6 in 10 Cats Need This Intervention - Does Yours?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance

  • Around 60 percent of U.S. cats are overweight or obese and in desperate need of help slimming down so they can feel better, move normally and avoid debilitating obesity-related diseases
  • Cats shouldn’t be fed kibble, especially overweight kitties — they should eat a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh diet
  • Knowing exactly how many calories your cat requires each day to lose weight or maintain an ideal weight, and feeding exactly that amount, is also key
  • Free-feeding is an unnatural way to feed cats, and contributes to weight gain; portion control, including the use of food-release toys, is the way to go
  • Cats must be dieted slowly and safely to avoid triggering metabolic disease, including a potentially fatal liver disease called hepatic lipidosis

Sadly, these days the majority of cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. If you have a fat cat on your hands, I’m sure you want to take the steps to help her shed the extra weight so she’ll not only feel better, but avoid obesity-related diseases and live a long, healthy, happy life.

When your kitty needs to lose weight, there are certain issues you’ll need to address simultaneously, including the type of food you’re providing, the number of calories consumed and your cat’s individual metabolism, and, of course, portion sizes. In my experience, the reason cat parents fail to help their kitties lose weight is because they address only one item at a time. You have to tackle all them simultaneously to be successful helping your kitty slim down.

Your Cat’s Diet

It’s important to remember that your cat is an obligate or true carnivore, which means she’s designed by nature to consume meat. Dry food contains a minimum of at least 30 percent carbohydrates or starches, all of which displace animal meat.

Kibble is not biologically appropriate nutrition for cats. It lacks the moisture your kitty needs from her diet. If you’re a regular visitor here at Mercola Healthy Pets, you know there are a lot of other problems with kibble as well. Generally speaking, I don't recommend feeding cats a dry diet.

To be optimally healthy, your kitty requires a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet that is high in both excellent-quality, animal-based protein and moisture, and contains no grains or refined carbohydrates. Fat doesn’t make us fat, carbohydrates do, and the same is true for cats.

If your cat is addicted to dry food, I recommend watching my two-part video serious on how to successfully transition your cat to a healthier diet, part one and part two.

Counting Calories

If you feed your pet a commercial cat food, do you know how many calories you’re feeding at each meal? Pet food package labels should be scrutinized not only for the ingredients in the formula, but also to determine the fat content and calories per serving. Many pet foods contain carbohydrates that can have a dramatic impact on the calorie count per serving.

If your cat food label doesn’t offer calorie information, you can often use an online search engine to find the information you need. 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. 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 cup of food.

And even if you feed your kitty a diet or weight management formula (which I don’t recommend), if you leave the bowl out 24/7, it’s very likely she’s still getting more calories than she needs to maintain an optimum weight. You need to feed your cat the correct amount for her optimal body weight and metabolism, which is very likely not the amount suggested on the label.

To figure out how many calories your cat needs per day to maintain his ideal body weight, use this formula. Your cat’s metabolism determines how well her body uses the calories she consumes. For example, a hyperthyroid cat has a higher metabolism than kitties with no thyroid issues, so she needs more calories.

At the opposite end of the scale are cats who are morbidly obese and burn almost nothing through activity. These kitties need very few calories in very small portions. Your cat’s age and breed will also affect the number of calories she needs. Younger and more active kitties need more calories.

Portion Sizes

Cats are carnivores, which means they’re natural hunters. Cats living in the wild catch one to several mice a day depending on their age and activity level. They aren’t designed to graze at an all-day, all-you-can-eat buffet. Kitties are built to eat small amounts of food, followed by a fast, followed by another meal, followed by more fasting.

Most cats become overweight because they’re given way too much food, way too frequently. Many cat parents continue to free-feed, which an unnatural feeding pattern for cats, as well as a great way to make them fat.

Something I’ve found to be very beneficial for overweight cats is hiding meals in food-release toys, which encourages exercise, provides mental stimulation and allows kitties to “hunt” their food as they would in the wild. Once your cat has reached his ideal body weight, feeding two portion-controlled meals each day typically works well for most households.

A Word of Caution: Cats MUST Lose Weight Slowly and Safely

It’s extremely important that you diet your cat slowly. I recommend weighing her every week until she reaches her ideal body weight. Once that’s accomplished, you can weigh her every four to six months to ensure that she’s staying at her new healthy weight. Keep in mind that weight gain in cats happens in 1- and 2-ounce increments over time, so you must stay very firm on holding her at her ideal body weight.

If your cat is obese, she’ll need to lose no more than 1/2 pound a month, because overweight kitties are prone to a very serious condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. This condition never happens in nature, because animals in the wild never become obese. Captivity has created some really strange metabolic diseases in animals, and fatty liver disease in kitties is one of them.

As an obese cat’s body senses weight being lost, it begins to mobilize accumulated stores of fat very rapidly. If weight loss occurs too quickly in an obese cat, the flood of fat can overwhelm the liver and shut it down. Very overweight cats 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 1 pound a month. What’s important is that your cat’s weight goes down and not up. But this weight loss should progress very slowly and steadily over time. You should see measurable weight loss every month, but some kitties should lose weight much more slowly than I’ve outlined here, due to existing medical issues, like diabetes or other chronic conditions.

You should work with your veterinarian to determine a safe, healthy amount of weight loss for your individual cat, and the rate at which the weight loss should occur. It’s also very important not to change your cat’s food while she’s dieting. If she rejects a new food and won’t eat, it can trigger a whole host of metabolic problems, including fatty liver disease.