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How to Help Your Overweight Cat

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How to Help Your Overweight Cat

Your cat’s veterinary checkup results are in: You officially have an overweight cat.

What now? How do you help your overweight cat? Now’s the time to work with your cat’s veterinarian to develop a nutrition plan specific to her needs to not only help her slim down but also avoid associated health issues, ensure continued quality of life — and keep your shared human-animal bond strong. A smart weight-loss plan features a multipronged approach: how much to feed, what to feed and how often to feed it, all while considering a cat’s age, health status and activity level, and more.

When your overweight cat is more than ‘just a little’ overweight

A cat licking his lips.

A cat licking his lips. Photography ©Mark Rogers Photography.

The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), which has been conducting annual pet obesity surveys since 2007, reported in 2017 that 60 percent of cats were classified as overweight or obese. The latter is a serious health issue cat owners want to avoid at all costs. Obesity is easy to identify but much harder to treat than slight pudge, which is why the topic of weight and nutrition must be addressed at every veterinary appointment, according to Ernie Ward, DVM, APOP founder, co-author of the American Animal Hospital Association’s Weight Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, and of Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice’s Communicating with Pet Owners About Obesity.

Cats with obesity are at increased risk of metabolic and endocrine disorders, especially type 2 diabetes, respiratory disorders and renal dysfunction, says Dr. Ward, adding that excess weight and fat tissue can cause (or worsen) osteoarthritis, hypertension and certain cancers. The most significant consequences of pet obesity, he says, is diminished quality of life and reduced life expectancy.

How to know if you have an overweight cat or an obese cat in the first place

One problem, says Susan Wynn, DVM, CVA, CVCH, DACVN, co-author of the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine: Science and Tradition and veterinary nutritionist at two Atlanta-area BluePearl pet hospitals, is that many pet parents don’t know what a “normal” cat looks like, which is why she encourages owners to ask their veterinarian to perform a body condition assessment as part of a regular checkup.

Veterinarians should be giving food recommendations for every cat, including an overall monitoring plan, specific food(s), frequency, portion size, and adjust the diet strategy when needed based on age and/or health, according to Julie Churchill, DVM, PhD, DACVN, associate professor of veterinary nutrition with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

But according to APOP’s study, pet parents need to act as advocates. In fact, 48 percent of pet parents stated that their veterinarian failed to recommend a maintenance or routine diet for their pet, and 15 percent commented they “had to ask” to receive a pet food recommendation.

Responses from veterinary professionals mirrored these findings: Only 50 percent of veterinarians surveyed said they offer maintenance pet food recommendations.

How much to feed an overweight cat

The answer to what to feed an overweight cat begins with portion control. According to Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, professor of internal medicine and nutrition in the Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, the most common mistake cat owners make is overfeeding. To keep cats at a healthy weight, veterinary nutritionists recommend feeding cats between 24 to 35 calories per day, per pound.

For a normal, neutered adult cat, the Animal Medical Center of Chicago recommends a range of 132 calories per day for a 4-pound cat to 439 calories per day for a 20-pound cat, and a range of 110 calories per day for a 4-pound, obesity-prone breed to 366 calories per day for a 20-pound obesity-prone breed. Following appropriate measurement guidelines is critical, according to Troy Hexter, DVM, chief veterinary officer of Vet Innovations Inc. in Burlington, Connecticut. One cup means a true 8-ounce, level cup — not one Solo or Big Gulp cup.

However, pet food label feeding instructions are based on the needs of the average cat, so avoid feeding more than necessary if your cat’s needs fall below that threshold. Cat parents who wish to feed homemade diets for weight loss or management need to exercise caution, as well. Controlling portion sizes and calories can be tricky, says Dr. Churchill, so working with a veterinary nutritionist is key.

What to feed your overweight cat

The foundation of sound feline nutrition is a diet based on meat, fish or poultry protein, and low in hard-to-digest plant proteins. Dry food should be high in animal protein, wet food should consist mostly of meat with few byproducts or fillers, and carbs should make up no more than 10 percent of the cat food ingredient mix, according to APOP.

Does feeding dry or wet food make a difference when it comes to feline weight loss?

Dry food is fine for an overweight cat as long as it’s complete and balanced, according to Francis A. Kallfelz, DVM, PhD, DACVN, James Law emeritus professor of medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. (Cats who eat only dry food must be provided with plenty of fresh, clean water.)

Canned food, about 70 to 80 percent water, can be fed in addition to or instead of dry — supplementing dry food with canned can make meals more appealing to finicky felines. There’s no issue with mixing the two, says Dr. Kallfelz. The trick is to ensure the calories are what your cat needs — and no more.

How and when to feed an overweight cat

There are three ways to feed a cat, according to APOP: meal feeding, free feeding and combination feeding. During meal feeding, both dry and canned food is given at specific mealtimes during the day and is not freely available. Pet parents can closely monitor food intake, but they need to stay strong if the cat begs between meals.

With free-choice feeding, dry food is available at all times, which allows the cat to eat many small meals per day, per his own schedule. While this method makes it difficult to monitor intake, there are such workarounds as a puzzle or forage feeder paired with a measured amount of dry food to prevent overeating. With combo feeding, canned food is provided as the meal, and kibble is freely available. Cats can eat small multiple meals per day, per their own schedule, but total intake of food is hard to monitor. Again, a forage feeder can come in handy for a free-choice (but precisely measured) kibble-fest.

How to manage an overweight cat in multi-cat/multi-pet households

In multi-cat/multi-pet households, where effective individual monitoring of an overweight cat takes on greater importance, you just need to come up with a feeding plan, says Dr. Kallfelz, whether that means feeding them separately, in a different room or using an automated pet feeder that controls portions and access.

Feline nutrition resources Association for Pet Obesity Prevention:

  1. Association for Pet Obesity Prevention: petobesityprevention.org/weight-loss-cats
  2. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Feline Health Center: bit.ly/2BzaReu
  3. Feline Nutrition Foundation: bit.ly/2zsF7WF
  4. Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition, by Lisa A. Pierson, DVM: catinfo.org, catinfo.org/feline-obesity-an-epidemic-of-fat-cats
  5. Catster: catster.com/cat-food/how-much-should-i-feed-my-cat

Thumbnail: Photography ©steffyguaqueta | Getty Images.

About the author

Ellyce Rothrock spent half her life with Flea, a Maine Coon who lived to be 21 and is missed every single day. She’s currently seeking a feline friend to manage Fritz and Mina, her German Shepherd Dog rescues. She’s lucky enough to live her passion for pets as a 25-year member of the pet media industry.

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