It seems people don’t talk that much about fat cats. For the most part, they are hidden in our homes and their daily schedule of nap after nap seems to be the ideal life of a pampered pet. Besides, “He/she really doesn’t eat that much.” That is an exact quote from over 90% of cat owners immediately after I tell them for the first time that their cat is obese. While it is true that it seems cats don’t eat much, weight gain is caused by one thing 100% of the time-taking in more calories than are expended.

It is very easy for a cat to get into the vicious cycle of weight gain-especially indoor cats. Indoor cats have very little to stimulate them to be active, so they lay around most of the day with brief breaks to use the litter box and grab some food out of their dish. Over time they start to get heavy, their metabolism begins to slow down as the pounds add on, they get even less active, they gain more weight, their metabolism slows down more, and the cycle continues.

There are many health problems associated with obesity in cats, but I want to address one specifically because I think it is much more common than most people realize. Older cats, and especially obese older cats, are especially prone to arthritis in their back and this can cause tremendous pain. Signs of this back pain include reluctance to move unless absolutely necessary, consistently seeking out the warmest place in the house, no longer jumping up onto its favorite resting place, unwillingness to climb into litter box to relieve itself, and failure to groom itself resulting in matted hair down the middle of the back and around the backend. Cats don’t show pain in any obvious ways, but these are all signs of a painful cat.

Clearly feline obesity is an issue and can dramatically affect the quality of your cat’s life and even shorten your cat’s life, but what is the cure? The cure is to have them take in fewer calories than they burn off, and there are three steps necessary to accomplish this. The first step is to feed a low calorie food. Don’t rely on the label stating it is for overweight cats or less active cats. You MUST check the calories of the food. I would recommend a dry food that has no more than 320 calories per cup of food, and the lower the calories the better. Your veterinarian most likely has a prescription low calorie food, but there are some available at pet stores as well. Unfortunately, the calories aren’t listed on most foods so you will need to call the company or check their website to get the calories. The goal for most cats will be to feed anywhere from 200-260 calories per day.

The second step is to try to increase the activity level. This is more challenging for cats than dogs, but many cats will chase after wads of paper, chase after lights from flashlights and lasers, and jump at toys suspended above their heads.

Lastly and most importantly, divide the total daily amount of food (which should be 2/3-3/4 of a cup) into 3-5 meals a day. This is beneficial for several reasons. Cats would much rather get several small, “fresh” meals a day than to have all the food for the day thrown into a bowl once daily. Cats that are fed this way have been shown to have fewer behavioral problems. I recommend not feeding a small meal until the cat has expended some energy asking for it. Let the cat bug you and follow you around a little first. This will burn some of those calories off. Also, every time a cat eats it sparks the metabolism into action. So, feeding several times a day will keep that metabolism “revved up.”

If you follow these steps and your cat isn’t losing weight, then decrease the total calories fed for the day by 10% until you see the weight coming off. Also, cats losing weight too fast can cause some problems. A good goal would be weight loss of a pound every 3-4 months. Weight control for a cat can mean a longer, less painful, better quality life. Who wouldn’t want that for their cat?

Chad Higgins, DVM has owned Amanda Animal Hospital for over 12 years. He is very successful at controlling the weight of his pets. Now if he could just control his own weight.