If your feline friend appears a little more fluffy these days, you should be aware that as few as two pounds above their ideal body weight can put them at risk for life-altering health issues. Your cat won’t jump on the treadmill a few times a week to try to shed those extra pounds, so you will have to encourage their weight loss in other ways. To learn how to help your cat lose weight safely and effectively, our Just Cats Clinic team explains how to turn your good intentions to positive results.
What’s the big deal about overweight cats?
Cats in the wild are sleek and nimble athletes, moving with speed, accuracy, and agility to pursue, catch, and consume live prey. The modern domestic cat seldom matches this profile—instead, spending much of their day holding down the couch. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, approximately 56 million U.S. cats are overweight or obese—making almost 60% of the nation’s cats at risk for life-shortening conditions including:
- Arthritis — Your cat may be in persistent pain, leading to lethargy, and negatively impacting their day-to-day living, which can ultimately lead to premature euthanasia.
- Type 2 diabetes — Obese cats are more likely to develop diabetes than cats who maintain an ideal weight. Some type 2 diabetes signs include dehydration, weakness, and a distended abdomen. Most diabetic cats must receive daily insulin injections for the rest of their lives.
- Kidney disease — When your cat’s kidneys do not function properly, toxins build up in their bloodstream, causing weakness and lethargy. Obesity is one of the leading causes of cats’ kidney disease.
- Chronic inflammation — With signs similar to arthritis—persistent pain—chronic inflammation can cause your cat to become lethargic, compromising their activities of daily living.
- High blood pressure — The excessive weight your cat is carrying puts an additional burden on their heart, because the organ is straining to pump more blood to additional body tissue. High blood pressure can lead to heart damage, stroke, seizures, and hind leg paralysis.
- Cancer — Obese cats have an increased risk for developing cancer, epecially intra-abdominal cancers, which are difficult to treat, and generally have poor outcomes.
Assessing your cat’s body condition
During your cat’s routine examination, our Just Cats Clinic team assesses your cat’s weight and body condition. We also recommend you routinely evaluate your cat’s weight at home between clinical examinations. This simple process takes less than a minute, and can help you detect fluctuations in your cat’s weight that may warrant veterinary attention. Body condition scoring (BCS) includes:
- Rib palpation — You should easily feel (i.e., no pushing or pressing) your cat’s ribs under a slight fat covering. The ribs should not protrude, feel bony, or be visible.
- Waistline — When viewed from above in a standing position, your cat should have a well-defined waistline between their last rib and their hips. If your cat is long-haired, you may need to smooth their coat with your hands.
- Profile — The waist should also be visible from the side when the cat is standing or walking. Behind the rib cage, a healthy cat’s abdomen will curve upward to meet the belly or groin. If your cat’s silhouette appears as one continuous round shape, they are overweight. However, excess fat should not be confused with the abdominal skin flap (i.e., primordial pouch).
After observing your cat’s body condition, compare your assessment to an illustrated BCS chart, such as this one from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). If your cat’s score is outside the normal range—roughly 4 to 6, with 5 being ideal—they are underweight or overweight, and we recommend you schedule a veterinary evaluation with our Just Cats Clinic team to eliminate medical causes, and develop a weight management plan.
Your cat’s weight-loss journey
Your cat’s weight-loss journey must begin with a complete physical examination by a Just Cats Clinic veterinarian. Reducing your cat’s food intake without veterinary supervision can put your cat at risk for hepatic lipidosis—a life-threatening condition caused by inadequate nutrition. After examining your cat for concurrent medical issues that may contribute to or complicate their body condition, your veterinarian will determine your feline friend’s ideal body weight (i.e., target weight), and design a customized weight-loss plan that includes:
- Diet recommendations — High-protein and low-carbohydrate diets are best for feline weight loss because they cater to the cat’s biologic need for meat while eliminating unnecessary sugars and starches. Canned-food diets are often recommended for their increased palatability, enticing aroma, and added moisture content. When we propose your cat’s diet change, we will explain how to transition your cat gradually to the new food in a way that prevents food refusal and stomach upset.
- Caloric needs — Your veterinarian will calculate your cat’s daily caloric requirement to ensure they receive adequate nutrition to fuel their body’s processes, and achieve weight loss—and we will explain exactly how much food you should feed them.
- Feeding routine — Feeding your cat several small meals per day will help them feel more satisfied, improve their digestion, and boost their metabolism. If your cat is an early riser, try feeding them one small meal right before bedtime.
- Strategies for increasing activity — You can use your cat’s food to encourage them to move throughout the day. Scatter dry food on a blanket, hide small portions around the house, or move their food bowl to a new location at each meal. Food puzzles, cat trees, and play tunnels are also great to get your cat moving and provide mental enrichment.
- Exercise suggestions — Like the wild cat, domestic felines are designed to perform short high-intensity activity (e.g., chasing, climbing, pouncing), followed by a long recovery period. For effective weight loss, implement a similar play style that includes short frequent activity bursts (i.e., two to five minutes) throughout the day, enticing your cat with interactive prey-like toys such as feather wands, laser pointers, or motorized mice. Put away the toy after each session, and rotate toys often to prevent your cat from becoming bored.
- Persistence and monitoring — Feline weight loss requires patience, persistence, and regular follow-up veterinary visits to ensure your cat’s weight goals are being achieved. We will schedule monthly weigh-ins to re-evaluate your cat’s body condition, discuss their daily routine, and make adjustments as needed to prevent frustration or plateaus.