In this video Dr. Karen Becker discusses the very common problem of overweight cats, and what you can do to slim down your own corpulent kitty.
One of the most frequently asked questions on my Facebook discussions page is, “How do I help my cat lose weight?”
If you’ve got a fat cat on your hands and need to help her shed that excess weight, there are four main areas you’ll need to address, which are:
- The ingredients in your cat’s food
- Number of calories per serving
- Portion size
- Your cat’s individual metabolism
Let’s take a look at each of these factors and how they affect weight gain.
Ingredients: What’s really in that food you’re feeding?
Your cat is an obligate, or true, carnivore. Felines are designed by nature to eat meat and lack the ability to efficiently digest grains and grasses.
In order to be optimally healthy and maintain a good weight, your kitty requires a species-appropriate diet that is:
- high in protein
- high in moisture
Keep in mind that all proteins are not created equal. Some are low in fat, like turkey. Others, like duck and lamb, are higher in fat.
If your cat has eaten the higher fat meats, he’ll probably prefer them. But if he’s overweight, the additional calories in the higher fat proteins will cause him to keep packing on the pounds.
Calories per Serving: Food label literacy
Do you know how to read the labels on your commercial cat food? You really need to be good at it in order to determine how many calories you’re actually feeding your cat, and most pet owners are not comfortable reading those labels.
The labels should be scrutinized not only for the ingredients, but also the fat content and calories per serving. Many pet foods contain carbohydrates which can have a dramatic impact on the calorie count per serving.
If your cat food labels don’t offer calorie information, you can often use an online search engine to find the information you need.
For example, type the brand name into Google’s search bar and then click on one of the links that are returned from the search to get more information. Most pet food brands have their own websites where you can find almost any information you need about the food you’re feeding your kitty.
If you don’t feel confident in your ability to read pet food labels or find the information you need online, I recommend you visit a pet boutique or specialty store where employees are very knowledgeable about the foods they sell, or your pet’s proactive wellness center or holistic veterinarian.
If it makes sense, bring along the food you have questions about and ask for help in finding out how many calories per serving you’re actually feeding your kitty.
This is a crucial piece of the puzzle if you want to help your cat lose weight. Many pet owners have no idea how many calories are packed into that can or quarter cup of food.
Even if you feed your cat “light” or weight management food, if you a set a bowl out for her at all times, it’s very likely she’s still getting more calories than she needs to maintain an optimum weight.
You will have to feed your cat the amount that is correct for his or her optimal body weight, not what the recommendations are on the can.
Portion Size: Kitties are natural hunters, not grazers
Another key to managing your cat’s weight centers on portion size.
The majority of cat owners serve their pets the all-they-can-eat buffet. They put down a bowl of food and their cats are allowed to graze throughout the day. When the food gets low, the bowl is refilled.
Earlier I mentioned that your cat is a true carnivore. The instinct of a carnivore is to hunt their food. Your kitty, left to his own devices, would hunt and catch one, two, even three mice a day depending on his age.
Cats are not built to graze. They’re not like horses, cows or other grazing animals that require a constant supply of food in their digestive tracts.
The natural instinct of your cat is to eat a small amount of food followed by a fast, followed by another small amount of food and another fasting period.
Kittens provided with a constant supply of available food grow into cats who are grazers, not hunters. This situation is contrary to nature, and grazing cats very often consume too many calories from uncontrolled portion sizes.
Perhaps you’ve heard the old myth that your kitty will only eat what he needs to survive. Not true! Given the opportunity, your feline pal will eat until his bowl is empty. If his bowl is never empty, he’ll just keep right on eating.
Metabolism: How well does your cat use the calories she consumes?
Your cat’s individual metabolism is the fourth key to helping her maintain her ideal weight.
If your kitty is for example hyperthyroid, it means her metabolism has been up regulated by a thyroid condition. Cats with this condition need more calories because their metabolism is higher.
On the opposite end of things are cats that are morbidly obese. These guys are essentially burning zero calories. Their daily activity consists of going from the couch to the cat food bowl and back to the couch, followed an hour later by a trip to the litter box and another round trip from couch to food back to couch, and so on.
Couch potato felines need very few calories from very small portions because they simply do not burn the calories they consume.
Your cat’s age and breed will also affect the number of calories she needs.
Again, if you’re not confident figuring out on your own how many calories your kitty needs to lose weight or maintain an ideal weight, work with your holistic veterinarian to come up with exactly the right portion of the specific food you feed your pet – and then stick with it.
Calorie Calculator for Cat Owners Who Want to Figure It Out for Themselves
To figure out how many calories your cat requires per day to achieve his ideal weight, follow these steps:
- Weigh your cat. You can do this by first stepping on the bathroom scale by yourself. Check your weight, step off the scale, pick up your cat, step back on holding kitty, and check the new weight. The difference between what you weighed by yourself and the weight holding your cat is how much he weighs.
- Next, figure your kitty’s weight in kilograms by dividing his weight in pounds by 2.2. So for example, if your cat weighs 15 pounds, his weight in kilograms is 15 divided by 2.2, or 6.82 kilograms.
- Multiply your cat’s weight in kilograms by 30 and then add 70 to that result: 6.82 kilos x 30 = 205 + 70 = 275.
- Now multiply that result by 0.8: 275 x 0.8 = 220.
- Your cat needs 220 calories in a day to maintain his 15 pound weight.
If your cat eats less than 220 calories he’ll lose weight. If he gets over 220 calories in a 24 hour period, he’ll gain weight. If you keep him right at those 220 calories, he’ll maintain his 15 pound weight.
Let’s say you and your holistic vet agree your cat’s ideal weight is 13 pounds, down two from 15. Going back to our formula, it’s easy to figure out how many calories he should be eating:
13 pounds divided by 2.2 = 5.91 kilograms
5.91 kilos x 30 = 177
177 + 70 = 247
247 x 0.8 = 198 calories
To get your kitty down to his ideal weight of 13 pounds, you need to feed him about 200 calories in a 24 hour period – not the 220 calories he’s been eating which plumped him up to 15 pounds.
Determining the Precise Amount of Food to Feed
Your next step is to figure out just how much cat food equals those 200 calories. It will depend on the brand of food, the flavor, the protein source and other ingredients.
Again, you’ll want to check the labels on the food to see if calorie information is contained there. If it isn’t, there’s a good chance you can look up the information online. Or, you can consult your veterinarian or another knowledgeable source.
As an example, let’s say you’ve determined a can of your cat’s food contains 166 calories, and a cup of his dry food contains 400 calories. Your goal is to feed your cat 200 calories in a 24 hour period, in two feedings.
- If you feed half the can of food in one meal and the remaining half in the second meal, you only need to add 34 additional calories from the dry food – 17 with the first meal and 17 with the second -- to make up the 200 calorie daily allotment.
- If a cup of dry food is 400 calories, then a quarter cup is 100 calories, and you need about one third of that quarter cup to get those remaining 34 calories.
- A quarter cup contains 12 teaspoons. One third of 12 teaspoons is four teaspoons, so you can get those 34 additional calories from four teaspoons of dry food – two teaspoons per daily feeding.
- Each twice-per-day feeding should contain a half can of moist food and two teaspoons of dry food to arrive at the 200 calories your kitty needs to get down to 13 pounds and stay there.
- Please note: If you feed your kitty treats, those calories must be factored into the total. You’ll need to reduce the amount of food according to the calorie content of the treats you intend to feed.
As regular readers of my newsletter know, I advocate feeding raw food first and foremost, followed by canned food over dry food.
Dry foods are not biologically appropriate. They’re dehydrated, which can cause kidney stress. And they tend to be higher in fat and carbohydrates, which are not good for your kitty.
If you’re feeding your cat a raw diet, you can actually feed more volume and still stay at those 200 daily calories. The intent of this article, however, is not to discuss the benefits of a raw diet but rather to help readers learn how to feed their cats an optimum number of daily calories.
A Test of Wills
Now comes the hard part -- keeping kitty on her diet.
If you’ve been serving your cat an all-she-can-eat buffet, it has to stop. You’ll need to pick up that bowl, never to use it again as a non-stop calorie source for your overweight feline.
In about 24 hours of the bowl being gone, maybe sooner, your kitty will realize something’s missing, and she’ll start to show signs of distress. She’ll probably meow quite a bit, day and night, hoping you’ll come running. She may scoot back and forth between your legs or follow at your heels each time you approach the place where you keep her food.
Your kitty will inform you in no uncertain terms she’s expecting more from you, and frankly, it can be hard not to give in – especially if she sits close by, staring at you with enormous eyes as though she’s trying to understand why you’re being so heartless and cruel.
Of course you love your cat and don’t want to see her distressed or hungry, but what your kitty really needs from you now is help getting to a healthy weight. So don’t give in, and don’t give up. Tough love is in order!
Food Rationing To Get Your Kitty over the Hump
If you’ve always fed your cat dry and canned food buffet style, I recommend you transition him gradually to two feedings a day.
You can do this by rationing his 200 calories over a 12 hour period, in four feedings. You can offer a quarter can of moist food and a teaspoon of dry first thing in the morning, then again around noon, late afternoon, and before bed.
If you really can’t tolerate your kitty’s hunger or behavior once his all day buffet is taken away, you can ration his 200 calories even further by feeding him every half hour or hour if it’s convenient for you.
The easiest way to do this is to prepare the day’s ration (mix the entire can and four teaspoons of dry food together in a bowl), and dish it out to him in small portions throughout the day.
From here you can work back up to four servings, and eventually, just two per day.
Feeding smaller meals more frequently while your cat is losing weight will also help him burn calories more efficiently. His body will burn fat as an energy source, and that’s how weight loss occurs.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
It’s extremely important that you diet your kitty slowly. I recommend you weigh your cat every week until he reaches his ideal body weight. Once that’s accomplished, you can weigh him every four to six months to insure he stays at his new healthy weight.
If your cat is obese, he should lose no more than a half pound per month. Overweight kitties are prone to hepatic lipodosis, or fatty liver disease.
As your cat’s body senses weight being lost, it will begin to mobilize accumulated stores of fat. If weight loss occurs too quickly, the rush of fats being mobilized can overwhelm the liver and shut it down.
Very overweight kitties are more prone to this life-threatening condition because their percentage of body fat is so high.
If your cat is only mildly overweight, he can probably safely lose up to a pound a month. What’s important is that his weight goes down and not up, but progress should be slow and steady. There’s no such thing as too slowly when it comes to weight loss in cats.
Please keep in mind these weight loss timing guidelines are only suggestions. Some kitties should lose weight much slower than I’ve outlined here due to existing medical issues like diabetes and other chronic conditions.
You should work with your pet healthcare practitioner to determine a safe and healthy amount of weight loss for your cat, and the rate at which that weight loss should occur.
It’s also very important that you not change your cat’s food while he’s dieting. If your cat rejects his food and won’t eat (which cats sometimes do when new food is introduced), it can cause a whole host of metabolic problems. This is especially true with overweight kitties.
I hope these tips will be useful in helping you learn not only the number of calories your cat requires to lose weight, but also how to successfully diet your cat down to an optimal weight.
Feline obesity is one of the leading causes of diabetes, as well as musculoskeletal and cardiovascular problems in cats. Helping your kitty achieve his ideal body weight is vitally important to his overall health.