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A vet's guide to healthy weight loss for cats

An overweight cat asleep on a sofa
(Image credit: Getty)

Weight loss for cats should be a top priority, considering that nearly 60% of cats within the United States are overweight or obese. While it can be easy to ignore a few extra pounds of 'fluff' on your beloved pet , the reality is that this extra weight can predispose your cat to a number of health problems. Overweight cats are more likely to develop joint pain, due to increased pressure on the joints and inflammatory factors released from fatty tissue. Overweight cats are also prone to diabetes, in which the body does not respond normally to insulin. Finally, overweight cats are often unable to groom themselves properly, which can lead to skin infections and urinary tract infections. Fortunately, weight loss can help prevent these problems. 

Why do cats become overweight?

Cats, like humans, maintain a healthy weight when they burn all of the calories they consume. Eating more calories than they expend through activity leads to obesity. This means that obesity can have two potential causes: excessive food intake or inadequate exercise. 

Think about feral or stray cats: they spend much of their day chasing and hunting down small prey. This results in significant energy consumption, with relatively small food rewards. Contrast this to a typical indoor house cat: most pet cats spend their days laying on the couch, periodically walking over to the food bowl to ingest a large meal of cat food. When viewed through this lens, it’s not difficult to see why obesity is such a common issue as cats! 

In order to help your cat lose weight, you will need to use a two-pronged approach: decrease your cat’s caloric intake, while simultaneously increasing your cat’s activity level.

Involve your veterinarian 

Before starting a weight-loss program for your cat, it’s best to visit the veterinarian. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam, and may also recommend laboratory tests. This veterinary workup can help rule out underlying conditions that might contribute to your cat’s excess weight. 

Your veterinarian can also recommend a safe rate of weight loss in your cat. Overweight or obese cats who suddenly stop eating, or have their calories severely restricted, are prone to a condition known as hepatic lipidosis. When a cat suddenly stops obtaining adequate calories from food and shifts to mobilizing large amounts of fat, this fat can harm the liver and even lead to death. By following your veterinarian’s guidelines, you can ensure that your cat loses weight in a healthy way that decreases the risk of hepatic lipidosis. 

Regulate your cat’s food intake

In order to help your cat lose weight, you need to decrease your cat’s calorie consumption. There are two primary ways to do this, but using both strategies simultaneously can help maximize your chances of success.  

First, consider transitioning your cat to a food that is less calorie-dense. Unless your cat is on a therapeutic diet prescribed by your veterinarian, you can consider a reduced-calorie diet. These foods are available in both dry and canned formulations, but are designed to be less calorie-dense than traditional adult cat food. There are even prescription weight loss diets (in which calories are restricted even further) that are available through your veterinarian. 

The other weight-loss strategy is to decrease the amount of food that your cat receives on a daily basis. If your cat is currently fed free-choice (from a bowl that you keep full at all times), transition to feeding your cat a measured quantity of food each day. The recommendations on the cat food label are often a good starting point. You can divide your cat’s food into multiple small meals per day or feed one large meal per day; either approach will work, although there is evidence that once-daily feeding may be more effective at promoting weight loss in cats. Be aware that every cat has a different metabolism; therefore, it may take some trial and error to find the food quantity that helps promote weight loss for your cat. Weigh your cat at the beginning of your weight loss program; if your cat has not lost any weight after several weeks, further decrease the food quantity by 10%. 

Finally, ensure that your cat is not receiving additional calories from cat treats or table food. If you do give your cat treats, they should form a very small portion of the diet and your cat’s food intake will need to be decreased accordingly. 

weight loss for cats

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Help your cat burn more energy

Indoor cats typically lead sedentary lives. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help increase your cat’s activity level. 

Make a conscious effort to play with your cat. Every cat has different preferences, but the best cat toys such as balls, teaser toys (toys with a feather on the end of string that can be moved around using a wand), and the best laser toys for cats can all provide interactive play that encourages your cat to run, jump, and be more active. 

Consider rearranging your home to encourage activity. For example, if you have a two story home, you may want to place your cat’s favorite bed, or even his food bowl, on the second story of the house to encourage him to climb the stairs more frequently. Even this relatively small change can help promote weight loss. If you do move the food bowl, however, be sure that your cat finds it and is eating on a daily basis, in order to prevent hepatic lipidosis! Also, avoid making the litter box inaccessible, because this may encourage inappropriate elimination. 

You can also make changes to your cat’s feeding routine, in order to more closely mimic his natural hunting behavior. Doc and Phoebe’s Indoor Hunting Feeder [Description: This veterinarian-designed cat feeder is designed to mimic normal feline hunting behavior in order to prevent boredom and aid in healthy weight maintenance.] and other puzzle feeders can be used to feed your cat’s daily meals in a way that requires engagement and activity from your cat. By replacing passive meals at the food bowl with active feeding methods, you can help increase your cat’s energy expenditures. 

Make weight loss a priority

Given the large number of overweight cats in our society, it’s easy to view feline obesity as a normal or natural condition that isn’t problematic. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth! Carrying extra weight predisposes your cat to a number of serious health problems, as well as having negative effects on your cat’s overall quality of life. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.