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Feline Obesity—A Common Problem

Cat eating from a slow feeder bowl
Written by Elizabeth Italia, UW-AAB
—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸

We’ve all seen some chonky cats in social media and in the news, and while some people admit to finding fat cats adorable, the negative impact excess weight can have on a cat is anything but cute.

Managing a cat’s weight is a challenging job, but it’s important to their overall health, because these cats are at an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, bladder stones, and other issues.

Let’s take a look at healthy habits you can incorporate into your cat’s daily routine that will enrich their environment, provide mental and physical stimulation, and keep their weight down.

Is My Cat Overweight?

How can you tell if your cat needs to trim down? You want to be able to feel your cat’s ribs when you touch their sides, but they shouldn’t be overly visible.

You don’t want your cat to be boney, but you do want to see a waistline when you look at their bodies from above.

Ask your vet at your annual appointment how much your cat weighs, and how much your cat should weigh based on their bone structure (and sometimes breed).

The extra skin in their abdominal area is called the primordial pouch and it’s supposed to be there. It’s existence alone isn’t an indication that your cat is overweight.

If the pouch is loose and swings easily, that is normal. If it’s a little harder and doesn’t move easily, it could be an indication that your cat is obese.

The primordial pouch has a variety of suspected purposes:

  • Protect a cat’s internal organs during a fight, especially from the other cat’s hind legs.

  • Store extra fat for times when hunting is unsuccessful. Wildcats, strays, and ferals do not always catch their prey, and the pouch helps in times when food is scarce.

  • Help cats run more efficiently. The pouch may help them stretch more when they’re taking long strides.

Why Do Indoor Cats Struggle With Obesity?

Cats in the wild are active and hunt for their food throughout the day. Think of it as many small meals (including rodents and insects), which we believe is beneficial in humans too.

These cats also work for their food, burning calories by hunting, stalking, pouncing, and killing their prey.

Now think about cats inside. They no longer need to hunt to eat, because they have us. This cuts out a large portion of their activities. The outside is vast, but being inside, they have less room to run and play.

Although many pet owners play with their cats, most of us also have jobs, families, and other responsibilities, which makes keeping up with their workout routines a challenge.

Some owners also leave food out instead of having meal times, and this is where a lot of problems arise. It can lead to cats eating when they’re bored (again, like humans), or even just because it’s there and part of their habit. Aging cats also have even slower metabolisms and are less active, but sometimes, still eat more than they need.

You can see how quickly your cat can go from svelte to chubby. Now let’s explore some tips to help your kitty maintain a healthy weight.

Tip 1: Scheduled Playtime

A good rule of thumb is to try to play with your cat 20-30 minutes a day, depending on age, health, and energy level. Do your best to get them moving: jumping in the air, running across the room, or running up and down steps.

Wand toys and laser toys are fantastic for this (be sure to replace the laser with a physical toy at some point). Some cats prefer to play alone, and that’s okay. Automatic toys can be helpful for this group.

If you really aren’t having luck encouraging play, you can also try rubbing catnip or silver vine on cat toys to encourage interest.

You can incorporate cat shelves, towers, tunnels, cat wheels, or even large podium-styled scratchers into playtime, and turn your enrichment areas into an almost kitty obstacle course.

You may need treats to initially get your cat to use the course, and treats are okay in small amounts. You can even lower the amount of regular food you feed them to balance out the calories. Again, this is just temporary until your cat learns what to do.

How do you know when your cat doesn’t want to play anymore? Your cat is done playing when they walk away, lie down, lose interest, or start panting. 

Tip 2: Scheduled Mealtime

I always recommend scheduled mealtime with measured food for a few reasons:

  1. It helps build or strengthen the bond between you and your cat because they know you will provide them with food. You want your cat to experience as many good things as possible and associate them with you, their owner.

  2. You’ll have better control over your cat’s weight if you’re measuring out the food and giving it to them. Always remove unfinished food. If your cat finishes their food, don’t feed them again until their next mealtime. Talk with your vet about your cat’s weight and diet, and they can advise you on meal portions.

  3. You can monitor eating habits, which can be an early indication of a problem. If a bowl always has food, it’s much harder to quickly tell if your cat is eating more, less, or not at all. Lack of appetite can be the first sign of an issue.

  4. It creates a schedule and structure is helpful for all living things, including you. After you’ve talked to your vet about portions, you can decide how to divide up the food into mealtimes. Obviously, more smaller meals is better than fewer larger ones, but do what works with your schedule and household.

    And, if you get another cat, the cat will also adapt to the new schedule, likely mimicking the resident cats around mealtimes. 

It’s important not to deviate from your schedule, because if you get up one time overnight to feed them, they will remember, and you will regret your decision the next night. Regardless of how many fosters I have, the mealtimes are the same for them and my resident cats: 9 a.m., 5 p.m., 9 p.m.

Although the exact moment may differ slightly, they still get three meals a day, and none are during what’s considered normal sleeping hours. All the cats start meowing and pacing when it gets close to each time.

They do not meow for food overnight, because they know that I do not get up to feed them overnight. If I get a newer foster who does that, they stop it pretty quickly when they realize it has no effect.

Tip 3: Slow Feeders & Food Puzzles

Slow feeders and food puzzles add elements to an eating vessel so your cat has to play or forage for their food. This often involves using their paws and sometimes their noses to move and access the food. These feeders and puzzles come in all sorts of materials and designs. Some food puzzles are egg shaped and have holes.

Your cat has to bat them around to get food or treats to come out. Other ones are more complex, with multiple types of tasks. They can have ridges and raised pieces, thin channels, or even tiny bowls or channels that your cat needs to reach into with their paws.

By providing mental and physical stimulation, you’re stimulating what your cat would do if they were hunting outside. Hunting involves problem solving, and bringing that indoors also provides enrichment.

Slow feeders and puzzles help with obesity because your cat eats slower and will get full sooner. It’s sort of like when we eat too fast, we’re sometimes still hungry, then suddenly, we know our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.

Another thing slow feeders do is help with the scarf ‘n’ barfers. Some cats eat so fast and end up throwing up their entire meal. By making your cat work for their food, they’ll eat slower, decreasing the chances of them vomiting after.

When you get a feeder or puzzles, you have to start by making the food super easy for the cat to get. Each time you use it, make it a little more challenging, and your cat will continue to problem solve to get their food. Make sure to use the same amount of food you normally would give them for a meal.

If you want to start super simple or if you work at an animal shelter or rescue where resources are limited, you can make a food puzzle by putting treats inside of a toilet paper roll and folding the openings inward to close it.

Regular playtime, schedule mealtimes, and slow feeders and food puzzles will help your kitty maintain a healthy weight. You may even want to teach your cat to go for walks or walk on a cat wheel. Keep their weight down and you’ll decrease the health risks associated with obesity, and help them live longer, happier lives.


Featured Product:

Ceramic Slow Feeder for Cats


International Cat Care. Puzzle Feeders.
Litter Robot Blog. Your Cat Has a Primordial Pouch.


Article by  🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist