Many of our cats are overweight or obese. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 59% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese.
What is the difference between being “overweight” and being “obese”? Any cat that is over its ideal weight is considered “overweight”. The usual definition of “obesity” is when a cat is 15-20% over its ideal weight. For example, if your cat weighs 10 pounds, then 12 pounds is considered obese. Many will comment “but it’s only 2 pounds!”, and granted, 2 pounds on an adult human is not significant, but on a 10-pound cat it is! For humans, this would be like a 150-pound person gaining 30 pounds.
Because cats come in all different sizes and weights, there is no “magic number” that you can use to tell if your cat is at its ideal weight. Veterinarians use a nine-point scoring system (“Body Condition Score”) to assess a cat’s weight status. A score of 4.5-5 indicates that the cat is at its ideal weight, whereas a score of 9 means that a cat is severely obese. A severely emaciated, or skinny cat would have a score of 1.
An overweight or obese cat can experience a number of health problems including diabetes, arthritis, high blood pressure, and a decreased immune response. For the health and longevity of your cat, it is important to prevent obesity in your cat.
Choose the best food. It is important that the food you feed your cat is providing all the nutritional requirements for your cat’s life stage. For example, kitten food should not be fed to a senior cat. Senior cats may do better with a calorie reduced diet that still supplies all the nutrients they need. Kittens, on the other hand need a diet that has all the nutritional requirements that will help them grow.
Avoid free feeding. Free feeding (leaving a bowl of dry food available to the cat to feed from all day), is a contributing factor to obesity in cats. Many cat owners use free feeding for convenience, but cats can consume excessive amounts of food when fed in this manner.
Switch to canned food. Switching to canned food encourages owners to feed their cat “meals” rather than free feeding with dry food. Canned food typically has a higher protein content and lower carbohydrate levels than most kibble diets.
Measure the food. With the help of your veterinarian, determine how much food your cat actually needs based on her activity level, and her ideal weight. Once you know how much food she needs, measure or weigh the food for each meal. Remember, cats are small, and the portion may look tiny to you, but a few extra kibbles can mean the difference between weight maintenance and weight gain. Switching to a smaller feeding dish may help you feel that the meals you are feeding to your cat aren’t so tiny! Feed your cat the appropriate number of meals per day based on your veterinarian’s recommendations.
Avoid treats. Eliminate treats or only use them when necessary as rewards when training, or if you need them to administer medication. Many cooked vegetables make good treats for cats – ask your veterinarian what the best treats would be for your cat. When you are providing more treats than usual, cut back on the regular food portion that day.
Encourage exercise. To avoid obesity, include exercise in your cat’s daily routine. Play with your cat for a few minutes several times a day. Play not only helps burn calories, but it also relieves boredom and keeps your cat in good physical condition. Try playing interactive games with your cat such as pounce games with a feather on a wand, or roll balls for your cat to chase. Consider a scratching post that will encourage your cat to climb and stretch her muscles.
Weigh your cat. It is sometimes hard to see increases in your cat’s weight, and gradual increases over time are easy to miss. Consider weighing your cat once a week to make sure weight isn’t sneaking on. If your cat likes to go in her carrier, use the carrier to help you. Weigh the carrier first, then place your cat in her carrier and weigh the two together. Now subtract the weight of the carrier away from the weight of the carrier plus your cat. Alternatively, weigh yourself first, then hold your cat and weigh the two of you together. Now subtract your weight away from the weight of you plus your cat. Keep in mind that most household scales are generally marked in pounds, and are not highly accurate for fractions of a pound. Your veterinarian will have more accurate scales, and if you are trying to reduce your cat’s weight, it might be best to take your cat for periodic weigh-ins at the clinic. Alternatively, it may be well worth it to purchase a digital scale that is more sensitive and able to report in tenths of pounds.
If you have recognized that your cat is overweight or obese and would like to reduce her weight, seek the help of your veterinarian. By simply reducing the amount of food or severely restricting her diet can cause serious health problems for your cat. The weight must be lost gradually over time.