Creating a Weight Reduction Plan for Cats
Weight loss is tough for anyone - two- or four-legged! However, losing weight and getting in shape can not only add years to your cat's life, but it can also make those extra years more enjoyable. Helping your furry feline to shed a few pounds may be easier than you think. It simply requires a commitment to weight loss and fitness, attention to details, and the assistance of your veterinary healthcare team.
Why should my cat lose weight?
As little as two pounds above the ideal body weight can put your cat at risk for developing some serious medical conditions. Unfortunately, when a cat is overweight or obese it no longer is a question of if your cat will develop a condition secondary to the excess weight, but how soon and how serious. Some of the common disorders associated with excess weight include:
- type 2 diabetes - an obese cat is three times more likely to develop this serious disease than a cat of normal weight
- heart disease
- osteoarthritis (arthritis)
- increased frequency of joint injuries
- high blood pressure
- some forms of cancer - especially intra-abdominal cancers
Overweight and obese cats usually have shorter lives than their fitter, normal weight counterparts do. Heavy cats tend to physically interact less with their families and are less energetic and playful. Because they tend to lie around more, it is easier to overlook early signs of illness, since we may attribute their lethargy to their normal laziness. We are just now learning how serious and threatening a few extra pounds can be for both humans and our cuddly companions.
How should I begin a weight loss program for my cat?
Theoretically, weight loss seems simple enough: fewer calories in plus more calories out equals weight loss. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. You should never put an obese cat on a diet without veterinary supervision.
"If cats do not eat for as little as two consecutive days, they can develop a life-threatening form of liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis."
The cat's physiology is different than humans or dogs and if they do not eat for as little as two consecutive days, they can develop a life-threatening form of liver disease known as hepatic lipidosis (also called fatty liver syndrome). Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat, and will likely recommend some diagnostic testing to ensure that there are no underlying diseases or obstacles to weight loss for your cat.
How much should I feed my cat to promote weight loss?
In order to answer this question, your veterinarian will examine your cat to determine its ideal body weight, based on its body size and build. Formulas and charts have been developed to assist your veterinarian in determining this weight, as well as the number of calories required to achieve it safely.
In general, the average domestic cat should weigh approximately 8-10 pounds (3.6-4.4 kg). Based on your cat's degree of obesity, your veterinarian may recommend an initial target weight that is higher than the ideal weight. For example, if your cat is 18 pounds (8.2 kg), you can calculate its ideal weight to be 10 to 12 pounds (4.4-5.5 kg), but a more realistic initial goal may be 15 pounds (6.8 kg). After the cat loses this weight, a re-evaluation will be made to determine whether further weight loss is needed.
Here are some general guidelines for daily calorie needs based on your cat’s weight:
Ideal weight (lbs)
Calories (kcal) required to meet 80% RER per day
Note: This is a general guideline only and is not meant as a substitute from your veterinarian's specific recommendations. If your cat fails to lose weight on this amount of calories, the total will need to be reduced further.
"The amount of food that is necessary to provide this number of calories will depend on the calorie content of the food."
The amount of food that is necessary to provide this number of calories will depend on the calorie content of the food. For weight loss formulas available through your veterinarian, this information will be on the label, and a member of your veterinary healthcare team will help you determine the appropriate amount to feed. If you choose to use an alternate source of food that does not have this information on the label, you will need to contact the manufacturer to get it.
For many cats, the best way to lose weight is with a canned diet food fed several times per day, rather than leaving food down all of the time. One of the reasons canned diet foods work better is because finicky felines often prefer wet food to dry.
Eating meals rather than nibbling all day long discourages eating out of boredom or just for the sake of eating. It is vital that you count calories and measure the amount fed when entering into a weight reduction program. Feeding too much will result in no weight loss and feeding too little can result in serious health consequences such as hepatic lipidosis.
What makes veterinary weight loss diets special?
There are a number of weight control diets available at pet stores that work well for a cat who only needs to lose a small amount of weight. However, these diets are often not as effective as veterinary weight loss diets if a cat needs to lose a significant amount of weight or if your cat has other medical conditions. Not all weight loss strategies work for every cat, so there are many different diets to address this. Some weight loss diets, such as Purina Proplan OM® and Royal Canin® Calorie Control, are high protein, low carbohydrate, others such as Royal Canin® Satiety and Hills® Prescription Diet w/d have high fiber content to help the cat feel more full and stop begging for food. Some newer weight loss diets, such as Hills® Prescription Diet Metabolic, use specific nutrients that can promote increased metabolism, helping cats burn calories more quickly. Your veterinarian will be able to advise the best weight loss diet for your cat’s particular situation.
How quickly should I introduce the new reducing diet to my cat?
When you are introducing a new diet to your cat, you should allow three weeks for the transition. First, offer small amounts of the new diet in a separate bowl. If your cat is a finicky eater it may take 2-3 weeks for your cat to decide to eat it. Once your cat is eating the new diet, start by mixing ¼ of the new diet with ¾ of the old diet for two to four days. Increase to half-and-half for another two to four days and then give ¾ of the new diet mixed with ¼ of the old diet for a final three to five days before completely switching to the new diet.
To enhance the palatability of the diet food, try warming the food, adding a flavoring such as FortiFlora® (a probiotic with flavor enhancer), a small amount of salmon or tuna juice, or an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
If your cat refuses to eat the new diet, or if you have any concerns during this initial introduction period, do not hesitate to contact the veterinary clinic for advice.
What suggestions do you have to encourage my cat get more exercise?
In an ideal world, we would take a jog with our cats, but we certainly do not live in that world. Getting our cats to engage in aerobic activity is not just difficult - it goes against their very nature. Cats were not designed to function as scavengers and cooperative hunters the way humans and dogs evolved. Instead, cats evolved as stalkers who expended very little energy in seeking their prey and seldom strayed far from their territory. When cats come across prey, they burst into an intensely anaerobic and short-duration pursuit. Most wild cats pursue their prey at top speed for less than a minute. Once this activity is complete, they require hours to recover for the next hunt.
Our domestic cats are simply smaller versions of these wild felines. While we may take our dogs out for a brisk walk or jog, few cats are interested in this sort of activity. Cats prefer the hundred-yard dash to the marathon. To complicate matters further, cats have evolved to eat a diet based on meat as opposed to humans and dogs that can get their nutritional needs from a combination of vegetables and meats.
"Since cats are obligate carnivores, the dietary rules for people do not apply."
Since cats are obligate carnivores (meaning they eat meat out of biological necessity), the dietary rules for people do not apply. Many cats will lose weight more effectively on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for this reason.
You will need to use your ingenuity and creativity to convince your chunky cat to get more exercise. Some simple ideas include:
- Moving the food bowl to different locations in the house, such as upstairs or downstairs and rotate it so that the cat always has to walk to get to its food bowl. Cats are smart and if the food bowl moves upstairs, they will move upstairs to find it.
- Moving the food bowl as far away from your cat's favorite haunts as possible. Again, many overweight cats will sleep and lounge around near the food bowl so they do not have to go far to get a snack.
- Better yet – do not use a cat bowl for any dry food! Invest in special 'feeding balls' that require your cat to roll them around in order to get pieces of food as a 'reward'. With these interactive objects, you fill them with a specific amount of dry food and it is up to the cat to work at getting the food out! You can also throw their food to them to make them chase it at meal times.
- Set aside play times for your cat. Use feather toys, laser pointers, paper or foil balls, or anything else that your cat finds interesting to chase. Try to play with your cat for ten minutes twice a day. You can do this while you eat, watch television, or even read. Some of the numerous toys that move and squeak may be entertaining to your cat. For many cats, variety is important, since what is exciting today may be boring tomorrow. Make sure to follow up any laser pointer play with a small treat as some cats get frustrated not catching anything.
See the handout "Exercising Your Cat for Weight Loss" for additional ideas on exercising your cat.
How often should my cat come in for a recheck or weigh-in?
After you have put your cat on a weight loss program, it is critical that you determine if it is working for your cat. In general, your cat should be weighed at least monthly until the ideal weight is achieved.
"Each cat is an individual and may require adjustments in the recommended diet or routine before finding the correct approach."
Each cat is an individual and may require adjustments in the recommended diet or routine before finding the correct approach. The goal is generally to lose 1-2% body weight per week. Weight loss that occurs faster than this can result in severe liver disease (hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome). If there is no significant weight loss within one month (typically about one pound or 0.5 kg), then the program will need to be modified. Sometimes making only a slight change can deliver significant improvements.
When my cat is hungry, she pesters me until I feed her. Do you have any suggestions?
It is often easier to give in to the cat that wakes you at four in the morning to be fed or the cat that meows incessantly or head butts you until you feed them. These cats have trained us well and know exactly which buttons to press when it comes to getting their way. Here are some tips for handling the pesky Persian or the insatiable Siamese:
- Do not use a self-feeder. While this seems obvious, auto-feeders are nothing more than unlimited candy machines to an overweight cat.
- If you do use an automatic feeder, use one that opens with a timer. This way you can measure out the proper amount and divide it into daily meals.
- Pet your cat or play with her when she begs for food. Many cats substitute food for affection so flip the equation and you may find that playtime displaces mealtime.
- Feed small meals frequently - especially give a last feeding for those cats that like to wake you up in the wee hours begging for more goodies - divide the total volume or calories into four to six smaller meals. Whatever you do, do not feed extra food.
- Offer fresh water instead of food. If your cat is eyeing the empty food bowl, a drink of cold, fresh water may satisfy that craving.
I have more than one cat, but only one is overweight. How can I feed them different foods?
While you may come up with more creative solutions to this problem, here are a few suggestions to start:
- Feed the cats separately - this is the ideal solution for multi-cat households. Feed the overweight cat her diet in one room while feeding the other cat her food elsewhere. After allowing them to eat for a specific time, generally fifteen to thirty minutes, remove any uneaten food until the next feeding.
- Feed the normal weight cat up high where the overweight cat cannot go.
- Depending on the size discrepancy between your cats, you can devise different ways to allow the smaller cat access to food where the larger cat cannot fit. You can use a safety chain or hook and eye closure on a door, so the door opens just enough for the thin cat to get in. Alternatively, you can use a large box and cut two small doors in it to allow the smaller cat in to eat.
- There are now commercial feeding stations that only open when it recognizes your cat’s microchip!
- Never leave food out while you are away. You cannot control who eats what when you are not around.
How long will my cat need to be on a diet?
Most cats will achieve their ideal weight within six to eight months. If the process is taking longer than this, something needs to be changed. A healthy weight loss would be close to one pound per month. Some cats may need to go slower while others may shed the pounds more quickly.
"Most cats will achieve their ideal weight within six to eight months."
For most cats, the secret to weight loss is a dedicated, committed, and concerned family. Cats do not understand that their excess weight is causing them harm. It is up to us as good stewards to protect them from harm and not inadvertently contribute to their premature death or development of debilitating diseases. Together, you and your veterinary healthcare team can help your cat achieve a healthy body weight and condition safely and successfully.
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