How To Help Your Cat Lose Weight
By Elizabeth Racine, DVM February 12, 2019
Do you have a fat cat? If so, you’re not alone. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that 60% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. That equates to roughly 56.5 MILLION cats in the US alone that are suffering from obesity and its related illnesses! While the internet may lead us to believe that fat cats are funny or cute, that excess weight has a negative impact on your cat’s health and quality of life. It is well known in both humans and animals that obesity puts us at greater risk for a wide variety of diseases, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. In one study of Labrador Retrievers, it was demonstrated that maintaining a healthy body weight resulted in greatly improved longevity. Dogs that maintained a healthy weight lived an average of nearly two years longer than their overweight counterparts. While no comparable study has yet been performed in cats, it is safe to assume that the benefits are similar. We all want our pets to live forever, so give them their best shot by keeping them slim!
Is Your Cat Overweight?
Determining a healthy weight for your cat requires more than just the number on the scale. In humans, doctors use the Body Mass Index (BMI), which accounts for height, to determine your ideal weight range. Similarly, doctors use the Body Condition Score (BCS) to determine the appropriate weight range for veterinary patients. The Body Condition Score is typically assigned on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being obese. An ideal body condition score is a 4 or 5. To determine the body condition score, your veterinarian will look at the deposits of fat in key areas of your pet’s body, such as over the ribs and along the spine. More fat deposits mean your pet gets a higher score. You can practice evaluating your cat’s body condition score at home using this guide. The next time you visit your veterinarian for a wellness exam, ask them to tell you how they would rank your pet's body condition score, and see how your evaluation compares!
Developing a Weight Loss Plan
- Veterinary Visit
A successful weight loss plan should start with a visit to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will weigh your cat and determine his body condition score. The veterinarian may also recommend diagnostic testing such as a blood test to rule out any underlying conditions which may predispose your pet to weight gain. If your cat is determined to be overweight and has no underlying medical conditions, then your veterinarian can calculate an appropriate daily calorie intake for your cat. It is extremely important that you follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for your cat’s daily calorie intake.
Rapid weight loss is unhealthy for anyone, but cats that lose weight too quickly are particularly prone to developing fatty liver disease, which can be fatal. Your goal is to achieve gradual, long-term weight loss. Aim for a rate of no more than a 1-2% reduction in your cat’s body weight per week. To ensure your cat is losing weight safely, it is recommended that you return to the veterinary clinic frequently for weight checks. This data will be recorded in your pet’s medical record, allowing your veterinarian to determine whether the weight loss is occurring at a healthy rate.
- Portion Control
Weight loss for animals works much the same way as in humans: your pet needs to burn more calories than he consumes in order to lose weight. The difference is that our pets can only consume what we give them! To get control of your pet’s weight, start by controlling what goes into his bowl. Too often pet owners will rely on the convenience of free-feeding (leaving a bowl full of food out for your cat to snack at will), which is often a recipe for obesity. A good weight loss plan starts with feeding carefully measured portions. Ideally, you should use a food scale to ensure your cat’s food is accurately measured. If you do not have a food scale, a measuring cup will work. Avoid estimated measurements, such as scoops or handfuls because it is very easy to feed too much with these methods!
Dry food is the culprit for weight gain in many cats. Because dry food has less moisture content, it is much more calorically dense than canned food. This means that your cat needs to eat less of it to obtain the same number of calories. It is also high in carbohydrates, which may contribute to weight gain. If free-fed, many cats will repeatedly visit the bowl to snack throughout the day, particularly if they are bored due to inadequate environmental enrichment. Start your cat’s weight loss program by gradually reducing the amount of dry food he eats each day. If your cat frequently receives treats, you’ll need to cut back on these too in order to succeed with your weight loss plan.
Whatever type of food your cat eats, you can find the nutritional information on the back of the bag or can. Look for the AAFCO statement, which should say something like “formulated for maintenance of adult cats.” Avoid diets with statements such as “formulated for all life stages” or “formulated for growth” because these diets will be too high in calories for an already overweight cat. You’ll also find the calorie content of the food printed on the label; use this combined with the calorie goals given to you by your veterinarian to determine how much food your cat should be eating daily.
Cats need daily exercise to burn calories, maintain muscle mass, and provide mental stimulation. Cats should have at least an hour of activity daily, and some of that time should be spent enjoying active play with you. Providing good environmental enrichment will encourage your cat to stay active. You can also make your cat work for his food by using puzzle toys or by simply hiding pieces of it around the house for him or her to find. Not only will this get your cat up and moving, but it will also stop him from gobbling down all of his food in one sitting!
- Prescription Diets
In some cases, portion control and exercise alone are not enough to get an overweight cat back in shape. If your cat is having trouble losing weight, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription weight loss diet. These diets are typically higher in fiber, so your cat will feel full despite eating less.
They are also balanced to ensure that your cat still receives all the nutrients he needs during his weight loss journey. There are several prescription weight loss diets available, and your veterinarian can help you choose the one that is best for your cat.
Preventing Weight Gain
Keeping your cat slim from the start is much easier than trying to ditch excess weight! If you’re fortunate enough to own a fit feline, then following these basic steps will ensure he remains at a healthy weight:
- Restrict intake by feeding controlled portion sizes. Never “free feed.”
- Limit the use of treats. Try offering toys and playtime as rewards instead.
- Encourage your cat to work for their food by using puzzle toys or slow feeders.
- Feed an appropriate diet formulated for your cat’s specific age and health.
- Provide appropriate environmental enrichment and opportunities for exercise and play.
- Monitor your cat’s weight and body condition score, and report any unexpected changes to your veterinarian.
- See your veterinarian at least once annually for wellness visits to help identify potential problems early.
Obesity is an unfortunate epidemic among our pets, but it’s never too late to start your cat on an appropriate weight loss plan. By controlling portions, increasing exercise, and working closely with your veterinarian, you can get your cat back on track for a long and healthy life.