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How to Help Your Cat Lose Weight and Keep It Off

Image via iStock.com/aetb

By Kathy Blumenstock

A fat cat is a feline cliché, but overweight cats are no laughing matter. An obese cat can face all sorts of health issues, from diabetes to joint problems. Getting your kitty to a healthy cat weight will help her (and you) to feel great.

As a pet parent, you’ll have to take the lead and come up with a plan to help your cat lose the weight and keep it off.

Here are some tips on how to get your kitty started on her path to a healthier life.

Establish Mealtimes

The best thing owners can do to get their cats to lose weight is to not leave food out 24 hours a day,” says Dr. Elizabeth Arguelles of Just Cats Clinic, Reston, Virginia. “The bottomless bowl of dry food is the single biggest contributor to obesity in our cats and dogs.” It is also easy for bacteria to grow in/on food that has been left out for over an hour, leading to GI issues in some cases.

Dr. Arguelles adds that the best way to prevent your cat from becoming obese is to feed a canned cat food diet, and if that isn’t possible, to “measure out dry food daily; the feeding guides on food bags are almost always wrong about how much to give. Most cats need only about a half-cup of dry food per 24 hours.”

Dr. Arguelles recommends consulting your vet to create an individualized plan to help your cat lose weight. She can help you figure out which type of cat food is best for your cat and how much you should feed her.

Veterinarians can help owners calculate calories to not only assist with weight loss, but to also help satiate your cat’s hunger.

Dr. Arguelles also emphasizes that owners should not push for a quick drop in weight. “We only want cats to lose half a pound to one pound per month. Any faster than that and they can become ill with fatty liver disease.”

Find the Right Cat Food

Dr. Kelly Stark of Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Alexandria, Virginia, agrees. “It’s important to evaluate how much you’re currently feeding and work with your vet to determine a safe amount to reduce that food intake.”

Dr. Stark says you and your vet may also consider changing foods, “to either a weight management or metabolic diet—essentially one that is higher in protein and fiber—while maintaining other necessary nutrients to help your kitty feel full longer.”

Dr. Stark says this can be a healthy alternative to simply cutting calories because “you need to ensure your cat is still getting all the nutrition needed while safely losing weight.”

She also reminds cat parents that both exercise and nutrition are important for achieving that initial weight loss along with the long-term maintenance of a healthy cat weight. “Every cat is different, and some are more predisposed to gaining weight,” she explains.

Use Cat Toys to Make Mealtime Fun

Dr. Carlo Siracusa of University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine says cat parents should adjust “not just the type or amounts of food but also the schedule and the way the food is delivered. Keep in mind that feral or semi-feral cats eat multiple (about 10) small preys throughout their days.”

He says that, ideally, cats should be fed multiple small meals throughout the day. He also recommends using “food toys or prey-like feeding devices.” Dr. Siracusa likes the idea of a cat using “a prey-like toy for a few minutes and then ending the sequence with the administration of a small meal. This is a great form of environmental enrichment.”

For an interactive pre-meal invitation, the Jackson Galaxy Mojo Maker laser wand teaser cat toy features a feathery toy that simulates a flying bird as well as a removable laser.

Food for Thought

For Dr. Liz Bales of Red Lion Veterinary Hospital in Newark, Delaware, her own concern for cats and their weight issues inspired her to create the company Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co., which focuses on solutions to feline overeating.

“Simply changing what is in the bowl rarely results in successful weight reduction in cats,” Dr. Bales explains. “In fact, I see many cats actually gain weight when put on a low-calorie diet.”

Her innovative cat toy—the Doc & Phoebe's Cat Co. Indoor Hunting cat feeder kit—is designed to, as Dr. Bales likes to say, “channel your cat's inner panther.”    

The kit contains three cat toy mice that you can fill with your cat’s food. You can then toss or hide them around the house to spur your kitty’s hunting instincts.

“Hide them high and low around the house before you leave for work in the morning and before you go to bed at night,” says Dr. Bales.

While they may seem small, Dr. Bales reminds cat parents that a cat’s stomachs is “approximately the size of a ping-pong ball. Mother nature designed it that way to receive a mouse-portion meal.”

Tips for Helping Senior Cats Lose Weight

When helping older cats lose weight, Dr. Stark says, “It’s important to couple your weight loss goals with routine bloodwork. There are several diseases that older cats are especially susceptible to that can cause weight loss, such as kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.”

You should monitor senior cats’ weight loss closely, Dr. Stark adds. If a senior cat is losing too much weight or losing weight too quickly, she will need to be taken to the vet for a medical evaluation.

She says that specially formulated senior diets for cats are also a good option for older cats because, “just like people, cats’ metabolism can slow as they age.”

Cat foods formulated for seniors may be slightly lower in calories, Dr. Stark explains, while still maintaining a nutritionally balanced diet. They may include supplements that can help with joint health, such as glucosamine or omega-3 fatty acids, or probiotics that can help to support your cat’s digestive system.

Dr. Bales agrees that because older, less active cats may have slower metabolisms, it can make weight loss more challenging.

Make Time to Play With Your Cat for Exercise

Dr. Bales highlights the need for incorporating exercise into your cat’s daily routine. “For successful weight loss, follow a three-step process. Or, as I call it, ‘Simple as 1-2-3,’” she says. You need to be strict about portion control, create fun and innovative ways to turn mealtime into a hunt, and finally, “schedule 5-minute active play sessions with your cat twice a day.”

Dr. Bales urges all of us to “Grab a wand, laser or your cat’s favorite toy to chase and play. This high-energy together time is great for bonding and exercise.”

A variety of fun cat toys are available to get your cat up and moving. The Pet Fit Life 2 feather wand cat toy is a way to entice your kitty to engage in some high-energy playtime.

Dr. Stark suggests lasers, wand toys, cat plush toys and cat tunnels to help keep your cat active. “Some cats also love simple things like toilet paper rolls, empty boxes or large pom-poms from craft stores.” Whatever cat-safe items that will motivate your cat to get in motion will work.

A cat treat toy can also get your kitty playing, says Dr. Stark. She explains that she likes these toys “because they, along with no-bowl systems, hone in on your cat’s natural hunting behavior.”

Cat toys like the CatIt treat ball cat toy encourage your cat to earn her cat food or cat treats.

If you decide to reward your cat with some treats, Dr. Stark cautions, “Treats should make up less than 10 percent of a cat’s daily calorie intake.”

Helping Your Cat Maintain a Healthy Cat Weight

As your cat hits her target healthy weight, you’ll both need to work to maintain it.

You will need to talk with your veterinarian to find out the best ways to help your cat maintain a healthy weight. Dr. Stark says that, in many cases, once a cat hits her target weight, you will maintain the current food portion sizes. In some cases, you may have to increase it a bit to ensure your cat does not continue to lose weight. 

Dr. Stark emphasizes the need to “Keep up those habits you established to help your cat in the first place, such as scheduled playtime. This not only helps your kitty stay lean but also stimulates the mind and joints and strengthens the bond you have with your cat.”