Feline obesity in western societies has increased as dramatically as obesity in people, affecting similar numbers between 15% and 35% of the population of pet cats. For felines, a weight 20% or more above the ideal is considered obese. Most adult cats should weigh between 7 and 11 pounds. So, sadly, an increase of only about 1 ½ to 3 ½ pounds can make your kitty part of those unhappy, statistics.

Many of the unhealthy side effects of carrying around this extra fat mirror similar conditions in people. We see much more diabetes now than we did years ago when our kitties were more fit. (Cats are notoriously difficult to regulate on insulin.) Other common complications of obesity are fatty liver, lower urinary tract disease, arthritis, and the issues that go along with decreased ability to self-groom, especially important in long-haired cats.

Reasons for obesity all involve too many calories going in and/or not enough energy burned. Individual risk factors that encourage excessive weight gain are hormonal changes from neutering, genetic predisposition, and other hormonal imbalances. It is a LOT easier to keep weight off than it is to lose it, so be wary even in juvenile kitties. We want to be able to feel ribs easily but not too sharply. Check with your veterinarian if you are in doubt about your cat’s ideal condition.

We usually neuter or spay cats when they are about 6 months old. That is also when they have reached most of their adult size and they begin to significantly slow the growth of their frames. We really need to watch (and accurately measure) the amount of food they eat. Most cats will become overweight if their bowl is kept full. The pet food industry is in the business of selling as much food as they can and they generally use young, active, unspayed or unneutered cats in their food trials. They lace foods with all kinds of flavor enhancers just like the local human fast food places do to keep us eating too much. A good rule is to feed your cat about 30% less than what the food bag indicates when feeding regular off the shelf foods. Then keep monitoring weight, feeling the rib cage for changes.

For many years, we said that it was healthier to feed only dry food to cats because it maintained cleaner teeth. Now, researchers tell us that feeding only dry food, especially to an overeater, does not encourage enough liquid intake in cats. This may lead to constipation and lower urinary tract disease. This is another reason to eliminate the always full bowl of crunchies that adorns so many kitchens. Canned foods are recommended now by most nutritionists.

Our cats used to be outdoors a lot; many have become totally indoor couch potatoes due to the dangers and restrictions of the outside world. Exercise will normally increase significantly if cats go outside safely. A fenced yard is great. Otherwise, playing with your cat indoors with pounce toys and laser lights or rolling a milk bottle ring will have to do. Provide a cat tree that encourages climbing. Rotate toys by putting some away for a while. When a toy comes back out, it will seem new. Exercise not only helps maintain and create calorie-burning lean muscle mass; it promotes heart health, provides mental stimulation, and increases metabolic rate.

Our felines are true carnivores. They require a much higher protein than many other species and they actually are poorly suited to utilize carbohydrates that typically make up a lot of dry food content. Our goal for the overweight cat is to create or at least retain maximum lean muscle mass which naturally burns more calories for maintenance. If feeding dry food, researchers tell us to look ideally for those that have greater than 45% ME as protein. (ME is metabolizable energy.) Feeding this high protein diet increases metabolic rate, fat oxidation, and glucose tolerance when compared to feeding the same number of calories of higher carbohydrate diets. Since we need to restrict total food intake to get weight loss, the protein content of that smaller amount must be very high to prevent loss of calorie-burning lean muscle.

Diet foods often add significant fiber to make cats feel full. While fiber dilutes calories, spreads out energy absorption, and speeds food through the digestive tract, it has some detrimental effects as well. Most importantly, it causes reduced digestibility of the protein that is so important. Also, greater fiber content (above 15%) increases stool volume and constipation while lowering palatability and causing dry skin. Research indicates that between 5 and 12% is a good range for fiber in a dry food weight loss diet. Cats on high protein/low fiber diets seem to complain less than when they eat a higher fiber diet.

So, what are some specific foods that can help us with weight feline weight loss? I asked Dr. Debra Zoran, a real expert in the field. For dry food, she suggested Royal Canin High Protein Low Calorie and Purina OM as the first two that came to mind. Canned foods that best fit the dieting kitty needs are more common. Hill’s Science Diet MD (13.1% protein) and Purina DM were first on her list. She noted that over-the-counter Purina ProPlan chicken and liver for example, or Fancy Feast may fill the bill. Remember to read the label - not all the foods sold under any one brand are low carb, as close to about 4% as you can find. Switch foods slowly, especially if you are changing from dry to canned food. Too rapid of a change may give your kitty a passing diarrhea. Check with your veterinarian if you are unsure of the proper amount of a particular food to feed.

Delivery of the daily food allotment is also important. Cats’ metabolisms are set for small meals often. Ideally, we can split the proper amount of daily food into at least 2 and preferably 4 feedings. The ideal 4 feedings of canned food require someone to be at home to dish out these small meals, but creative owners can modify schedules to fit their own. Some feed a small meal of canned food in the morning. They set the automatic feeder to feed 2 meals of dry food during the day. Then, they feed another meal of canned at night. Some folks use just the dry food and get along fine by using an automatic feeder. The critical thing is that you don’t feed more than the proper amount in a whole day. If you have multiple cats in the household, especially if they have differing dietary needs, you need to have individual dishes and pick them up after each feeding or leave cats physically separated when you cannot supervise.   Cats can lose weight on twice daily feeding where schedules don’t allow other options. Remember that treats often have a LOT of calories and can undo your best intentions. You will probably notice that a cat on a diet can be pretty demanding—pawing, meowing incessantly. So drop them from your routine until your chubby kitty’s ideal weight is reached. Sometimes it is good to feed the largest meal just before you go to bed and perhaps shut some doors to allow you to sleep well.

The goal is to lose about 1% body weight per week or about 3 to 4% per month.More rapid weight loss than that can increase risks of liver disease. In a 15 pound cat, that would be about 2 ½ ounces per week or 7 ½ to 9 ½ ounces per month. You can accurately weigh your cat at your local vet clinic. If that is impractical, weigh you and your cat on your home scale first. Then, without moving your feet or changing position, hand off the kitty to someone else and the cat’s weight will be the difference.