At this time of year, as humans, we often start to think about our New Year’s resolutions. Potentially, some form of a diet, losing a few pounds, and joining a gym are popular ideas, or at least good intentions! But should such weight loss programmes also apply to our pet cats? Would they benefit from a dietary overhaul and a change in the food that they consume?

Are cats even overweight in the first instance?

Unfortunately, yes. Just as with the human population, there is an increasing prevalence of overweight cats. As many as 6 out of 10 cats are thought to be overweight or obese. Many factors can be involved; from a lack of opportunity to exercise or restricted time outdoors, to over-feeding and/or feeding the wrong sort of food. Just as with humans, genetics may also play an important role, and breed predilections may also exist. 

Neutering, whilst not a direct cause of weight gain in cats, will serve over weeks and months, to slow down the metabolism of your cat. As a result, they will unfortunately gain weight more readily. Given that the vast majority of cat owners choose to neuter their pet, it is vital that this information is imparted to owners; and that they understand the implications. As the major provider of food to your cat, you will need to take steps to actively control and quantify their food intake. Thus preventing excessive post-neutering weight gain. Hopefully, your veterinary clinic will engage in a supportive conversation with you to inspire you to control your cat’s nutritional intake and, therefore, their weight.

Overweight cats are therefore, sadly, increasingly identified within the overall cat population. As you may well have personal experience yourself, excess weight can lead to a reduction in physical activity, such that a vicious circle then develops. Overweight cats are also typically less interactive with their owners. And less energetic overall, spending less time playing and more of their day sleeping.

So, what is the ideal weight for my cat?

This will be highly variable, depending not only on the breed of your cat but also their age, degree of activity and linked to this, their lifestyle. This means there isn’t one specific recommendation for your cat’s bodyweight. Body condition score (BCS) is also used in assessing your cat’s shape, alongside their actual weight. The BCS is an objective measurement based on the visibility of ribs and vertebral column and presence of a “waist”. A BCS of 5/9 is perfect, with values above this signifying varying degrees of obesity.

And what should I do if my cat is overweight?

If you are concerned about the health and weight of your cat, your first point of call should always be to contact your veterinary surgeon. Before undertaking any measures to try to reduce your cat’s weight, a discussion with your vet alongside a clinical examination of your cat should occur. This will help identify illnesses or conditions that will affect the recommendations being made for your individual pet. 

Your vet may suggest a weight loss programme for your cat. A specially formulated “weight loss diet” and the amounts and frequency to be fed will be discussed. Such diets may either be high in fibre to promote satiety (the “feeling full” sensation). Or, have a high protein to carbohydrate ratio to delay stomach emptying, promote the maintenance of muscle mass and help mimic a more “natural” diet. Such diets will be considerably more effective for your cat to lose weight; whilst also avoiding the inevitable nutritional deficiencies (and increased hunger!) that might occur if you were to just feed your cat less of their normal food.

In terms of a wet or dry diet, the higher water content found in wet food may help with weight loss; by increasing the volume of food fed without increasing the calories given. Using kitchen scales to weigh food and keeping to the guidance given are the best ways to manage a successful weight loss programme.

Use the support from your vet practice

Increasingly within veterinary practice there may be a dedicated veterinary nurse with additional qualifications and interests in nutrition who will be your contact point and adviser through the weight loss plan. It is important to follow any nutritional recommendation made by your practice. Robust clinical and nutritional expertise is essential for success, and for the safety of your cat. Learning a new routine and developing positive behavioural habits in feeding your cat may be discussed too. With such guidance and the correct food, success usually follows. Remember not to be put off asking for help even if your podgy puss cat has been unsuccessful in the past in losing weight!

And the weight loss strategy?

Perhaps the most important factor when working towards a goal of weight loss for cats is to take time to achieve a slow, gradual and consistent weight loss. In losing weight slowly, adverse health consequences should be avoided. Typically, a successful weight loss program only anticipates a weight loss in the region of 1% of bodyweight, per week. An increased rate risks “fatty liver syndrome” or hepatic lipidosis: a complex metabolic disorder with a relatively high mortality rate. Losing weight will not (and should not!) be a quick process; time, commitment, and patience are all required.

What are the benefits?

Again, not unlike humans, cats who are a healthy weight will be more active and more agile. And they will have a significantly decreased risk for many types of disease. As a result, they will also tend to live for longer. Improved metabolism and immunological health are also likely linked to the maintenance of a healthy feline body weight. It is safe to say that starting off on the “right foot” with disciplined and portioned quantities of food and continuing this throughout your cat’s life, will bring enormous benefits in the long run. 

And the risks of being overweight?

Conversely, overweight cats are at a significantly increased risk of diabetes mellitus, urinary and joint problems; particularly degenerative joint disease (osteoarthritis). Skin conditions and constipation may also be seen and especially worryingly, some cancers may show an increased prevalence in cats that are too heavy.

Other helpful strategies 

Restricting your cat’s calories will be vital for weight loss. But both increasing your cat’s activity level through environmental enrichment (shelves, cat trees, access to vertical spaces etc.) and incorporating puzzle feeders and toys may also help. Puzzle feeders may also have the benefit of slowing down your cat’s eating. This will allow them to feel more satisfied with a slower rate of food consumption. And they provide additional mental stimulation too.

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