How to put your cat on a diet

It’s not just humans who might gain some weight over the winter months – our pets can sometimes put on a bit of extra padding, too! Here, Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner explains how to help your cat lose weight if your vet recommends putting her on a diet.

Around a third of UK pet cats are overweight. Yet it’s not always immediately obvious to cat owners when their feline friend is carrying some excess padding. Many people think cats with an optimal healthy physique look underweight to them. So it’s always a good idea to monitor your pet’s weight, and consult your vet for impartial cat diet advice.

We’ll assess their weight using a system called body conditioning scoring, which you can learn to do yourself at home. For example, if your cat’s belly is becoming a bit pendulous, or you can no longer feel her ribs through the fat covering them, these can be signs that she’s getting overweight.

Should I put my cat on a diet?

Just like people, cats can put on weight for both medical-related reasons (such as hormonal problems) and non-medical ones (such as diet and lack of exercise). With cats, in most cases, it’s likely to be the latter. But it’s important to get your cat checked out by a vet before concluding that lifestyle factors are to blame and putting her on a diet. Otherwise, you may end up frustrated that the diet isn’t working – only to find out later that your cat has an underlying medical issue.

What’s the best way for a cat to lose some weight?

Put your cat on a calorie-controlled diet recommended by your vet, who can advise on suitable cat food formulations. Sticking with cats’ usual food and simply trying to reduce their portion sizes is often ineffective. If cats feel short-changed, they will beg for more food, or look to acquire it elsewhere, such as next door. Therefore vets generally recommend switching to a reduced-calorie cat food.

Cat owners should be aware that the ‘maintenance’ or ‘light’ cat foods on the market aren’t the same as a veterinary-approved, calorie-controlled diet formulation. As the word maintenance implies, these are more about keeping things the same than about actively losing weight.

It’s like Coke and Diet Coke. While you might be taking in fewer calories and gaining less weight by drinking Diet Coke, dieters are unlikely to lose excess weight just by switching to Diet Coke. The same principle applies to ‘maintenance-light’ cat food formulations.

The good news is that if your cat is otherwise healthy, and if you stick to feeding her the exact daily allowance of reduced-calorie cat food recommended by your vet, she should lose weight.

How much weight can a cat on a diet safely lose?

Cats shouldn’t lose more than 2% of their body weight per week, so around 1% is ideal. It’s important that a cat’s weight doesn’t abruptly crash. This leaves them vulnerable to a serious condition called hepatic lipidosis, whereby the liver becomes overwhelmed by all the body fat it suddenly needs to metabolise. However, this is highly unlikely in cats on a sensible diet plan.

How can I help my cat lose weight?

Effective ways to help your cat lose weight include sticking to the diet plan recommended by your vet, finding games and activities to keep her active, and getting into healthy feeding habits. One of the most common reasons for cats becoming overweight is an ad-lib feeding style, where owners regularly top up their cat’s feeding bowl to ensure food is always available. Cats will eat much more food than they need if it’s readily available, especially if they’re bored.

In contrast, if cats hunt to supplement their diet, they tend to burn off more calories – and if they do eat any prey they catch, it’s mainly protein, as opposed to carbohydrates, which are more fattening. Cats begging or stealing food from other households is more difficult to control. It’s a good idea to make sure the neighbours know not to feed your cat.

Overweight and obese cats tend to be very fond of their food, and will beg, plead and whine to obtain more of it! Cat owners may find this difficult to deal with emotionally. It’s important to remember, however, that helping your cat reach a healthy weight is one of the most positive things you can do to maintain her quality of life, as well as protect her against health issues such as diabetes and osteoarthritis, and keep her well and thriving for a long time to come.

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