Looking after your cat
Getting back in shapeDownload pdf
We like our pets to be well rounded but most pet cats have considerably more body fat than cats in the wild. These wild and feral cats are actually closer to the way a fit cat should look. As the human population gets fatter, this affects our pets’ health too. We love our pets and like to give them little indulgences similar to those we enjoy, so pets are gaining weight.
Being overweight can have lasting consequences and, in some cases, can be fatal. Studies have shown that overweight cats do not live as long, and are more prone to illnesses such as diabetes, kidney disease and arthritis, which spoil their quality of life. There is a genuine risk of killing your pet with kindness.
The way the body works changes considerably in overweight animals. Once an animal is overweight, the working speed of the body slows and it becomes less active, so fewer calories are needed to maintain the correct weight. It is rare for medical problems to cause obesity in cats.
There is a lot of variation in the daily energy requirements of different individuals and feeding packets tend to recommend an overgenerous daily amount. Do not be alarmed if your cat seems to have quite a small appetite, but do consult your vet if there is a sudden loss of appetite in an individual. If you are concerned about your cat’s weight, consult your vet. The guidelines in this leaflet give an indication of how to find out if your pet is the right weight.
There is evidence that chubby kittens become fat adult cats so avoid overfeeding your cat when young. Feed a kitten the minimum amount for the body weight recommended on the packet and monitor body shape as your cat grows. Ask your vet to check your kitten’s weight and body condition at vaccination time. Cats are natural “snackers” – taking a mouthful or two and walking away is their normal feeding style. Do not be tempted to seek out a tastier food to encourage them to eat a plateful at one sitting, or to offer human foods – this can encourage them to overeat. You only need to worry if your cat has eaten nothing at all for 24 hours – contact your vet.
You can offer the daily ration as several meals or leave it down for the cat to help themselves. Watch your cat’s eating pattern – if leaving food down means there is none left by midday, you will need to split the daily ration into several portions offered at different times.
If you have several cats, you will need to watch that competition does not result in them overeating. It's better to feed little and often to each – and it's nicer for them to eat in separate rooms. Cats enjoy searching out food – try hiding some of the daily ration in toys, cardboard tubes or paper bags for your cat to find.
Take care not to overfeed your cat with some of the dry foods, which are more concentrated than canned food, and may be eaten with great enthusiasm by some cats. Many of these are intended to be fed as a complete diet – not as a snack in addition to a tinned diet. Do not forget that treats should be viewed as a part of your cat’s calorie count for the day.
Is my cat overweight?
You cannot tell just by weighing your cat. It is, however, a good idea to weigh your cat every couple of months to track weight gain and also any early weight loss, which can be a sign of illness.
Cats are relatively light weight (around 3 to 6.5 kilograms or 6.5 to 13 pounds) so you need a scale calibrated in 0.1 kilogram (or one ounce) increments. Most cats will not sit still on a scale so the best way to do it is to weigh a carrying box, then weigh your cat in the box and subtract the weight of the box.
The only way to tell if your cat is overweight is to look at the animal’s body shape and assess the body fat. Does your pet have a potbelly? Viewed from above, do they have a waist – does the body taper after the ribcage? Can you easily feel your cat’s ribs? No waist, a bit of a paunch, and a well-cushioned ribcage mean it is time to take action.
The next step
It is best to start with a trip to the vet. A medical check-up is a wise idea before starting your cat on a diet, especially as you are likely to be increasing your cat's activity levels. You can buy good quality calorie-controlled foods from your vet, which are usually the most effective way of helping your cat to lose weight.
It is difficult to achieve safe weight loss in a cat without veterinary supervision, as the way a cat’s body works is complex. Simply reducing the amount of normal food given is unlikely to be successful in producing weight loss, as this also cuts down the amount of daily nutrients provided. The low calorie diets available from your vet are balanced to maintain nutrient balance. Feeding a higher protein diet is recommended for some cats as higher protein levels can help with weight loss but such diets should only be used under veterinary supervision.
Many vets run weight control clinics for regular monitoring of your cat’s body shape and weight. These are often free of charge and are essential to ensure that the diet is working, and that the weight is not being shed too fast.
A food diary
Make a record of everything that your cat eats for a few days (including table scraps and treats). This can be valuable in highlighting “extras”, such as this cat finishing your other cat’s food, or eating scraps put out for wild birds.
With a calorie-controlled food from the vet, you will be advised how much to feed your cat daily. This will be based on the target weight, not the current weight, of your cat.
You are advised to weigh this out daily, at least to begin with. Many dry diets come with calibrated scoops, but it is easy to overfill these. Reduce hunger and keep your cat satisfied by feeding small frequent meals, as long as you do not go above the daily recommended amount for the diet. If you want to feed treats, these must be taken from the daily ration. Make sure that the cat cannot access food laid out for any of your other pets – you cannot leave down a bowl of cat (or dog) biscuits and expect the dieter to behave!
The alternative to a veterinary diet is to try feeding a “light” diet. Work out your cat’s ideal (or target) weight. This is usually about 15 per cent less than the current body weight, but consult your vet for guidance. Many of these diets are designed to avoid weight gain, but they are not “reducing” diets, designed to promote weight loss. If your pet is not losing weight after two months, consider seeking veterinary advice (and perhaps use a diet provided by the vet).
Remember, there are non-fattening treats too – such as playing a game or simply stroking your cat. This type of treat lasts longer than food, and helps to strengthen your relationship. It can also be beneficial for your own health!
Going to the gym?
On its own, exercise is not enough but it is helpful. Start gradually and be especially careful with elderly pets, particularly in hot weather. Older pets should have a check-up with your vet first. Little and often is the safest way to start. Begin by encouraging your cat to play with toys, and encourage your cat to “work” for dinner by investing in toys in which you can hide food. You can also throw bits of dried food for your cat to chase. Do remember to deduct this from the daily food allowance. Experiment with different toys to see what will interest your cat. Don’t be disappointed if your cat gets bored easily and loses interest. Cats tend to have short bursts of intense activity, usually around dawn or dusk. Try balls or toys with feathers or string. Some cats just like to be “chased” by their owners. However, choose toys carefully, avoiding those which are small enough to be swallowed. It is best not to leave string unattended as this can cause serious harm if swallowed.
How long will it take?
Most cats that look “heavy” are at least 15 per cent overweight. Therefore, a cat weighing five kilograms (11 pounds) may be 0.75 kilograms (one pound, ten ounces) overweight, whilst a cat weighing eight kilograms (17 pounds, ten ounces) could be 1.2 kilograms (two pounds, 11 ounces) overweight.
One per cent per week is considered a safe rate of weight loss for your cat – therefore the smaller cat in our example above, should be shedding 0.2 kilograms (about 7 ounces) over one month, whilst the larger should shed 0.32 kilograms (11 ounces). Confused? Find a vet with a weight clinic! As the amounts involved are small by human standards, they can be difficult to measure on our own bathroom scales.
When your cat reaches the agreed target weight, look again. Is your pet back in shape, with a waist and a slender tummy? Can you feel your cat’s ribs easily? If not, continue with the diet. If your cat is now perfect, do not slip back into old habits, even though your pet may now be more active. You can increase feeding a little (by around ten per cent) and weigh your pet every fortnight to check that the animal’s weight is not creeping back up.
The diet is not working...
All cats are different, so if your cat is not losing weight on the diet, it may be that they are burning calories very slowly. Their daily food intake may be above their energy needs, and should be reduced further. Consult your vet for advice, but first, check that everybody in the house is sticking to the diet, and that neighbours are not feeding your cat. It only takes one person who feels sorry for the cat and is cheating, to ruin the whole diet! Explain that they are putting your cat’s health at risk and may be reducing the animal’s life expectancy.
The high cost of snacking
Outlined below are some calorie equivalents as they apply to the average cat.
- A half-tin of salmon = two doughnuts (to the average person)
- One sardine = a chocolate bar (to the average person)
- A saucer of cream = a burger with chips (to the average person)