How to Get Your Cat to Eat Less and Shed Pounds Naturally

Obese Chunky

Story at-a-glance -

  • Obesity is an unfortunate epidemic among U.S. pets these days, and cat owners have special challenges when it comes to getting their feline family member physically active.
  • University of Illinois researchers interested in helping kitties maintain a healthy body weight set out to test a previously suggested claim that increased meal frequency could help to increase overall physical activity. The goal of the study was to investigate how increasing meal frequency and dietary water content might influence voluntary physical activity in cats of normal body weight.
  • At the end of their two-part experiment, the U of I research team concluded that cats fed frequent small meals have increased physical activity during the two hour window preceding each mealtime. They also determined that cats fed a moisture-dense diet were even more active, and their activity levels peaked after meals – not before.
  • Further evidence of the importance of moisture-rich diets for cats came from a study conducted at the University of California-Davis. UC-Davis researchers concluded that cats fed canned (wet) diets voluntarily ate less and experienced a corresponding reduction in body weight. The kitties also preferred canned diets to kibble.
  • Dr. Becker recommends safely transitioning cats still eating dry food to a more nutritious and species-appropriate, moisture-rich diet. She also provides detailed help in transitioning your cat to a healthier diet, as well as tips for helping a too-heavy cat lose weight.

By Dr. Becker

Obesity is unfortunately an epidemic among U.S. pets these days, and as anyone who's ever tried to lose a few pounds knows, an overweight body gets back in shape by consuming fewer calories and expending more energy.

Owners of overweight dogs have lots of options for exercising their pet. But if you're owned by an overweight or obese cat, I know it can be especially difficult to get Mr. Chunky moving if he's not of a mind to. Thankfully, there are lots of researchers, scientists, and educators out there who are trying to help pet parents learn how to keep their animals lean and fit.

For example, researchers at the University of Illinois were interested in finding a way to maintain healthy body weight in cats, so they decided to test a previously suggested claim that increased meal frequency could help to increase overall physical activity. The goal of the study, which was published recently in the Journal of Animal Science,1 was to investigate how increasing meal frequency and dietary water content might influence voluntary physical activity in cats of normal body weight.

Cats Fed More Often Are More Active

The strategy the researchers designed for their study was to provide 10 adult lean neutered cats the right quantity of food needed to maintain their body weight, fed in frequent small meals throughout the day. The study authors wanted to measure what impact, if any, the feeding schedule would have on the cats' physical activity levels.

During the two-part University of Illinois experiment based on that study, researchers first divided the cats into four groups and fed them dry kibble four times per day (group 1), two times per day (group 2), one time per day (group 3), and a random number of meals per day (group 4). The amount of food fed to each cat per day was the same -- it was only the feeding frequency that varied among the groups. The kitties were fitted with collar monitors to measure their physical activity between meals.

In the second part of the experiment, the cats were divided into two groups and fed twice daily with a 70 percent hydrated diet. (An hour before mealtime, water was added to the same amount of kibble fed in the first part of the experiment.)

The cats were confined to their individual cages only during mealtimes. Between meals when their activity levels were being monitored, the cats had limited interaction with humans.

The researchers evaluated the "food anticipatory activity" of the cats, which included any activity in the two hours preceding mealtime. During part one of the experiment when dry kibble was fed, the cats were much more active during those two hours – especially the group fed four meals per day and the group fed a random number of meals each day.

"If they know they are going to get fed, that's when they are really active, if they can anticipate it," said U of I researcher Kelly Swanson.

Cats Fed Moisture Rich Diets Are Even MORE Active

During the second part of the experiment, which involved food with added water, the kitties showed an even greater increase in physical activity. Interestingly, peak activity times for this group were after mealtime rather than in anticipation of being fed. The researchers couldn't determine why that would be, but theorized that increased use of litter boxes may have been a factor.

In my opinion, it is probably also because cats fed a diet of dry kibble live in a state of low-grade dehydration. Their bodies are water-starved, because dry cat food doesn't provide nearly the moisture cats need from their food. As everyone knows, water is essential for the proper functioning of every organ and body system. An adequate level of moisture in their diet probably gave the cats more energy and a feeling of well-being that naturally increased their physical activity level.

Swanson and his team concluded that increasing the frequency of meals fed per day, and offering meals that contained added water, encouraged more physical activity among the cats in the study.

"It all comes down to energy in and energy out. It's very simple on paper, but it's not that easy in real life, especially in a household where there is more than one pet," Swanson points out. "That can be difficult, but I think these two strategies are very practical ideas that people can use," he concluded.

More Evidence of the Importance of Wet Diets for Cats

Researchers at the University of California-Davis conducted a study a few years ago that concluded canned (wet) diets result in cats voluntarily eating less and a corresponding reduction in body weight.2

The researchers also determined that kitties "greatly prefer" canned diets to kibble.

And this makes perfect sense, of course, because cats in the wild don't have problems with overweight or obesity. They hunt and eat the prey nature tells them to – prey that contains nutrients vital to their survival, including a high percentage of water.

Are You Still Feeding Kibble to Your Kitty?

In my opinion, many of the health problems pets suffer from today – including obesity -- are a direct result of the processed convenience food they've been eating for several decades. Kibble is a special problem for cats, because it is far from species-appropriate nutrition, and the lack of moisture is especially detrimental.

If you're still feeding dry food to your kitty, I strongly recommend you do a nice, slow transition from dry food to canned, and then to a fresh raw diet if possible. There's a right way and a wrong way to transition your kitty from dry food to a more nutritious diet, and you can find the details in my two-part video series "How to Win the Healthy Food Battle with Your Fussy Feline."

If your kitty is overweight, my video titled "Valuable Tips for Helping Your Heavy Cat" can help you diet your cat down to a healthy weight very safely and slowly.