FELINE OBESITY: HOW TO PREVENT & TREAT IT NATURALLY
By Dr. Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS
It might look cute when our cats get a little chubby, but feline obesity isn’t as cute when it comes to your cat’s long-term health! Obesity can be a real problem for cats, and many owners might not know how to avoid or treat it.
Photo by Marva Marrow
We get it - it can be hard to say no to your favorite feline when they want another snack, more kibble, or whatever it is you’re munching on. For your cat’s well-being, however, it’s important to understand how to prevent and treat feline obesity. Learn more today.
Why is feline obesity dangerous for your cat?
Chunky might be cute, but it isn’t safe for your cat to be continually overweight. Cats may have weight increases and decreases from time to time, but feline obesity is a dangerous condition.
The biggest issue with obesity in cats is that it leads to many other health issues. From a decreased lifespan to an increased risk of diabetes and kidney disease, obesity leads to an overall decrease in the cat’s well-being.
Overweight cats also won’t be able to do as much as other cats can when it comes to playing, hunting, and exploring their homes. These behaviors are all cat-specific actions that make them live happier lives, but overweight cats can’t enjoy them as readily.
Check out this video where Veterinarian Pete Wedderburn, DVM, of All About Cats explains the causes of obesity in cats, how to know if your cat's overweight, and how to help your cat reach a healthy weight.
How can I tell if my cat is too fat?
The first step to fixing obesity in cats is to recognize it. Learning to tell whether your cat is an ideal weight is an important part of being a good cat parent. So, what weight should an adult cat be? Well, it varies. Some adult cats are small in stature and are an ideal weight at just 5lbs, whilst other large breeds are healthy at 25lbs.
For this reason, vets use the ‘body condition score’, a method of estimating the amount of body fat a cat has by looking at his shape and feeling his ribs and waistline. On a 9-point body condition score, your cat should be a 4 or a 5. In other words, he should have a visible waist from above, and a ‘tummy tuck’ when viewed from the side. His ribs should be easy to feel with minimal fat covering, but you shouldn’t be able to see his spine or hip bones.
Body condition scoring takes a while to learn and owners are notorious for under-estimating so, whilst you’re getting the hang of it, it’s a good idea to get a vet or tech to double-check your estimates to make sure you’re on the right track.
What is safe weight loss in cats?
Once you’ve identified that your cat is overweight, it’s time to think about weight loss. In cats, it’s essential that they don’t lose weight too quickly. Starving a cat (or excessive calorie restriction) to encourage weight loss can cause hepatic lipidosis, a liver disease that can become fatal. So, what’s a safe rate of weight loss for cats?
Generally, opting for around 1% body weight loss per week is about right. Whilst most cats will be close to their ideal weight after eight months, severely obese cats can take a year or more to reach their target weight with a safe amount of weight loss.
Your veterinarian can help you to determine your cat’s target weight, but if you know your cat’s weight when they were a healthy adult, this is a good weight to aim for to start with!
Photo by Marva Marrow
How do I get my cat to lose weight?
Like people, weight gain in cats occurs when they eat more calories than they use each day. Conversely, weight loss happens when they use more calories than they eat. This means that getting a cat to lose weight is based on two things: decreasing calorie intake, and increasing calorie usage. Or, ‘diet and exercise’.
How can I choose a diet to help my cat's weight?
Restricting your cat’s intake of their normal cat food might help for cats that are only slightly overweight, but obese cats usually need a specialized diet cat food.
Commercial cat foods formulated to help cats diet should be high in protein, with at least 35% crude protein and possibly more. (Note: your cat food label protein content is likely ‘as fed’ – you should convert it to ‘dry matter’ to be able to compare it to other foods). They should also be less calorie dense, meaning they have fewer calories per gram of food.
Prescription cat diet foods go even further – they have higher levels of vitamins and minerals, to ensure you aren’t inadvertently restricting these when you restrict your cat’s food intake. They also have added ingredients known to help boost your cat’s metabolism, and higher fiber to help your cat feel full even though they are eating fewer calories, which reduces begging behavior and helps your cat to feel satisfied.
How do I change my cat's diet to help with weight loss?
Cats are finicky, and if they get the idea you’re thinking of dieting them they’ll definitely rebel! So what can you do?
Firstly, transition over to the new food slowly – adding a tiny amount of the new food each day to help your cat get used to the new flavor. Aim for a 3 week transition to reduce the chance that your cat rebels. Don’t start changing your cat’s diet when they feel ill, as they’ll later refuse the food – make sure they haven’t got a stomach upset or anything wrong before you start.
You can also increase the palatability of the new diet by adding a flavoring such as a tiny amount of salmon juice or some omega-3 supplements to persuade your cat to try it. This isn’t a long-term solution due to the extra calories it contains, but most cats will eat a diet with relish if salmon is involved!
What are some healthy treats I can give my overweight cat?
It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of your cat’s calories are likely coming in treats and tidbits. In fact, even
home-cooking food and adding ‘healthy’ extras is known to be a risk factor for obesity.
So, what can you give your cat instead? Here are some ideas:
Playtime and attention are suitable substitutes for food. Your cat might be pestering you simply because they want to interact with you, so try petting them, grooming them, or initiating a game if they’re pestering for a treat.
Zucchini (courgette) is a vet’s secret weapon when it comes to dieting cats. Zucchini is mostly made of water, and is low in fat and calories, so it makes a great snack. You can give it steamed or raw, but it’s best to peel it.
Use normal treats, but adjust her diet. You can also decide that you’re going to give your cat a set number of treats per day – say, 5 Dreamies – and then reduce her dinnertime calories by the same amount. Remember, you should never give your cat more than 10% of their calories from an unbalanced source such as treats, as this can cause nutritional deficiencies.
Hint #1: Dry Kibble Might be Part of the Problem
Even though it’s one of the most commonly used cat foods, dry kibble can actually be a major contributing factor to feline obesity. It’s one of the risk factors found by several studies, but it’s not clear why this is the case.
Whilst some people blame the carbohydrate content of kibble, there’s currently no sufficient evidence that carbohydrates increase the risk for diabetes or weight gain. In fact, one study showed that adding water to dry food prevented weight gain, and current evidence suggests carbohydrate content is not likely to be the biggest concern in the development of obesity. In fact, it’s possible that dry food is simply more likely to be ‘free fed’ so calorie restriction is difficult and overeating is more common.
Hint #2: More Protein May Help
When cats feel hungry, they are going to eat if food is available to them. Cat owners may think that this means their cats enjoy overeating, but the reasoning is actually very nutritional in nature. Cats that aren’t getting enough protein in their diet are going to feel hungry often.
By increasing the amount of protein in their diet, you can help your cat to feel satisfied and satiated by what they eat. Without restriction, this has been one of the most successful ways to help cats lose weight.
Simply put, high-protein feeding with less fat can ensure cats only eat as much as they need to, and this helps them to drop pounds easily.
Hint #3: Use Food Puzzles to Slow Eating!
The best solutions that you can find for feline obesity are going to be those that rely on natural behaviors. Since a wild cat will spend a large part of his day hunting, try mimicking this exercise (and mental stimulation) by using treat balls, puzzle feeders, and slow feeders.
As with humans, slower eating allows your cat’s body to produce the hormones to say that they’re full. Your cat will be less likely to notice a small portion if it takes them a lot longer to eat it. Not only this, but they’ll be encouraged to move more, expending calories whilst they ‘hunt’ a food down. Try using several puzzle feeders in rotation to keep your cat busy and guessing!
Hint #4: Most Cats Need Portion Control
While increasing protein levels can help some cats to stop overeating, other cats will simply eat as much food as they can find without ever stopping. This can be caused by past starvation trauma or other psychological issues.
Even if your cat doesn’t finish what’s in his bowl each day, it’s a good idea to calculate the amount of calories he’s eating – it might surprise you! Your vet will be able to help you work out how many calories your cat needs each day – whether you feed this and leave it out for your cat to graze or portion it out into meals, at least you know your cat is getting only the calories he needs.
Hint #5: They Need More Water
Just as it can be beneficial for humans, making sure that your cat drinks enough water can help them to lose weight. Drinking more water helps cats to feel full, and they will be less tempted to look for food if they feel full. Make sure you have a water fountain that your cat likes to drink from. Fountains with running water are used by cats more than plain water dishes.
Photo by Marva Marrow
Estimates vary, but some studies think that more than 50% of cats in the US and Europe are overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of several diseases and reduces life expectancy, meaning it’s a serious disease that needs appropriate prevention and treatment. If you think your cat might have piled on the pounds, talking to your vet about it will help you get a clearer idea of how big the problem is, and get you tailored advice on solving it.
Dr. Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet and freelance writer, working mainly with companion animals. https://allaboutcats.com/community/activity/joanna-woodnutt