Q: My cat is overweight, but I don’t know how to get him back down to a healthy size. When I try to limit his eating, he just cries all day and, generally, doesn’t do much exercising. Do you have any tips, Dr. Jenn?
A: First, congratulations on realizing your cat is overweight. Approximately 60% of cats in America are overweight or obese, but only 24% of pet families think their pet is overweight. Healthy cats should not have an abdominal pouch hanging down. A cat with an ideal body shape has ribs that are not visible but easily felt through a thin layer of fat, an obvious waist when viewed from the top, and a tuck in the abdomen when viewed from the side.
Ever since Garfield started chowing down on lasagna, cat lovers fell in love with the chubby cat. Although cute and cuddly, overweight cats are at higher risk for many diseases, including diabetes, fatty liver disease, urinary tract infections, and osteoarthritis. These health conditions shorten their life. Obese cats live on average five years less than their lean counterparts.
Realizing your feline friend is overweight is only the first step in the battle. Now you have to help your kitty take the weight off, and most cats are not willing participants when it comes to diets. I hear it all the time “we tried to cut back his food, but he cries by his food dish all day and night and drives us crazy!” “If her bowl isn’t full all the time, she starts attacking the children!”
I know how hard it is, and I understand. Our clinic kitty received too many treats and had to be put on a diet. Monty did not appreciate less food in his bowl. He switched up his old pass time of napping in the sun to a new pass time: hunting down carbs. After one very successful hunt, he came strutting out of the break room with his trophy in his fangs – an entire loaf of bread. Another time he hunted down my pistachio muffin hidden in my desk drawer. He left the evidence in the middle of the office carpet – a half-eaten muffin with bite marks through the paper bag.
So how do you help a cat lose weight? Here are a few tips:
- Look at the extra weight in perspective. Two pounds of weight may not seem like a lot, but in the average cat, it is the equivalent of a person losing 25 pounds. This two pound weight loss is not going to come off overnight – it will likely take over a year or more. Celebrate the small victories. Every tenth of a pound of weight loss is significant on a cat’s small frame.
- Know how much your cat eats in a day. A lot of people just leave a food bowl out all the time and fill it when it’s empty. But in order to lose weight, calories need to be reduced. You can’t reduce your cat’s caloric intake if you don’t know how much he is eating. Start by measuring out the food and determine just how much he is eating in a day. Once you know this, I recommend to cut the amount by 25%. If your cat is eating one cup of food a day, reduce it down to ¾ cup.
- If you have a multi-cat household, it is important to feed each cat separately. Even if you have one bowl for every cat, unless you are watching closely, there’s usually one cat who cleans out everyone’s bowls. Like many households, I had one skinny cat and one chubby cat. Chloe emptied her food bowl then pushed Oliver out of the way and finished off his dinner. To stop this, I instituted a feeding time. I placed two bowls of kibble on opposite sides of the kitchen and stood in the middle. Each cat had ten minutes to eat before the bowls were picked up. I did this twice a day. If I was busy and couldn’t supervise mealtime, Chloe was put in the bathroom with the door closed while Oliver ate. Even though they had been used to grazing, they quickly learned when meal time was and came running when they heard the food in the dish.
- If you reduce the food and your cat seems hungry all the time, talk to your veterinarian about special weight loss diets. Many food companies make restricted calorie diets. Some of the foods are higher in fiber so that your cat feels more full, others are lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein like the Atkin’s diet. There are some foods that have been shown to alter cats’ metabolism so they lose weight faster. Most of these diets are prescription only and to be used under the guidance of a veterinarian.
- Use toys to feed your cat. A lot of cats eat all day because they are bored. Stimulate them to play more by making them work for their food. Look for a toy that dispenses kibble as your cat bats it around the house. There are many options – some are shaped like eggs or balls, others are cubes. Another great feeding option is “Doc and Phoebe’s indoor hunting feeders”. These are mice shaped toys that hold kibble. The concept is to hide them around your house so that your cat spends the day hunting for his dinner. Our clinic cat Monty loved searching for these mice – it helped him take the weight off and stopped him from hunting down carbs in the break room.
- Encourage your cat to exercise. Your kitty is unlikely to jump on the treadmill and run a few miles just for fun (although they do make cat treadmills, but I think it takes a very special cat to use one), so you may have to get creative. Invest in a laser pointer. Most cats love to chase the laser around. Put the food on the second floor of the house so that your kitty gets a couple extra flights of stairs every day. If your cat tolerates it, buy a harness and take him on a walk around the block.
- Minimize treats. Many of us show love for our pets through treats, including me. I don’t recommend you stop this altogether. Instead, I advocate for treats in moderation. When you pull out the bag of kitten treats, give your cat one, not five or six. Look for healthy alternatives. Some cats love veggies such as zucchini or carrots, other cats like melons. A few kernels of air popped popcorn can also be a low calorie treat. No matter what your cat weighs, treats should never be more than 10% of their daily caloric intake.
Helping your cat lose weight is not an easy task, but it is worth it. You will have a happier, healthier pet that will be with you longer. If you need more ideas or help to calculate your cat’s caloric intake, your family veterinarian would love to help you. A thin cat is a healthy cat.
Give your furry friend a pet from me,