Obesity is one of the most common health conditions affecting domestic cats these days.
With most cats living in indoor environments and having easy access to food, it is very easy for cats to slowly gain weight, gradually becoming obese, often without their owners even noticing.
In this article we will discuss how to monitor your cat’s body condition, the causes of obesity in cats, health problems linked with obesity, how to prevent cats from becoming overweight, and how to help cats lose weight.
We understand that weight can be a very touchy subject. We hope this article helps cat owners feel comfortable talking about it and feel empowered in managing their cats’ weight, no matter where they are on the scale right now.
Body Condition Score
Even though the word weight is mentioned often when we talk about cats being overweight or obese, what we really want to focus on is body condition scoring. Weight in and of itself is very relative.
For instance, a typical standard domestic cat should weigh on average, about 10 pounds. However, Main Coons will have a normal weight that is much greater than that- sometimes upwards of 20 pounds, yet still have a good body condition.
Additionally, there are some domestic shorthair cats that are just bigger than their typical counterparts, and a normal weight for them may be closer to 15 pounds.
So, what we want to focus on is not so much weight, but body condition score, or BCS, for short. Grading BCS can be done on a scale of 1-9, with 1 being significantly underweight and 9 being significantly overweight.
An ideal cat, with a score of 5, will have very little fat covering their ribs. This means you should be able to easily feel their ribs when you pet them. You will also be able to notice a waistline and just generally see a good outline of their body and physique.
Even though it is common to see many cats with a “fat pad” on their underbelly, cats with an ideal body condition should have little to no fat pad hanging down.
The following chart can help guide you in determining what your cat’s current body condition score is. And you can use it to monitor your cat’s physique throughout the months and years, so you can make any necessary changes if they seem to be getting a little plump.
Causes of Obesity in Cats
There are many factors that contribute to cats becoming overweight and obese. We will break each of these down to better understand them.
Just like people, cats are individuals and each has their own metabolism. Some cats’ metabolism is just slower than others, and there is no good way to tell if your cat is prone to packing on the pounds.
Additionally, after a cat is spayed or neutered, their metabolism slows down as they no longer are producing sex hormones.
It is still very important to spay and neuter our cats to prevent unwanted pregnancies and behaviors, as well as to prevent certain types of cancers later in life.
However, once a cat is spayed or neutered, their feed intake will need to be decreased to accommodate their decreased caloric needs.
Even though there are some cats that venture outside, the majority of our domestic cats live indoors these days. Therefore, their ability to run, jump, climb, and play is quite limited. Once their kitten energy wears off, they tend to just eat, sleep, and lie around most of the day.
Add on our busy schedules and not being able to spend adequate time with them doing intentional play, and cats can easily get overweight. This is especially true if they are already prone to a slow metabolism.
Too Many Calories
Cats are hunters by nature and they typically like to eat multiple small meals throughout the day. It is common for a cat to complain if they even see the bottom of their food bowl, as they want to know there is food available at all times.
For this reason, cat owners will often leave food sitting in their cats’ bowls and just keep filling it up as it gets lower. Therefore, it is difficult to truly measure how much your cat is eating throughout the day.
This can also be a reason why some owners don’t notice right away if something is wrong with their cat, because they don’t realize their cat hasn’t eaten until they haven’t had to fill the food bowl up for a few days.
Cats that are allowed to eat as much as they want at any time may have a tendency to become overweight, especially if they are the ones with a slower metabolism and who don’t get much exercise.
Health Problems Caused by Obesity in Cats
There are many health consequences of cats becoming overweight and obese. Not only does being heavier make it harder on their bones and joints, but fat tends to be inflammatory in nature.
This means, have extra fat can make cats prone to inflammatory conditions, such as cancer. We will go through some of the more common health problems associated with obesity below.
Overweight and obese cats have a much more difficult time getting around than those with an ideal body condition. There is more weight being put on their bones and joints, which leads to more severe arthritis at a younger age.
Arthritis can be very painful and debilitating, and even be an underlying reason why cats choose not to use the litter box.
Having to step in and step out of a litter box may be uncomfortable for them, as well as posturing to urinate or defecate while standing on grainy litter material.
Being overweight can also cause back problems in cats. It can make them predisposed to slipped discs (intervertebral disc disease) and development of arthritis even along their spine.
Cats who are overweight or obese are more prone to developing certain types of cancers. As mentioned earlier, fat contains inflammation-inducing cells, which can incite certain cancers to develop.
Many cancerous conditions in cats are not noticeable on the outside, and oftentimes the only way a cat owner finds out is when they notice that all of a sudden their once rotund kitty is now extremely thin.
Diabetes is one of the most common health effects of cats being overweight and obese. Cats tend to develop Type II Diabetes, which means they are not born with it, but instead their bodies develop it over time from an unhealthy lifestyle.
Since most cats tend to eat only their cat food and don’t get into fatty and sugary people food like dogs do, it’s possible we need to do more research into cat food to see if there is something that can be adjusted to better prevent the development of diabetes in cats.
That being said, trying to feed your cat a food high in protein and low in carbohydrates is a good start, as long as it is complete and balanced and your cat doesn’t have any other underlying health conditions, such as kidney disease.
But, again, an underlying reason for development of diabetes is inactivity and overeating. The first signs of diabetes in cats is sudden weight loss with an increase in appetite, coupled with increased thirst and urination.
Fatty Liver Syndrome (Hepatic Lipidosis)
When cats stop eating, whether it’s due to stress and anxiety or a sickness, their body starts to break down their internal stores of energy. Cats who are obese have so much extra fat, that when they stop eating for a few days, their body begins to break down these fat stores to use as energy.
As the fat is moved to their liver to be metabolized and broken down, their liver quickly becomes overwhelmed by all the fat, and begins to shut down. This is what is referred to as “Fatty Liver Syndrome” or “Hepatic Lipidosis”. It can lead to liver failure and is oftentimes deadly.
Extra fat doesn’t just accumulate on the outside of the body. It also accumulates in the chest and abdomen. Cats that are obese, have a more difficult time breathing since there is extra fat within their abdomen and surrounding their lungs.
Overweight cats are also more at risk of feline asthma, which can cause coughing and difficulty breathing
Helping Your Cat Lose Weight
If you aren’t sure if your cat is at a good body condition score or not, you can refer back to the chart included above. It is also a good idea to check with your veterinarian.
They can weigh your cat, perform a physical exam, and let you know what their body condition score is. Your veterinarian can also let you know how much of your cat’s food you should be feeding to them on a daily basis.
If it is determined your cat could stand to lose some weight, there are a variety of tools that can be used to help in the process. Just be prepared for a long process. Just as it is extremely easy to put on too much weight, but it is very difficult to get the weight off.
It can take months and possibly years to start seeing results.
Weight Loss Food
There are foods specifically for helping with weight loss in cats. They tend to have more fiber in them, which helps your cat feel full for longer periods of time. Some are generic and you can find them at any pet store or even through an online cat food supplier.
The best weight loss foods, though, are the prescription ones. They tend to be more expensive and are sold through veterinary offices. But, they work, and the work very well! In addition, you will be working closely with your veterinarian’s office on tracking your cat’s weight loss, which will help provide emotional support and motivation throughout the process.
It is important to note that when feeding your cat weight loss food, you are supposed to feed the amount of food recommended for the weight you are trying to reach.
For instance, if your cat currently weighs 15 pounds and their ideal weight is 10 pounds (your veterinarian can help you determine what your cat’s ideal weight should be), you should feed the recommended amount for a 10-pound cat.
Food Puzzle Balls and Bowls
Sometimes what cats need is something to slow down how fast they are eating. Puzzle balls and puzzle food bowls are wonderful for this! They make your cat have to work for their food and are also a great form of enrichment.
Food puzzle balls are especially helpful because your cat has to push the ball around to get the food out, which causes them to get some sort of physical activity while they are eating. This also helps to fulfill, albeit to a small degree, their natural hunting instinct.
Exercise & Enrichment
Depending on the degree of obesity, exercise may not actually be an option until they start losing some of the weight. That being said, any amount of exercise is good.
Don’t push your cat to do more than they can with their own limitations, but encourage gentle play that can gradually increase in frequency and duration.
Cat wheels are a great way to help increase activity. Even just getting some new toys and throwing them around with your cat are beneficial. Adding in some tall, sturdy scratching posts that they can also jump and climb up can help as well.
Preventing Obesity in Cats
So how do you prevent your cat from becoming overweight or obese in the first place? It can definitely be difficult and does take a lot of hard work. Unless, of course, your cat happens to be one of the few with a great metabolism, energy level, and one who moderates how much they eat on their own. Lucky you!
As mentioned earlier, exercise is one of the best ways to prevent your cat from becoming overweight. Play with them often. Chase them around the house if you have to. Or, get a cat wheel.
Some people suggest adding another cat into the home is the right option, but this can sometimes lead to unintended consequences if it turns out your cat prefers to be the only cat in the house.
Know your cat- if you think they will be okay with a new kitten to help keep them active, go for it! However, if your cat always hisses and growls if they see another cat, think twice before bringing in a new family member.
Food puzzle balls are great means of enrichment for your cat, as well as exercise. Instead of putting their food in a bowl for them to eat out of, put their food (in the correct quantity) in a puzzle ball and let them have at it!
Feeding the Right Amount
Feeding the right amount is paramount to keeping your cat at a healthy weight. Check with your veterinarian to see how much cat food you should be feeding your cat. They can easily do a calculation to let you know, based off of your cat’s age, current weight, and lifestyle.
Do not go off of what the bag of cat food says as their recommendations are always on the high end. This is because they want to make sure they recommend the highest amount of food because they are assuming each cat has the highest energy needs and they don’t want cats to go undernourished.
If your cat tends to be a grazer, you can put down how much food they should eat per day in their bowl, but do not refill it once it is empty. If they eat it too fast, just put the recommended amount of food in a puzzle ball for them to eat from.
How do I know if my cat is at an ideal body condition?
You should be able to easily feel your cat’s ribs and they should not have a fat pad hanging down from their abdomen. You can also schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to examine their body condition, or make sure to ask your vet at their next regularly scheduled check-up.
My cat bothers me all the time, wanting to be fed. How can I stop this behavior?
First, make sure it’s not a medical reason- hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and certain types of cancer can cause cats to be very hungry all the time.
After you have them checked by your veterinarian and medical conditions are ruled out, you can use puzzle balls to feed them so it takes them longer to eat, feed them cat food with higher fiber content so it makes them feel full longer, and even look into getting an automatic feeder that feeds them very small amounts frequently throughout the day.
How long can it take for my cat to lose weight?
Months to years. This will be a long process. The important thing to realize is you are helping your cat to not get even heavier, and helping them get healthier. Even though you may not see the fruits of your labor right away, it is still worth putting in the effort.
Obesity is extremely common in cats these days, but it doesn’t have to be. Ask your veterinarian how much you should be feeding your cat and if your cat is in a good body condition. By feeding the right amount, providing exercise and enrichment, and regularly monitoring your cat’s body condition, you can help keep your cat at a healthy weight throughout their life.
Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️