Highlighting a growing concern in pet health, the Association of Pet Obesity Prevention reported that in 2022, 61 percent of domestic cats were considered overweight or obese (1). This alarming statistic means that approximately 3 out of every 5 cats are grappling with excess weight. Fortunately, with the proper guidance and care, cat exercise is an effective tool pet parents can use to help overweight kitties achieve a healthier weight.
In this article, we’re focusing on the role of cat exercise in the weight loss equation, sharing safe exercises you can do with your cat to encourage weight loss. And if you already have an active, fit cat, you can use these exercise ideas to keep your whiskered pal at an ideal weight.
Overweight Cats: How It Impacts Their Health
The growing issue of feline obesity is not just an aesthetic concern—it’s a serious health risk. Overweight cats are more likely to develop certain health conditions, including:
Not only do obese cats have shorter lifespans compared to their lean counterparts (2), but their quality of life can be severely impacted by excess weight, causing reduced mobility, increased lethargy, and subsequent depression.
Can Exercise Help a Cat Lose Weight?
When it comes to addressing the prevalent issue of feline obesity, one pivotal question often arises: can exercise really help a cat shed those extra pounds?
The answer is a resounding yes, says Dr. Nick Horniman, MRCVS, a veterinary surgeon and the founder of MyPetsVet and VETSbarn Veterinary Centre. Physical activity can help cats burn calories, build muscle and stimulate metabolism, all of which contribute to weight loss, he says.
However, exercise for cats is not just about physical benefits. It also plays a significant role in mental health, says Rita Reimers, a cat behavior trainer and co-founder of Cat Behavior Alliance. Engaging in regular play and exercise can help reduce stress and boredom, which are often overlooked factors that can contribute to overeating and weight gain in cats.
But here’s the catch: exercise alone is seldom enough. To effectively manage and reduce a cat’s weight, a proper, calorie-controlled diet must be combined with exercise. This is where the guidance of a veterinarian becomes invaluable. A vet can provide a tailored nutrition plan based on your cat’s needs, considering factors like age, breed, current health status, and specific nutritional requirements.
8 Best Cat Exercise Options for Weight Loss in Cats
Just as humans enjoy exercise that’s fun and engaging, cats also thrive on playful and stimulating activities to stay fit. To help your feline friend maintain a healthy weight, here’s a list of exercises designed for both enjoyment and effectiveness.
#1: Create a Home Agility Course
Think agility courses are just for dogs? Think again! “Setting up a small agility course in your home can be a fantastic way to encourage your cat to exercise,” says Dr. Horniman.
An indoor agility course for cats can include tunnels, boxes, ramps, and other safe obstacles. Entice your cat to navigate the course by using a favorite toy or treat, guiding them over and under the obstacles and through different challenges. This type of activity may not appeal to every cat, but for those who take to it, it’s an excellent way to burn calories and have a great time in the process.
#2: Play Hide and Seek with Treats
If your cat is food motivated, hide small portions of their favorite treats around your home and encourage them to search for these hidden treasures, suggests Dr. Horniman.
Place some treats in high spots where they’ll need to jump, and some under furniture where they’ll have to crouch and reach. This activity will also engage your cat’s sense of smell and natural hunting skills.
#3: Play Bathtub Pong
Want to turn your bathtub into an exciting playground for your kitty? This activity involves placing a lightweight ball, such as a ping pong ball, in a dry bathtub. The enclosed space of the tub keeps the ball contained, allowing it to bounce and roll unpredictably as your cat paws and swats at it. As the ball skitters around, your cat will be encouraged to make quick, agile movements, providing a good physical workout.
#4: Engage in Interactive Play with Your Cat
Incorporate interactive play sessions into your cat’s daily routine using toys like feather wands or laser pointers. Move the toys or laser around to mimic the movements of prey animals.
“Cats love to chase, and these activities mimic their natural hunting instincts,” says Dr. Horniman.
This not only keeps them physically active but also deeply engages their attention and keeps them mentally stimulated. Aim for two, 10- to 15-minute interactive play sessions daily.
#5: Go for a Walk
With the use of a well-fitted harness and leash, you can safely take your feline friend outdoors for a little adventure.
Start slowly by getting your cat accustomed to wearing a harness indoors. Once they are comfortable in the harness, gradually introduce them to the outdoors, initially exploring quieter areas to avoid overwhelming them. Walking a cat is quite different from walking a dog. It’s often a slower, more exploratory process where the cat sets the pace and direction.
These walks can be an excellent way for your cat to engage in moderate physical activity while satisfying their curiosity about the world outside their home.
#6: Catify Your Home
Creating a “catified” environment in your home is an effective way to encourage regular exercise for your feline companion. This involves adapting your living space to cater to a cat’s instinctual need to climb, jump, and explore.
Installing elements like cat shelves, climbing trees, and wall-mounted steps provides your cat with vertical spaces that challenge and engage them physically. This vertical dimension encourages more movement, as cats naturally love to navigate heights and observe their surroundings from above.
A catified home will also provide your cat with mental stimulation and give them a physical outlet from stress, says Reimers.
#7: Provide Self-Play Toys
Touch-activated self-play toys are designed to turn on in response to your cat’s touch or motion.
“These toys give your cats things to do and chase even when you are not there to interact with them yourself,” says Reimers.
Touch-activated toys come in various forms, including balls that roll and change direction unpredictably, plush toys that vibrate, or small motorized gadgets that scurry across the floor. The unpredictability and interactive nature of these toys keep your cat engaged in physical activity, providing a good source of exercise that’s fun and mentally stimulating.
#8: Make the Most of Mealtime
Utilizing treat balls, puzzle toys, and lick mats during mealtime is an excellent strategy to intertwine feeding with physical and mental activity. These interactive feeding tools require your cat to engage in physical activity to access their food, effectively turning mealtime into a form of exercise.
As your cat paws, pushes, or explores these tools to get their food, they are not only expending energy but also slowing down their eating pace, which can help prevent overeating and an upset stomach, says Reimers.
Cat Exercise Safety Tips
When incorporating exercise into your cat’s routine, it’s crucial to prioritize their safety and well-being. Here are some key safety tips to ensure your cat’s exercise experiences are both beneficial and safe.
Consult with a Veterinarian
Before starting any new exercise regimen, it’s advisable to consult with your veterinarian. They can provide guidance based on your cat’s health, breed, age, and physical capabilities, ensuring your exercise plan is safe and appropriate.
For example, a cat with arthritis or a heart murmur will probably need gentler toys and activities than a cat with no health issues, says Reimers. Similarly, a high-energy breed like a Bengal will need more exercise (and more vigorous exercise) than other breeds, she adds.
Always Provide Fresh Water
Ensuring your cat is hydrated, especially before and after exercise, is important for their health. Adequate water helps cats maintain normal blood flow to organs, transports nutrients, and eliminates harmful waste products through the kidneys.
“Wash and fill your cat’s water bowls once a day (or twice, depending on how dirty it might get during the day) to keep water fresh and prevent bio-slime,” says Reimers. “If you use a water fountain, be sure to take it apart and thoroughly clean the mechanism at least once per week.”
Monitor for Overheating
Cats can overheat quickly, particularly during vigorous play or in warm environments. Keep an eye out for signs like panting, lethargy, and drooling, which might indicate overheating. If you notice these signs, stop playing and allow your cat to cool down.
Don’t Overdo It
Cats generally prefer short bursts of activity rather than prolonged exercise sessions. Keep playtimes brief and enjoyable to prevent exhaustion. Pay attention to your cat’s body language — if they seem tired or disinterested, it’s time to stop.
Create a Safe Exercise Environment
Ensure the area where your cat exercises and plays is safe and free from hazards. Remove toxic plants, secure loose wires, and scan the area for sharp objects like push-pins and small objects they could swallow, advises Reimers.
Gradually Introduce New Activities
When introducing your cat to a new form of exercise, do it gradually. This helps them get accustomed to the activity without causing stress or injury.
To keep your cat interested in play, regularly rotate their toys, suggests Reimers. This approach creates a sense of novelty and excitement, encouraging your kitty to stay active and mentally stimulated. You don’t necessarily need a large collection—just rotating a few favorites can make a big difference in your cat’s enthusiasm for play.
Follow a PEGS Routine
This acronym, coined by Reimers and her co-founder Linda Hall, stands for Play, Eat, Groom, Sleep. It’s a natural cycle for cats: play mimics the hunting cats do in nature, which is then followed by eating their “catch” (aka a meal or treat you give them), grooming so predators don’t smell their food remains, then sleeping while digesting their protein meal, says Reimers.
This routine is designed to fulfill your cat’s evolutionary needs, providing a well-rounded approach to their physical and mental well-being.
Adopting these practices isn’t just about helping your cat shed a few pounds. It’s about embracing a lifestyle that promotes vitality and joy in every leap, stretch, and purr.
- 2022 State of U.S. Pet Obesity Report. Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/6425ec5d33eaaa634113b2d4/t/6454f61c0cad164860799c8f/1683289630779/2022+State+of+US+Pet+Obesity+Report.pdf
- Teng, Kendy T et al. “Strong associations of nine-point body condition scoring with survival and lifespan in cats.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery vol. 20,12 (2018): 1110-1118. doi:10.1177/1098612X17752198