Pet obesity is a growing problem in the United Kingdom with an estimated 1 in 4 cats being overweight. Obesity is a preventable disease and an extremely serious welfare issue in our cats which leads to unnecessary suffering and prevents them from leading normal, happy lives.
Being overweight can make it more likely that your cat could suffer from serious health problems and conditions such as
- Heart disease
- Breathing difficulties
- High Blood Pressure
- Arthritis, Joint Problems and Injuries
- Skin Problems
- Anal Gland Problems
- Ulcers / pressure sores
- Matted Fur
- Dirty and infected bottom
- Shorter life span
- Less interactive with their families
Why Are So Many Cats Overweight?
Simply put, because we feed them to much! Domestic pets cannot regulate their food intake and exercise like wild animals because they have to rely on us as their owners to provide food and opportunities to exercise. Like humans, cats become overweight when they consume more calories than their body can use and sadly the food we provide often exceeds the amount of calories they can burn off through activity, causing them to gain weight.
Unfortunately because we see so many overweight pets out and about or on social media, it is normalising obesity and owners are getting the wrong impression of what a healthy cat of the ideal bodyweight, should look like. (I was shocked by the number of websites and images I found glorifying obese cats).
Interpreting Feeding Guidelines
The feeding guides on pet foods are based on the average calorie needs for a particular size of animal, but like humans, no two pets are alike or have exactly the same needs. We need to remember that the feeding advice given on a pet food is just a guide and your cat’s needs may be significantly lower than the suggested amount. If you have an indoors cat, an older cat, or a cat that doesn’t enjoy going out very often then he or she will need far fewer calories than a cat that goes out daily and wanders about for miles.
Cat’s have evolved as skilled hunters, often spending hours stalking, catching and then killing their prey and all of that hard work expends energy and burns calories. Now that our cats are household pets and share their homes with us, they hardly need to expend any energy at all jumping down off the windowsill or sofa and sauntering over to their food bowl.
Feeding your pet is like a balancing act and you may have to increase or decrease the feeding amount every so often to help your pet maintain his or her ideal weight. If you are unsure about how much to feed your cat, then contact your veterinary practice for advice.
Not Weighing Food Portions
Did you know that weighing out your cat’s food using a set of digital kitchen scales can make a huge difference to calorie intake? Digital kitchen scales are relatively cheap to purchase and are widely available.
Using a cup, scoop or measuring by eye, can actually mean the food amount can differ by up to 20g every day, which could mean that your pet is getting lots of extra calories. Even a few extra biscuits a day soon adds up, so weigh out your pet’s dry food portion daily for best results.
If you feed wet food from pouches and tins, it may be easier to work out how many pouches or tins of food your pet should have per week and then sticking to that amount. This means that they may get more or less food than they should on any given day but they won’t exceed their calorie allowance for the week.
Tit-Bits and Treats
I am never against giving pets treats and tit-bits, because they are great for giving as a reward and demonstrating affection, but before you give your pet a treat have a think about the amount of calories it might contain.
As pet owners we often forget to take into account all of the extra tit-bits and treats that we feed our pets during the day. Did you know that some of the more popular pet treats and dental aids on the market can make up approximately 1/3 or more of your pet’s daily calorie allowance when they are fed the recommended daily portion? Even the very small sized cat treats can contain anywhere between 2 and 30 kcals each and while this may not be a lot of extra calories to a human, it can equate to a huge amount for a cat.
The Golden Rule For Giving Treats – If you give any tit-bits or treats you need to reduce your pet’s normal food slightly to compensate.
Our pets are very good at manipulating us and many quickly learn that if they perform certain behaviours such as meowing, head nudges and “the big- eyed look” they will get a treat or some more food in their bowl. Cats quickly learn which family member they are more likely to get food from and we all know how hard it is to ignore the cat sitting by the food bowl and meowing pitifully until someone gives in.
It is up to you to teach yourself to ignore your cat when he or she does this, try involving him or her in a play, petting or grooming session rather than giving them food.
Some cats are scavengers and steal food off plates and kitchen counters. A surprising number of cats like to visit several different houses and ask for or steal food (mine included!) and lets not forget the pets that steal food from others in the household.
Illnesses and Medications
Some illnesses can cause weight gain particularly if they slow down the metabolism and/or cause fluid to build up in various parts of the body, but this should not be confused with fat gain. Your vet will be able to assess your pet and advise you about whether you should help them to lose some weight or not.
How To Tell If Your Cat Is Overweight
The next time you stroke your pet, run your hands over their back, chest, and tummy areas. Gently feel all over your pet’s body, applying only very light pressure
Feel along the ribs (chest area).
Can you feel an outline of the ribs without applying any pressure? If not, your pet is likely to be overweight
Feel along the waist and tummy.
Can you feel or see an abdominal tuck from the side of the animal and above? If not, your pet is likely to be overweight
Feel down along the spine.
Can you feel the spine? If you cannot feel the spine properly your pet may be overweight
Look at your pet when he or she is sitting down.
Can you see any places where the skin rolls over onto other parts such as the base of the tail and tops of the legs? If you can, then your pet is likely to be overweight.
Have a look at this Body Condition Score Chart, your cat should have a score of 4 to 5. If your cat scores above (or even below) speak to you veterinary nurse for advice about your pet’s weight.
What You Can Do To Help Your cat
If your cat is overweight it is important that you help him or her to lose weight. Ignoring or denying the fact does your cat no favours at all and further weight gain could have a significant impact on health and wellbeing. Helping your cat to lose weight will require a commitment from the whole family, but is well worth the effort and is easier than you think.
1 . Get Help & Advice From Your Veterinary Nurse
Many cats are able to lose weight on their current food however, it is important that your pet’s food is not reduced too much or they may miss out on necessary nutrients.
Speak to your veterinary practice about weight loss clinics with the veterinary nurse, as most will offer this service free of charge and will be able to give you help and advice.
Regular monitoring and weight checks by your veterinary nurse are really important, they will ensure that your cat is losing weight at a safe rate and help you make any adjustments to their diet as necessary. This is particularly important with cats as too rapid a weight loss can cause associated health problems such as Hepatic Lipidosis, which can be fatal.
If your pet is not losing weight well on their current food, a reduced calorie veterinary prescription diet may be recommended instead; these diets have been specially developed to provide reduced calories but maintain the correct nutrient level that your pet needs as well as making them feel nice and full. (You may be able to buy these diets cheaper online than you can through your veterinary practice, but please ensure that your cat attends regular monitoring visits if they are on these diets)
Some cats tend to lose weight better when fed a wet food rather than a dry diet so this may be worth considering. If you do decide to change your cat’s diet it is important to do so slowly over a period of 7-10 days to avoid any tummy upsets.
Tips and Tricks
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- Weigh out your pets daily food amount on a set of digital kitchen scales, rather than guessing and store in a sealed container. You can even use some of this daily allowance as a titbit if your cat is constantly asking for food.
- If your cat seems hungry all the time you can try splitting their daily food portion across 3 -5 smaller meal times. If you are out during the day you can purchase a feeder with a timer on it to help with this.
- You can use scatter feeding to make food last longer and make eating fun. You can do this with a feeding ball or you can encourage your cat to hunt for food by hiding food around the home in small pieces of tissue paper or inside a small cardboard roll; start off with easy finds and gradually hide them in better places.
- If you have a cat that likes to finish off food left by other pets, you may need to separate them at feeding times or use a microchip reading cat feeder.
- If you suspect your cat is visiting other people’s homes for an extra meal (you would be surprised at how many do!) An extra tag on the collar, or leaflets through the doors in the local area asking people not to feed him or her is a good way of stopping this.
- Cats meow for lots of reasons – don’t be tempted to think that they are hungry every time they make a noise. They may just be saying hello or asking for a fuss and some attention.
- Cats will often refuse to go out if the weather is not good, so try to encourage more activity through play and spending time with your cat; get him or her chasing toys and moving around. Catnip is fantastic for encouraging some cats to move about and play. Try to provide play sessions in short bursts of 3-5 minutes as cats will lose interest if they go on for too long.
- Try and find out who the ‘sneaky feeders’ are amongst your family and friends; many people give pets food without even realising they are doing it!
- Look at your cat’s behaviour patterns, especially if you have a multicat household or lots of neighbouring cats. I have seen many cats who are overweight because they are too scared to leave the house or go more than a few paces from the door because they are being bullied by other cats.
- If you are going on holiday, weigh out enough food and/or set aside the right amount of tins/pouches in advance so that your cat-sitter does not overfeed your cat while you are away.
I am a qualified and registered Veterinary Nurse with over 20 years experience working with small animals.
i currently work for Castle Vets Pet Healthcare Centre in Reading, which is a large, single center, small animal veterinary practice.
The recently rebuilt premises now includes a separate but integrated cat clinic, outstanding in-patient wards and operating theatres, spacious comfortable waiting areas, 9 consulting rooms for both veterinary surgeon and veterinary nurse consultations, diagnostics room with x-ray, ultrasound and endoscopy equipment and a well equipped laboratory.