Feline Obesity

By Jean Hofve, DVM

Obesity is a serious problem for our feline friends; it affects at least 58% of American cats today. Many serious health problems can result from obesity, such as arthritis, liver disease, heart failure, inflammatory bowel disease, urinary tract problems, skin conditions, diabetes, and many more.

When possible, prevention is better than cure; don’t allow your cat to become overweight in the first place. Pay attention to your kitten’s growth to make sure he does not fill out “too much.” The average weight gain for a kitten is approximately one pound per month up to 8-10 pounds.

How can you tell if your cat’s too fat? You should be able to feel the ribs easily, without excessive padding between the skin and ribs. Even thin cats may have a little “pooch” in the belly between the hind legs, but this should not be excessive. From above, there should be a bit of a waist, rather than a bulge, between ribs and hips. From the side, the abdomen should tuck up a little bit.

Body Condition Score Chart

While nutritionists simplify obesity as a matter of “too many calories in and too few calories expended,” it is obviously not that simple. Obesity is a symptom of a systemic imbalance, basically a disease state. Dieting (starving) a cat down to his “ideal” weight does not address the cause of the problem. Common contributors to obesity include:

  • In a multi-cat household, when one cat goes to the food bowl, curiosity or competition may cause another cat to investigate and, while she’s there, take a few nibbles. Enough nibbles over time can create a big problem!
  • Boredom also plays a role. Cats who are home alone all day may eat just for something pleasurable to do. Spending quality time with your cat, particularly using play therapy sessions, will be a crucial part of a weight loss program.
  • Fear eating can be a factor for former stray cats who have had to struggle to survive on the streets; these cats often have significant “food issues,” and will often become overweight if food is constantly available.
  • Treats can contribute quite a few calories to a cat’s daily fare. The client who claimed he only fed his 26-pound cat 1/4 cup of “light” food per day was a mystery–until he admitted to also giving the cat 19 Pounce treats a day!

As a veterinarian, I don’t like to put cats on a “diet”. Diets must often be severe in order to comply with current calorie theories, and this may cause even worse problems, such as life-threatening liver disease. Skipping a single meal can throw a sensitive cat into a serious problem. Moreover, while lots of vets will sell you weight-control food for your cat, very few of them will tell you that excessive or free-choice feeding of such foods usually results in weight gain rather than loss. You still have to control the cat’s food intake (likely much more than the directions say).

Animals may consume excessive amounts of a food because they can’t digest it properly; or perhaps because there aren’t enough of certain nutrients for her particular metabolism; or some nutrients are not in an a sufficiently “bioavailable” form–that is, they can’t be assimilated properly. These are concerns with inexpensive and generic foods, as well as with some “light” and “diet” foods that contain excessive levels of fiber.

Dry food is where the most dangerous calories are. The feline is uniquely adapted to get energy from protein and fat; the cat’s natural prey diet contains very little carbohydrate. For most cats, carbohydrates are converted to fat, rather than be burned for energy. Clearly, this is the opposite of where we want to go!

Commercial pet foods tend to contain poor quality fats; this is especially true of dry food. Therefore it is important to add the right kind of essential Omega-3 fatty acids–even though it seems counter-intuitive that the cat needs more fat in order to lose weight in a healthy manner!

There are two major strategies for helping a fat cat lose weight.

Feed in timed meals. For most cats, it’s best to feed them on a timed-meal schedule. That is, don’t leave the food out all the time, but rather put the food out for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a day. Cats figure out this schedule quickly. Not all cats will lose weight with this change alone, but usually you can keep them from continuing to gain. (Caution: some medical conditions require special feeding regimens; talk to your veterinarian if your cat has a chronic health condition.)

Feed wet food. For optimal, healthy weight loss, feed 100% canned food and get rid of the dry altogether. (See 10 Reasons Why Dry Food is Bad for Cats and Dogs) This is easy for some cats, but very difficult for others. (See Switching Foods for why and how to get a finicky cat to eat something new!) Always make sure kitty is still eating; some cats are so addicted to their dry food that they will go on a hunger strike without it, which can lead to life-threatening liver disease. Work with your veterinarian when changing diets to minimize the risk to your cat.

A high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (think “Atkins”–or should we say, “Catkins”!) is truly ideal for the cat. Most canned cat and kitten foods meet these standards; choose those with the least carbohydrate. You can get a fair idea of carbohydrate content by simply subtracting all the listed percentages on the label from 100%. About 8% carbohydrate (or less) is best. Raw foods, whether frozen, dehydrated, freeze-dried, or homemade, tend to have a very good protein-fat-carb balance.

Human studies have overwhelmingly shown that diet is more important than exercise in a weight loss regimen. Nevertheless, increased activity is still helpful. Play therapy provides good exercise, builds her confidence, and strengthens the bond between the two of you.

When you first start restricting your cat’s food, you will probably notice an increase in begging or pestering behavior. Ignore it… this behavior will eventually go away. In fact, recent research shows that as cats lose weight, they become more interactive and affectionate, no doubt because they feel a whole lot better!

Throughout the weight management process, whatever the results, give your cat plenty of love and attention. Lots of affection will help her equate love and comfort with you–and not her food bowl.

Click here to read Floppy Cats’ interview with Dr. Jean about feline obesity.

For an in-depth look at this topic, including detailed suggestions on diet and treatment, see Fat Cats on Amazon.com or in our Little Big Cat Bookstore!



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13 comments for “Feline Obesity

  1. jhofve77
    June 14, 2012 at 8:22 am

    It will take some time for her body to “detox” off the carbs and reset her appetite. Be patient, it will come! You might want to feed her later in the evening so she doesn’t get so wiggy at the crack of dawn. And don’t let feeding be the first thing you do when you get up. Her “cue” that food is ready should be the coffee pot turning on, or the water turning off after your shower. Maybe even do a little play session first, so she “earns” her meal. (See Play Therapy for details) And definitely vary the feeding times (as much as you can) so she can’t expect it at a particular nanosecond. Cats may not be able to read a clock, but they have a very accurate one in their heads!

  2. BreenerCat
    June 14, 2012 at 2:42 am

    Thanks for the great article. I adopted a a young cat (she was approximately a year old) who was found as a stray. At the time she was very scrawny and thin. I provided Fancy Feast canned food twice a day (5:00 AM and 5:00 PM) but she cried ALL DAY long for food. I left out a small bowl of dry food for her when I was at work (that was my fatal mistake!). She went from 6 lbs to 9 lbs in 3 months and is now quite chubby. I have titrated her off the dry food, but she does not seem to be losing any weight. She wakes me up around 4:00-4:30 AM every morning to be fed. I think she plans her daily schedule around those plannned meals and I had better not be late!!

  3. Paula
    August 15, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I’m so glad I found this site! I have 2 large cats, one is really big, over 20 lbs. No vet has ever recommended feeding only wet food. In just a couple of weeks of feeding my 2 canned food, they have more energy and seem to be ever so slightly lighter!

  4. AJ
    August 13, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    Thanks everyone for your ideas. If Dr Jean could offer a true confession I can too! This plump fellow of mine took a liking to pieces of cheese too, when one slice was gone and I had not one bite he remained looking at me waiting for another slice to be opened! I am not feeding any of that “processed” food any more, they are on the FF low carb varieties but I would be most happy if I could switch everyone to a raw diet. I love the e book on obesity and will refer to it trying to slim my fat boy down. Great info in all your books thanks Dr J!

  5. jhofve77
    August 3, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Interesting idea; but of course I don’t recommend any dry food at all for cats, and somehow I don’t think a golf ball would work so well for wet food! ;-) If your cat is overweight, getting rid of the dry food is the first and most important step!

  6. mary
    August 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    My cat is overweight and also a “puker”. I read somewhere that if you put a golf ball in the dry food bowl, that they eat slower and thus do not vomit as much. So far, he has lost weight and doesn’t throw up as much. He eats Royal Canin dry and wet which is fairly expensive. My other cat eats IAMS dry only. She is a dainty eater and rarely even has a hairball.


  7. Sandra Brucks
    August 2, 2011 at 8:14 am

    I have four cats. Two pigs and two slow eaters. The way I keep the weight on each cat balanced is to feed them each in a different room. It really isn’t difficult. Each cats knows where his feeding space is and they are so used to it that when I pick up their dishes they all proceed me like little soldiers, as my cat sitter describes it. My older cat eats very slowly, and by feeding separately I make sure he has the time he needs without being rushed or having his food taken away. The room where he eats has french doors so I can see when he is finished. He gets canned food. The others get a raw diet, with a nutrition supplement. None of them get dry food. I also adjust the amount I give each cat depending on their weight so it never gets out of control. It really is not a lot of trouble and very routine… even my husband can feed the cats.

    This all started because I almost adopted a cat once who died of hepatic lipidosis before I could adopt him. I did adopt his sister, who was also grossly overweight but survived. It took over two years for her to lose the weight, partially because my first vet put her own a low calorie dry diet. Fortunately the vet retired and my new vet had just attended a conference where feline nutrition was discussed. This vet told me to feed canned. No dry. That was the beginning of the loss of weight – the diet change plus gradual introduction of exercise. And that’s what started me realizing how important diet was for my animals.

  8. jhofve77
    August 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Hi AJ, I can’t really give individualized veterinary advice, but I can say that the vast majority of cats will lose weight on an all-canned diet. Grain-free doesn’t really matter, most of them simply substitute starchy vegetables like white potatoes that are even worse for sugar metabolism. Very few are actually low-carb. You might want to check the food he will eat to make sure it doesn’t have more than 10% carbohydrates. Even Fancy Feast is okay, and actually lower carb than most. Adding extra water to the food may make it more filling, and maybe a pinch of slippery elm bark to moderate intestinal progress. Not pumpkin though–it’s all carbs.

    True confession time: I have one like that who manages to stay a little on the round side; he probably does get more than his fair share–but I finally caught the real culprit — ME! I started paying attention, and to my horror caught myself tearing off extra little pieces of chicken or cheese and other tidbits for the kitties as I cooked dinner… clearly those so-very-tiny-seeming calories really add up. My bad! So make sure your boy doesn’t have access to anything else, including me on Ambien (but my sleepwalking forays are usually only to make myself a cuppa tea. ;-) Though I have remodeled a few other things here and there…

    What I worry about with cats who overeat even good food is that there is just still something missing, something that he may not have gotten in his formative days, so that he never feels completely “satisfied.” For such cats, I consider supplementing with BioSuperfood, Omega-3 Oil, and probiotics.

  9. AJ
    August 1, 2011 at 6:50 pm

    Goodness I need help! I have a male calico (klinefelters giant?) but he is so huge, a little head but huge excessively padded body. Thing is I do feed him all canned food, but he refuses the premium grainfree ones. Can he loose strictly on any canned food? I don’t feed him kibble at all, but I do have a multi cat family and he might be eating more than his fair share and then some! Should I feed him alone? I don’t want to cage him because he will get even less exercise then. He really wants to go out at night which I absolutely will not allow, but day times he just sleeps and gets ornery when he cant go out at night!

  10. jhofve77
    August 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Fantastic! Thanks for sharing your story! He is a lucky boy to have found you!

  11. Freda
    August 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    I adopted a big 3 yr old cat from the shelter last year. His highest weight was 25 lbs 7-1/2 oz. So far he is down to 20 lbs 11-1/2 oz in 13 months. I took him off all dry food and put him and my other cat on grain-free canned food. He gets 3/4 of a 5.5 oz can per day, divided into two meals, AM and PM. It takes more effort to keep him moving around because it turns out he is blind also, so the weight loss is probably slower than if he had vision. But he plays with my other cat, and with his panic Mouse toy, and he is a wonderful happy boy! Who could ask for more?

  12. jhofve77
    August 1, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Thanks Dr. Gaskin! We just have to keep educating people, and countering the misinformation (to put it nicely) coming from the pet food companies!

  13. August 1, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Right on with wet grain free food! The carbs in dry food do cause an insulin surge (resulting in store glucose as fat and blood sugar drop signals “I’m hungry again”) that will have the cat eating the dry food again in a short time. It is next to impossible for a cat to lose weight, in a humane manner, on kibble because cats are not humans or dogs. If you try the cat will be stressed (cortisone released = bad)and the kitty will make sure the owner is stressed too. Feed a cat a carnivore diet!

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