Weight loss in Cats

It’s a long hard road, but it’s worth it!

If there are two things I see in otherwise healthy pets that jeopardize their long-term well-being, they are obesity and dental disease. Previously I talked about the obesity epidemic in dogs, and now it’s time to discuss managing your too big kitty. (Also read: Dr. Flood's article on dental health.)

Feline obesity increases the risk of skin disease, cardiovascular stress, respiratory stress, urinary obstruction (especially male cats), diabetes mellitus, joint disease and hepatic lipidosis to name a few problems.  Any of these will be much more expensive and stressful to treat than getting weight off your cat!

Realize that weight loss in cats is very different from dogs, and if done improperly, can kill them.  This is because if cats either lose weight too quickly or stop eating due to the stress of a diet change, they can mobilize too much fat at once which accumulates in the liver causing a dangerous condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). This condition often requires hospitalization and in some cases, surgical placement of a feeding tube.

If you are interested in starting a weight loss plan for your kitty, here is an algorithm to use in conjunction with regular monitoring.

  1. Start with a visit to the veterinarian to determine body condition, ideal weight and establish a weight loss plan. We recommend doing some routine bloodwork (serum biochemistry and complete red and white blood cell count) at this time to ensure that the liver and kidneys are healthy prior to starting the weight loss plan.  This bloodwork should be rechecked at least once during the weight loss process.  Your veterinarian will also calculate the number of calories the pet should be fed, advise you on diet options (see below) and give you an exact amount to feed daily.
  2. Buy a baby scale. These are readily available from online sources for about $50 or less. You can also use a postage scale (office supply stores sell these) or cooking scale, as long as it goes up to about 20 pounds.  You will use this to weigh your cat weekly, instituting a weight loss goal of approximately 0.5 – 2% body weight loss per week. In other words, a 15 pound cat with an ideal weight of 8 pounds needs to lose between 1.2 and 4.8 ounces per week (given 1 pound = 16 ounces).  This means that it will take this kitty at least 6 months to safely lose weight, so be patient.  If weight loss is too rapid, dietary intake will need to be increased. If too slow, then either intake or type of food may need to be adjusted.
  3. Decide on a diet.  There are many options for dietary weight loss in cats. Generally, if cats are healthy, a high protein diet (at least 40% dry matter) will be selected. Both prescription and over-the-counter options are available. Many feline practitioners also advocate a switch from dry to wet food, due to the higher protein and water content and lower carbohydrates. Be prepared to try more than one diet; some cats will be very picky about what they want to eat and you may have to try several types of before you find one that works well.  Always transition cats slowly to a new food over at least 5-7 days.
  4. Meal feeding. If your cat is free fed dry food, even a weight loss food, it is unlikely that he will lose weight.  It is important to get your cat on a feeding schedule. In very hungry cats, feeding small meals 3-4 times daily may work better than twice daily.  However, do not go above the daily calorie amount recommended by your veterinarian.
  5. Exercise.  Just like anyone else losing weight, your kitty needs more exercise. Commit to adding at least 15 minutes per day to their routine, which you can break up into 5 minute bouts if that works better.  Laser pointers, bird toys, making them “fetch” for low-calorie treats or pieces of kibble, feeding toys and providing vertical climbing space such as cat towers can all be helpful. Do not encourage jumping on or off furniture for overweight cats, as that can put them at risk of joint injury or bone fractures. Check out The Indoor Cat Initiative (through Ohio State University) for ideas on improving the life of your indoor cats.

As always, contact your veterinarian along the way with any questions or concerns!