to keep my cat on a diet?

 

Most cats will hopefully achieve their goal weight in six to eight months. Some cats lose weight more quickly, while others take more time. Ideally, a cat will lose about 1 pound per month,[16] but remember that speed is not the primary goal.

 

white cat with black patches playing with a toy

And when your cat has finally reached his goal, celebrate! But celebrate with toys and playtime and affection. Obviously, not treats.

 

 

Love Pinterest? Feel free to pin this Pinterest-friendly pin to your boards!

How to help your cat lose weight Pinterest-friendly pin 

 

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] “2018.” Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 12 Mar. 2019, petobesityprevention.org/2018.

 

[2] “Obesity.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 22 May 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/obesity.

 

[3] Williams, Krista, and Ernest Ward. “Creating a Weight Reduction Plan for Cats.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/creating-a-weight-reduction-plan-for-cats.

 

[4] Williams.

 

[5] Kornya, Dr. Matthew. “High Blood Pressure in Cats.” The Cat Clinic, 22 Jan. 2015, www.thecatclinic.ca/cats-meow.php?post=high-blood-pressure-in-cats.

 

[6] “9 Ways Being Overweight Can Hurt Your Cat.” Vetstreet, 1 Apr. 2015, www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/9-ways-being-overweight-can-hurt-your-cat.

 

[7] “5 Health Risks of an Obese Cat.” Care First Animal Hospital, 9 Apr. 2019, www.carefirstanimalhospital.com/news-events/5-health-risks-obese-cat/.

 

[8] Williams, Krista, and Robin Downing. “Obesity in Cats.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/obesity-in-cats.

 

[9] Öhlund, Malin, et al. “Overweight in Adult Cats: a Cross-Sectional Study.” Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, BioMed Central, 19 Jan. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5775588/.

 

[10] “Does Neutering Cause Pets to Gain Weight?” Diamond Pet Foods, www.diamondpet.com/blog/culture/myths/does-neutering-cause-weight-gain/.

 

[11] “Is My Cat Fit or Fat? Here's How to Tell.” Care Credit, 10 Aug. 2020, www.carecredit.com/vetmed/article/is-your-cat-fit-or-fat/.

 

[12] Williams, Krista, and Ernest Ward. “Creating a Weight Reduction Plan for Cats.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/creating-a-weight-reduction-plan-for-cats.

 

[13] “18 Easy Ways to Help Your Cat Lose Weight.” Gallant, 8 Feb. 2021, gallant.com/blog/18-easy-ways-help-cat-lose-weight/.

 

[14] “L-Carnitine: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions, Dosage, and Warning.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-1026/l-carnitine.

 

[15] Center, SA, et al. “The Clinical and Metabolic Effects of Rapid Weight Loss in Obese Pet Cats and the Influence of Supplemental Oral L-Carnitine.” Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2000, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11110381/.

 

[16] Williams, Krista, and Ernest Ward. “Creating a Weight Reduction Plan for Cats.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/creating-a-weight-reduction-plan-for-cats.

 

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