Obesity in pets is on the rise. According to a 2018 survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, a staggering 59.5% of cats in the USA are overweight or obese. And since those extra pounds bring a whole host of potential health issues, it’s safe to say that this is very bad news for our furry friends.
As a well-meaning pet parent, it is easy to miss that your cat’s weight is gradually creeping up. We’ve all been guilty of occasionally spoiling our beloved pets, but the odd treat here or there can quickly add up! Helping your cat shed those extra pounds is a little more involved than simply dropping them on a treadmill and hoping for the best. But with the right advice and some dedication, it is absolutely doable! Vet Sarah has compiled your action plan:
- Two essential elements of weight loss
- Step 1: Movement
- Step 2: Reduce caloric intake
- How much weight loss is safe?
- A word on calorie calculators
- How do I know if my cat needs to lose weight?
- Weight loss diet food
- Final thoughts
Two essential elements of weight loss
So, how do we help an obese kitty? In simple terms, weight loss is achieved when animals eat fewer calories than they burn in a day. To get the best results, we should aim to:
- A: burn more calories
- B: eat less
Doing both of these things can be quite tricky. But fear not, as we’re about to share in layman’s terms what you should start doing to put your cat in a caloric deficit (aka: fat-burning mode):
Step 1: Movement
As any good fitness coach will tell you, the key to burning fat is movement. By using the muscles in our bodies, we burn more calories than if we were to sit idle all day. This concept is an important one; You can be on the healthiest diet in the world, but as long as you don’t burn what you eat, you simply won’t lose weight.
So one of the most crucial parts of helping overweight cats is to get them off their furry bums! Easier said than done, I hear you say. But whether your feline friend is an outdoor adventurer or more of the sedentary indoor type, there are several sneaky things you can do to keep your cat active throughout the day. Have a look:
Play with your cat daily. Most cats love playing with toys, but the trick is finding one that yours likes. There’s a huge variety of moving toys on the market: Battery-powered balls, feathers on a wand, LED toys.. Plenty to choose from. But a simple piece of string or a ball is often just as effective. Or, if you’re feeling particularly creative, consider making some of your own!
Most cats love a good old scratch tree or some wall-mounted shelves. Such items make an indoor environment more stimulating, while also providing a stimulus for exercise.
- Laser pointers
Be careful with laser pointers; They usually work extremely well, but can become a serious source of frustration and may even damage a cat’s eyes. If you have to use one, start with five minutes of play twice a day. As your cat’s fitness improves, you can gradually increase the length of a session. Keep things positive; end a laser pointer game with something your cat can actually catch, and never point the light towards their eyes.
- Feeding tricks
Here’s an easy hack: move the feeding bowl around! For instance, move it to the top of the stairs to add a bit of exercise. You can also buy special feeder balls that release food as your cat moves them around. These are great for getting food-oriented cats moving, whilst mimicking natural hunting behavior. Another option are puzzle feeder products, which you can buy in the store or attempt to make yourself. We recommend getting several and changing them regularly, so your cat doesn’t get bored.
- Cat treadmills
If you can convince your cat to use one, kitty treadmills are an excellent way to burn some excess weight
- Outdoors exercise
Some cats enjoy following their owners around outside. Use this to your advantage by taking a toy with you for some outdoor playtime. You could also consider walking your cat outside in a harness. While some cats will get very upset from this activity (in which case you should definitely stop doing it), many can learn to enjoy walking outside. Exploring the world outdoors can be a great opportunity to bond with your cat while simultaneously burning excess fat.
Step 2: Reduce caloric intake
Moving on from exercise, the next crucial part of our fat loss equation is reducing the number of calories your cat eats. But this needs to be done with care, as a drastic reduction could produce unwanted side effects or even become downright unhealthy! This is so important that we’ve decided to put this into a warning box:
So how do you figure out how much a cat needs to eat for weight loss? A big problem here is that it’s very difficult to know exactly how many calories a body burns throughout the day. Vets will often hear the same question in different forms; “How much should I feed my cat to lose weight?” and “How many calories should my cat eat to lose weight”.
Unfortunately for you, there is no easy simple answer. We need to consider that:
- A) Breed, age, medical status and gender all influence the amount of calories that any particular cat needs to maintain their weight.
- B) Every cat has its own measure of activity throughout the day, which is also in direct correlation to caloric needs.
Since all these elements combine to produce the number of calories that a body burns up, it’s quite literally impossible to give you an exact amount of food a cat needs to eat in order to lose weight. Such calculations are best done by veterinary experts and tailored to the individual.
But even without knowing the exact amount of calories to feed, there are some practical tips and guidelines that will get your cat started on its weight loss journey. They will definitely get you (at least some of) the results you’re after.
Cat diet tips: Guidelines for reducing calories
Depending on the initial weight, a good aim is to have your cat reach an ideal weight in 6 to 12 months. As a general rule of thumb, dropping one pound per month is safe and possible. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Don’t give human food
Can’t resist their cute purr at the table? You must! Feeding even the smallest scraps of human food can dramatically add to your cat’s calorie intake. Remember, cats are many times smaller than humans, and what seems like a few crumbs to you, can be a significant part of a cat’s daily allowance.
Feeding your cat measured portions from various locations encourages natural hunting and eating behavior. Large portions are more likely to be stored as fat. If you feed dry food and your cat isn’t good at grazing, weigh out how much your cat needs over 24 hours, then split the total amount into small regular meals.
Plenty of water
Encourage your cat to drink plenty of fresh water as it helps to reduce hunger pangs and aids digestion. Wet food can aid weight loss since it has a large amount of water and tends to be lower in carbohydrates.
Protein & Fiber
High carbohydrate cat foods are not ideal for weight loss2. Ask your vet if you can switch over to a meal that contains more protein and dietary fiber, as this will ensure your cat feels full long after eating. More on weight loss food later.
Weighing food vs. using scoops
Feeding guides on packets are useful if your cat’s weight is OK and you want to maintain it, or if you are using a prescription weight loss diet. If you want to follow these closely, it is very important to weigh the food out accurately using weighing scales. Scoops are inaccurate, and it’s easy to overfill them.
How much weight loss is safe?
While weight loss is generally associated with positive effects on the body, losing weight too fast puts major stress on the organs and can therefore become unhealthy or even downright dangerous. Crash diets, in particular, can be very harmful to cats4 as they can lead to a dangerous liver condition called fatty liver syndrome (hepatic lipidosis) that you will want to avoid at all costs.
So how much weight can a cat safely lose? VCA Hospitals mentions in their weight reduction plan that the goal should be to lose 1-2% body weight per week, which in practice will come down to about 1 pound or 0.5 kg per month. There is obviously some margin here, especially for larger cat breeds, but anything significantly higher will venture into unhealthy territory.
A word on calorie calculators
There are cat food calculators on the web that will allow you to input some data and give an estimate of the number of calories your cat needs to ingest to lose weight. Such calculators are often far from accurate. Calculating true caloric requirements for weight loss is a complicated process that is best left to the experts.
How do I know if my cat needs to lose weight?
We wrote this article based on the assumption that you want to help your cat lose weight. But how can you tell if your cat is actually obese?
Ideally, you would have regular weigh-ins with your veterinarian every six months. This should ensure any significant weight gain is picked up early.
Of course, you can also opt to monitor your cat’s weight at home. Your own scale may not be quite as accurate as the vets’, but it should still give you a pretty good idea if things are headed in the right direction.
As a general rule of thumb, most average adult cat breeds should weigh between 7.9 – 9.7 lb. But this can vary by breed and frame5. The largest breeds like the Main Coone can weigh 25 pounds and be healthy! So you may, again, have to consult a veterinary technician if you aren’t sure what the ideal weight is.
Body condition score
Another way to tell if your cat is too heavy is to assess their ‘body condition score’:
- Look at the side profile. The belly should be tucked up behind the ribs, not rounded or sagging.
- Look at your cat from above. They should have an obvious waist.
- Feel the ribs. The ribs shouldn’t be sticking out, but you should be able to feel them easily. If you have to press down at all, your cat is probably carrying excess fat.
- Stroke the spine. Again, it shouldn’t be sticking out, but you should be able to feel it without having to push down hard.
Weight loss diet food
Diets for weight loss have three main goals: to reduce calories, to increase satiety (feeling full), and to be nutritionally balanced. There are many diets aimed at weight loss to choose from, but many ‘diet’ or ‘lite’ foods are not enough to get your cat to lose weight.
Prescription diets are often the best for feline weight loss, especially when you’ve tried and failed with other methods. Most are high in protein, low in fat, and high in vitamins and minerals, meaning you can feed less of them without unbalancing the diet. Some use specific fiber, to ensure your cat feels full after a meal. The newer prescription diets even contain ingredients aimed to increase metabolism and ‘kick start’ your cat’s weight loss!
Does my cat need a prescription weight loss diet?
Because they’re prescription diets, they’re designed to be used under veterinary supervision- your veterinary team should therefore always decide on the best product for your cat. Any new food needs to be introduced slowly over three weeks; to prevent diarrhea and to allow your cat to adapt. Start with a tiny amount and gradually increase the ratio of new food to old over the weeks.
Successful weight loss in cats is a marathon, rather than a sprint. With a seemingly long road ahead, the real secret to helping an obese kitty is a concerned family that’s willing to commit. Sweet treats and pieces of fatty meat can quickly add up, so be sure to include the rest of the household by asking everyone to be a little stricter. Weight loss might not be easy, but the benefits of persevering are well worth it. The result will be a happier, more active kitty!
What have you done to help your cat shed some pounds? Let us know in the comments.