By Jean Hofve, DVM

Obesity is a serious problem for our feline friends; it affects more than half of American cats today. Many serious health problems can result from obesity, including arthritis, diabetes, liver disease, heart failure, inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract problems, skin conditions, and many more.

When possible, prevention is better than cure; don’t allow your cat to become overweight in the first place. Pay attention to your kitten’s growth to make sure he does not fill out “too much.” The average weight gain for a kitten is approximately one pound per month up to 8-10 pounds.

How can you tell if your cat’s too fat? You should be able to feel the ribs easily, without excessive padding between the skin and ribs. Even thin cats may have a little “pooch” in the belly between the hind legs, but this should not be excessive. From above, there should be a bit of a waist, rather than a bulge, between ribs and hips. From the side, the abdomen should tuck up a little bit.

Body Condition Score Chart

While nutritionists simplify obesity as a matter of “too many calories in and too few calories expended,” it is obviously not that simple. Obesity is a symptom of a systemic imbalance, basically a disease state. Dieting (starving) a cat down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem. Common contributors to obesity include:

  • In a multi-cat household, when one cat goes to the food bowl, curiosity or competition may cause another cat to investigate and, while she’s there, take a few nibbles. Enough nibbles over time can create a big problem!
  • Boredom also plays a role. Cats who are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do. Spending quality time with your cat, particularly using play therapy sessions, will be a crucial part of a weight loss program.
  • Fear eating can be a factor for former stray cats who have had to struggle to survive on the streets; these cats often have significant “food issues,” and will often become overweight if food is constantly available.
  • Treats can contribute quite a few calories to a cat’s daily fare. The client who claimed he only fed his 26-pound cat 1/4 cup of “light” food per day was a mystery–until he admitted to also giving the cat 19 Pounce treats a day!

As a veterinarian, I don’t like to put cats on a “diet”. Diets must often be severe in order to comply with current calorie theories, and this may cause even worse problems, such as life-threatening liver disease. Skipping a single meal can throw a sensitive cat into a serious problem. Moreover, while lots of vets will sell you weight-control food for your cat, very few of them will tell you that excessive or free-choice feeding of such foods usually results in weight gain rather than loss. You still have to control the cat’s food intake (likely much more than the directions say).

Animals may consume excessive amounts of a food because they can’t digest it properly; or perhaps because there aren’t enough of certain nutrients for her particular metabolism; or some nutrients are not in an a sufficiently “bioavailable” form–that is, they can’t be assimilated properly. These are concerns with inexpensive and generic foods, as well as with some “light” and “diet” foods that contain excessive levels of fiber.

Dry food is where the most dangerous calories are. The feline is uniquely adapted to get energy from protein and fat; the cat’s natural prey diet contains very little carbohydrate. For most cats, carbohydrates are converted to fat, rather than be burned for energy. Clearly, this is the opposite of where we want to go!

Commercial pet foods tend to contain poor quality fats; this is especially true of dry food. Therefore it is important to add the right kind of essential Omega-3 fatty acids–even though it seems counter-intuitive that the cat needs more fat in order to lose weight in a healthy manner!

There are two major strategies for helping a fat cat lose weight.

Feed in timed meals. For most cats, it’s best to feed them on a timed-meal schedule. That is, don’t leave the food out all the time, but rather put the food out for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a day. Cats figure out this schedule quickly. Not all cats will lose weight with this change alone, but usually you can keep them from continuing to gain. (Caution: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens; talk to your veterinarian if your cat has a chronic health condition.)

Feed wet food. For optimal, healthy weight loss, feed 100% canned food and get rid of the dry altogether. (See 10 Reasons Why Dry Food is Bad for Cats and Dogs) This is easy for some cats, but very difficult for others. (See Switching Foods for why and how to get a finicky cat to eat something new!) Always make sure kitty is still eating; some cats are so addicted to their dry food that they will go on a hunger strike without it, which can lead to life-threatening liver disease. Work with your veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.

A high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (think “Atkins”–or should we say, “Catkins”!) is truly ideal for the cat. Most canned cat and kitten foods meet these standards; choose those with the least carbohydrate. You can get a fair idea of carbohydrate content by simply subtracting all the listed percentages on the label from 100%. About 8% carbohydrate (or less) is best. Raw foods, whether frozen, dehydrated, freeze-dried, or homemade, tend to have a very good protein-fat-carb balance.

Human studies have overwhelmingly shown that diet is more important than exercise in a weight loss regimen. Nevertheless, increased activity is still helpful. Play therapy provides good exercise, builds her confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you.

When you first start restricting your cat’s food, you will probably notice an increase in begging or pestering behavior. Ignore it… this behavior will eventually go away. In fact, recent research shows that as cats lose weight, they become more interactive and affectionate, no doubt because they feel a whole lot better!

Throughout the weight management process, whatever the results, give your cat plenty of love and attention. Lots of affection will help her equate love and comfort with you–and not her food bowl.

Click here to read Floppy Cats’ interview with Dr. Jean about feline obesity.

For an in-depth look at this topic, including detailed suggestions on diet and treatment, see Fat Cats on or in our Little Big Cat Bookstore!

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