The amount on the scale at the veterinarian’s office crept upward until it stopped at 10.5 pounds. I sighed. This is the amount that our cat, Bootsie, had weighed at her first exam after my husband and I adopted her. At the time, the veterinarian had advised Andy and me that Bootsie was overweight, and had recommended that we reduce her weight to nine pounds. After a year of cutting back on serving sizes, we’d come close to our goal, but this past spring we had an overweight cat on our hands again. What went wrong?
About the same time that Bootsie had dropped to 9.5 pounds, she began having periodic bouts of vomiting up her food. Our veterinarian suggested that Bootsie might have a food allergy or that she might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. In either case, the most economical and least invasive treatment was prescription food. We switched Bootsie to her new food without checking to see whether it contained the same number of calories per can as her previous food. It didn’t.
The obvious thing to do was to do what we should have done in the first place: check the calories and reduce Bootsie’s meal sizes accordingly But I didn’t stop there. I also sought the advice of cat professionals and other cat owners. “What are other ways I can help my cat lose weight?” I posted in several online cat groups: I’m looking for outside-the-box ideas. She has access to cat towers and I do play with her, but she’s a former feral and so some ideas such as taking her for walks won’t work. Our house has stairs to the basement and to the upper floor, and she’ll occasionally use these. Any other ideas?”
Health Risks for Overweight Cats
One natural question that people asked me was: “Why do you want to get her weight down?” After all, there are cat breeds—the most notable being the Maine Coon—that can weigh up to 20 or 25 pounds. But the ideal weight depends on the particular cat. Cats should have a certain shape. Bootsie was too round. She had too much fat between her skin and her bones. We knew this when we adopted her, and the vet confirmed it. This needs to be emphasized: cat owners should not put their cats on diets without first consulting their veterinarian. Mine had already kindly but firmly told me that if Bootsie’s weight reached 11 pounds, she’d be at risk for developing a serious disease.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, heavier cats generally interact less with their human families, and show less energy and playfulness. They also live shorter lives on average. Hand in hand with these reasons is the fact that even a few extra pounds can lead to serious illnesses and diseases such as chronic inflammation, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and many types of cancer.
How Much Food to Give
I next revisited what type of food to feed Bootsie, how much, how often, and how long. Several cat owners provided personal anecdotes about their success with grain-free diets but, due to Bootsie having been diagnosed with a possible food allergy or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Andy and I decided to stick with her prescription food.
Deciding how much food to serve can be a challenge. Cats come in different sizes, just like people, and just as there is no single ideal weight for people, there’s no single ideal weight for cats. Our veterinarian advised us on how much we should feed Bootsie to maintain her weight but also how much to reduce her servings if we wanted her to lose weight.
Some studies suggest that feeding cats frequent, smaller meals throughout the day might increase their level of physical activity and thereby help with weight loss. The theory is that such a regiment mimics the way cats would eat in the wild, and so it’ll make cats happier and healthier. We decided to give Bootsie four meals a day. Although we’re proponents of wet food, because her wet food was only available in one flavor, she started to tire of it. We began alternating her meals between the wet and dry version of the same food. This proved enough variation that Bootsie hasn’t gotten tired of either.
As with the first time that we tried to help Bootsie lose weight, it was a slow process. I felt encouraged by an 18-week study reported on by Tufts University Cummings Veterinarian School of Medicine, wherein eight cats successfully lost weight due to the gradually reduction of food servings. “The intent of the diet was a healthy weight loss: getting rid of fat while maintaining lean mass,” said study author Kelly Swanson. The study targeted a 1.5 percent body weight loss per week, which falls in line with the range suggested by the American Animal Hospital Association.
Activities to Try
Another obvious question from cat professionals and owners was: “Is there a reason you don’t simply feed her less?” Yes. The vet wanted her weight down, and we’d wasted a year reducing her weight and then increasing it again. I wanted to get her weight down more quickly this time, but I didn’t want to risk cutting her diet any further. I added exercise, which has the benefit of increasing metabolism and muscle mass.
Here are some suggestions for helping a cat to be more active. Ideas range from relatively inactive ones to extremely physical ones.
For the cats that like catnip, besides making them feel good, catnip can encourage cats to play. The excitement will usually last just a few minutes. After that, cats get used to the chemical in the herb that triggers the reaction and lose interest. Even so, any amount of play is exercise.
In the Frederick household, catnip does indeed cause a great deal of excitement among our cats. They love to roll in it! Unfortunately, the effects do wear off quickly, with the result that our cats often then ignore it for days or weeks.
The beauty of puzzle feeders is that they make animals work for their food. Puzzle feeders have a couple of side benefits. First, the act of hunting down and digging out food slows down how fast cats can eat and therefore results in their feeling full on less food. In addition, because puzzle feeders work the brain, they can result in cats feeling more energized and playful afterwards.
In the Frederick household, only one of our cats has taken to the puzzle feeders. Rainy loves to scarf her food and would always finish before our other cats had even started. Thanks to puzzle feeders, Rainy now sometimes is still eating when the others are done. For our other two cats, puzzle feeders were a source of frustration, and backfired as a way to provide fun and activity.
Another way to encourage cats to work for their food is to turn mealtimes into a game of chase. One person said that her cat dropped from 19 pounds to 13, largely due to short bursts of activity that included chasing dry food. Another owner combined the game with the practice of recalls: fetch one treat, recall, and get two.
In the Frederick household, toss-the-kibble has been a huge success. Bootsie loves to chase after her food, so much that she’ll even dive under furniture to find it. She also enjoys trying to block pieces from shooting pass her, as if we’re playing hockey. A side benefit is that our two other cats also like the game. Cinder normally guards her food, but she’ll leave it to join Bootsie in chasing kibble. All three of our cats will fetch a treat, recall, and receive a treat.
According to Petful, the moving red dots of a laser pointer satisfy the hunting instincts of cats. Because the laser’s red dot can be made to move quickly and erratically, it seems like real prey.
Laser pointers aren’t without controversy. Petful recommends taking these two precautions:
- Avoid shining the light of a laser directly into a cat’s eyes, which could cause serious damage to a cat’s eyes.
- Once in a while, let the red dot of the laser land on a toy to give a cat a tangible prey to “capture.”
In the Frederick household, our cats love to chase and pounce at the red dots, whether on the main floor or running up and down stairs. Because of the negatives associated with laser pointers, we use them sparingly just as we limit our catnip use. Also, we occasionally reward them with treats for capturing their prey.
Wand toys are another option for encouraging cats to chase “prey.” Cat Behavior Associates suggests making the dangling toy hide, quiver, and dart to imitate the way that prey would act in the wild. Be aware that wand toys should never be left unattended, due to the risk of the string wrapping around your cat’s throat, resulting in injury or death.
In the Frederick household, wand toys are a favorite of all our cats. One of the most highly recommended wand toy by cat owners, and also Bootsie’s favorite, is Da Bird. Several different types of lures are available, and can be easily changed to keep cats from getting bored.
Walks are a good source of exercise for people and their pets. It’s also a way to enjoy the outdoors together, something that many owners of adventure cats love to do.
In the Frederick household, both Cinder and Rainy are as comfortable with a leash and harness as any dog. Unfortunately, Bootsie is not.
According to Veterinary Hub, an exercise wheel is “the best solution for health, fitness and stimulation-related issues faced by your indoor adult cats.” Veterinary Hub offers a long list of benefits from exercise wheels including: boosted mental stimulation, improved joint flexibility and motility, better blood circulation and increased bone strength, regulation of digestion, better immune system, and lower risk of heart and respiratory disease.
More than one cat owner I talked with recommended exercise wheels and even talked at length about the best kind to purchase and how to best introduce it to cats. Why then haven’t we bought one? First, there are different brands out there, and they vary in quality. As you might imagine, the cheaper ones seem less stable. Second, there’s the cost. Cat exercise wheels range in price from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars. Third, from what I’ve read, cat exercise wheels are best for those cats with an outgoing and bold personality. That’s not our Bootsie!
Rechecks and Weigh-Ins
Once a month, I use a baby scale to weigh Bootsie, which is a feat in itself. Bootsie always approaches the scale with extreme caution, as if she thinks I’m trying to trap her. I throw treats near the scale and on it, then wait for her to walk on the scale. Despite the challenge involved, rechecks and weigh-ins are important. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention says that if there is no significant weight loss in one month, a new approach should be tried.
For Bootsie, a successful diet and exercise program includes prescription cat food, reduced meal sizes, more frequent feedings, and increased exercise. Although we have yet to figure out how to tighten her tummy, which sags from her weight loss, Bootsie just this month finally returned to 9.5 pounds. And just today she weighed in at 9.1 pounds!