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 that extra mass brings 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 not as easy as putting them on a treadmill. But with the right advice and some dedication, it is absolutely doable!
The two essentials elements of weight loss
So how do we fix an obese kitty? Weight loss is achieved when animals eat fewer calories than they burn in a day. So, to get the best results, we should aim to:
- A: burn more calories through exercise, and
- B: eat less
Not sure how to do that? Here are a few simple things you can start doing to put your cat in a caloric deficit (aka: fat-burning mode!):
As any good fitness coach will tell you, the key to burning calories and losing weight is movement. By using the muscles in our bodies, we burn more calories than if we were to sit still all day. This is important; 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 to help an overweight cat, we need to get them busy! Easier said than done, I hear you say. But whether your feline friend is more of the sedentary indoor type of cat or the outside roamer, there are multiple things you can do to encourage exercise:
Most cats love playing with toys, the trick is finding the type that suits yours. There’s huge variety on the market: Battery-powered toy balls, feathers on a stick, light pointers.. you name it. You can even make some toys of your own!
- Laser pointers
Be careful with laser pointers; They work extremely well, but can become a source of frustration and can cause damage to your cat’s eyes. If you have to use one, aim to start with five minutes of play twice a day if your cat is overweight. As their fitness improves, you can gradually increase this. Try to end a laser pointer game with something your cat can actually catch!
Here’s an easy hack: move the feeding bowl around! Move it to the top of the stairs, for example. You can also buy special feeder balls that release food as your cat moves them. 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.
- Outdoors exercise
Some cats will follow their owners around the garden, especially if you take a toy and turn it into a game. For indoor cats, you may also consider walking your cat outside in a harness. While some cats can get very upset (in which case you should definitely stop using it!), many can grow to love walking outdoors on a leash. This time exploring outside can be a great way to bond with your cat while simultaneously burning some calories. If your cat has never been outside, consult your veterinarian before doing so, as they may need a microchip or certain vaccinations first.
2. Reduce caloric intake
The next part of the equation is to reduce the number of calories your cat eats throughout the day. Questions we often hear are “How much should I feed my cat to lose weight?” and “How many calories should my cat eat to lose weight”.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. We need to consider that:
- Breed, age, medical status and gender all influence the amount of calories that any particular cat needs to stay alive.
- The amount of activity throughout the day also directly influences caloric needs.
- The rate of weight loss can’t be too high.1 Crash diets can be very harmful to a cat, causing a liver condition called fatty liver syndrome (hepatic lipidosis).
So, it’s impossible to provide a definitive answer to these questions. While there are cat food calculators that can estimate the number of calories your cat needs to ingest to lose weight, they are not accurate. Calculating true calorie requirements for weight loss is a complicated process that is best left to the experts. But even without knowing the exact amount of calories to reduce, there are some general guidelines you can follow to get weight loss started:
Guidelines for reducing calories
You should aim to have your cat reach an ideal weight in 6 to 12 months, depending on the initial weight. As a general rule of thumb, dropping one pound per month is ideal.
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 crumb to you, can actually be a huge amount of a cat’s daily calorie allowance!
Protein & Fiber
High carbohydrate cat foods are not ideal for weight loss2. Ask your vet if you can switch over to a food that contains more protein and dietary fiber, as this will ensure your cat feels full long after eating.
Instructions on the packaging
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 to tell if your cat needs to lose weight
How do you know if your cat is 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. But you can also monitor your cat’s weight at home. Your own scale may not be as accurate as the vets’, but it should still give you a pretty good idea if things are headed in the right direction.
On average, most adult cat breeds should weigh between 7.9 – 9.7 lb. But this is of course highly dependent on breed, sex, and other factors, so you might have to consult your 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 Diets
Feline weight reduction is mainly achieved through critical diet changes and activity. Encourage your cat to drink plenty of fresh water, as it also helps 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. 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.
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.
Does my cat need a prescription weight loss diet?
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!
Because they’re prescription diets, they’re designed to be used under veterinary supervision- your veterinary team can therefore recommend 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 can feel daunting, with a seemingly long road ahead. However, the benefits of persevering are enormous and well worth it! The result will be a more active, happier kitty!
What have you done to help your cat shed some pounds? Let us know in the comments.