By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Sadly, I've lost count of how many years pet obesity has been on the rise, along with all the disorders that inevitably result when animals are overfed and under-exercised. According to pet insurer Nationwide, in 2016 over 1.3 million pet owner claims totaling more than $60 million were submitted for obesity-related diseases, which equates to a 23 percent increase in just 3 years.1 Per Nationwide, the top 10 obesity-related diseases in cats in 2016 were:
Cystitis/urinary tract disease
Chronic renal disease
Congestive heart failure
Gall bladder disorder
Obesity-related diseases are often entirely preventable, and yet they continue to increase in cats year after year. Most of them shorten an already short lifespan and often destroy the animal's quality of life along the way.
As a proactive wellness veterinarian, it's incredibly frustrating to me to see so many kitties these days being overfed and under-exercised to the point of developing one or more potentially devastating diseases. Especially when it's so easy to keep them at a healthy weight and in good physical condition.
Is Your Cat Overweight? Here's How to Tell
One of the problems pet obesity experts have uncovered is that unfortunately, overweight kitties have become the "new normal" and as a result, many people can't tell the difference between a fat cat and a normal-sized cat. If you're not sure about your own pet, have a look at this body condition chart provided by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):
Your goal for your cat should be a body condition score of 4 or 5, meaning she is well-proportioned. You can feel her ribs and there's minimal fat covering them; she has a noticeable waist behind her ribs; she has a slight tuck to her abdomen; and there are no abdominal fat pads.
Unfortunately, many owners assume their pet's body score is just fine because their veterinarian never mentions their cat has a weight issue during exams. Veterinarians fail to address extra pounds for many reasons, including because it can be an uncomfortable conversation.
I've had countless pet parents tell me I was the first vet to comment that their kitty needed to lose a few pounds, which tells me vets are not adequately addressing the slow but consistent weight gain that occurs over time with many cats and contributes to so many degenerative diseases that could be avoided with appropriate weight management.
All Cats, Especially Fat Ones, Need Daily Exercise
Consistent exercise, including at least 20 minutes of high-intensity activity will help your cat burn fat and increase muscle tone. Make sure your cat has things to climb on, like a multilevel cat tree or tower. Invest in a laser toy, either a very inexpensive, simple one or something a bit more sophisticated like the Frolicat®.
When considering other feline diversions, think like a hunter and choose toys and activities that appeal to your cat's stalking instinct. And don't overlook old standbys, either, like dragging a piece of string across the floor in view of your cat.
Ping-pong balls are another oldie but goodie, along with bits of paper rolled into balls, and pretty much any light object that can be made to move fast and in unanticipated ways. For more ideas on how to challenge your cat both physically and mentally, take a look at my interview with cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy.
I also recommend walking your cat in nice weather using a harness. This gets him out into the fresh air, stimulates his senses and gets his paws in direct contact with the ground. An alternative is a safe, fully enclosed porch or patio area that prevents him from getting out and other animals from getting in.
What and How Much to Feed an Overweight (or Any) Cat
Pet foods high in carbohydrates — typically kibble — are the biggest cause of obesity in both cats and dogs. Your kitty needs food high in animal protein and moisture, with low- to no-grain content (which is pretty much the opposite of what dry pet foods offer).
A nutritionally balanced, high-quality fresh food diet is the best choice for pets who need to lose weight. It's important to adequately nourish your cat's body as weight loss occurs, making sure his requirements for key amino acids, essential fatty acids and other nutrients are met.
The key to healthy weight loss is to meet your cat's unique nutritional requirements through a balanced diet but feed less food (portion control), which forces his body to burn fat stores. The first step is to safely transition him (more about that shortly) to a diet free of grains and starches.
My recommendation is a moisture-rich homemade fresh food diet, comprised of lean meats, healthy fats and a few fibrous vegetables as the only source of carbohydrates. Also be sure to calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for your cat's ideal weight, measure his food portions using a measuring cup and drastically limit treats (be sure to include treats in his total daily calorie count).
I recommend setting aside a small portion of homemade food that can be rolled into tiny pea-sized bites and used as treats throughout the day. Another option is homemade chicken jerky (I don't recommend commercial jerky treats, as many have been linked to pet illnesses).
Free-Feeding Turns Lean Hunters Into Overweight Grazers
In my experience, most owners of overweight cats serve their pets an all-day buffet. They put down a bowl of food and kitty is allowed to graze throughout the day. When the food gets low, the bowl gets refilled. What these pet parents are missing is that cats are carnivores whose instinct is to hunt their food.
In the wild your kitty would hunt and catch one, two or even three mice a day depending on his age and metabolic demand. Hunting is not grazing. Cats are 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. Kitties provided with a constant supply of available food turn into grazers. This is contrary to nature, and grazing cats very often consume too many calories from uncontrolled portion sizes.
Feeding two portion-controlled meals a day, one in the morning and one in the evening at about the same time each day, works well for most cats and also fits easily into the daily schedule for most families. If you're home during the day, you can feed several small meals instead, since one study shows that cats fed more often are more active.
As added incentive to give up free-feeding, once you transition your kitty to a species-appropriate diet, you'll no longer be able to leave food out for her, as it will quickly spoil.
How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough
In the beginning days of a gradual transition to her new normal way of eating a better diet in smaller quantities, it's almost a sure bet kitty will pull out all the stops to try to convince you to feed her more of what she wants. Be ready to practice a bit of tough love. Distract her with playtime, petting, brushing or a walk outdoors if she's willing.
Given enough time and patience, most kitties can successfully make the change to a healthier diet and smaller portions. However, since it's dangerous for felines to go without eating, it's important to insure your cat doesn't simply refuse to eat as a reaction to a new or different diet.
This is especially true for overweight cats, because they can quickly develop a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis triggered by a sudden loss of appetite or a sudden cutback in caloric intake.
As long as the transition to a better diet is very gradual (see my part 1 and part 2 videos on how to win the healthy food battle with your cat) and she's eating enough, stay the course. Keep in mind that you're replacing the "love" you were giving her through extra food with the type of love that will help her have a longer, healthier life.
Keep reminding yourself that your too-heavy cat won't get her girlish figure back (or her health and longevity) without your commitment to do the right thing for her — even if the road is bumpy at times.