- Obesity is defined as a cat who weighs 20 percent or more than they should.
- Contributing factors to cat obesity include lifestyle, genetics, feeding patterns, and lack of enrichment.
- Health risks can include diabetes, arthritis, shorter lifespan, and more.
- Veterinarians diagnose obesity by evaluating a cat’s body condition score.
- It is essential to work with a veterinarian to ensure cat weight loss is safe.
Approximately 1 in 4 pet cats in the United States are obese, and an additional 1 in 5 cats are overweight . While weight issues in cats are relatively common, many pet parents struggle to help their cat lose weight. When your kitty is pleading with you for food, it may seem impossible!
So why is it so critical that cats lose weight? And how can it be done? Here is everything you need to know about cat obesity.
What Is Obesity in Cats?
Obesity is defined as a cat who weighs 20 percent or more than they should. So a cat who should weigh 10 pounds would weigh 12 pounds or more if obese. While 2 extra pounds does not sound like much, it’s a lot for a cat! Cats who are overweight are 10-19 percent above their ideal weight. So if the same cat were overweight, they would weigh 11-11.9 pounds instead of 10 pounds.
Each cat is an individual, and their ideal weight will vary based on body size. Cats vary in ideal weight even within specific breeds. The way veterinarians and pet parents can tell if their cat is overweight is based on a body condition scale. This scale involves looking at a cat’s silhouette or body shape and feeling for their ribs and any large areas of fat.
A cat who is at an ideal body weight has an hourglass figure with a natural narrowing of the waist just behind the rib cage seen by looking from the side or above. Their ribs would be easy to feel but not easy to see. Fat would be present on different areas of the body, but they would have no obvious large pads of fat, such as hanging down from the belly.
Causes of Obesity in Cats
In general, obesity can occur when a cat takes in too many calories over the amount of energy (calories) that they use. The risk of obesity can be further increased due to lifestyle and genetic differences in your cat’s metabolism, or the breakdown of energy in your cat’s body. Specific cat breeds have not reliably been shown to be more prone to obesity than mixed breed cats.
Other factors that play a role in cat obesity include:
- Age. Middle-aged cats (5-10 years old) and male cats are more likely to be obese.
- Spay/neuter status. Spaying or neutering cats removes many sex hormones, which can lead to a decrease in metabolism, increase in food intake, and decrease in activity.
- Feeding patterns. Free or frequent feeding or feeding primarily dry cat food can contribute to obesity.
- Lack of sufficient enrichment. Studies show that cats without access to the outdoors are more likely to be obese. Not all indoor cats are obese, however, and enrichment that promotes regular exercise is crucial.
- Metabolic disease. Metabolic disease such as acromegaly or insulin resistance can lead to weight gain in cats.
- Pet parent perception. Cat parents may view obese cats as having better quality of life, and they support their cat’s weight gain with excess food or treats.
Obese Cat Health Risks: 7 to Consider
There are several risks for your cat if they are obese, including:
Obesity may lead to heart disease, such as negatively affecting the ability of the heart to pump blood to the body. Weight loss has been shown to improve heart disease, such as decreasing the thickening of the left side of the heart .
Obesity decreases the ability of the lungs to inflate to their full size. Obesity also predisposes cats to tracheal collapse, which is when the windpipe collapses and causes difficulties breathing.
Obese cat patients have an increased amount of inflammatory proteins in the body due to an excess amount of fat. These inflammatory proteins cause cells in the body to resist insulin and its effects. While your cat is able to make insulin, their cells do not respond to it and cannot remove glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. This can lead to high blood sugar over a long period of time, and eventually diabetes mellitus.
The increase in inflammatory proteins in the body contributes to inflammation of joints, leading to painful arthritis in cats. Arthritis can be worsened by having too much body weight to be supported by the joints. Obesity predisposes to cruciate ligament (aka ACL) tears, intervertebral disk disease (inflammation of the disks in between bones of the spine), and hip dysplasia (hip socket is inflamed and not aligned).
Inflammation in the kidneys and stones in the kidneys, ureters, bladder, or urethra are more likely in obese cats. Urinary tract infections can occur more frequently in female cats. This is because folds in the skin can cause urine to flow out and over a lot of skin around the vulva.
Gastrointestinal tract conditions
Compared to cats with a normal weight, the species of bacteria in the gut changes significantly in obese cats. In addition, liver disease and pancreatic disease (pancreatitis) can occur.
Studies show that obese cats live shorter lives than cats of ideal weight. Obese cats are 30 percent less likely to make it to 12 years of age .
Obese Cat Symptoms
Cats who are obese gain fat in many areas of the body and they lose that hourglass shape. Their middle area is rounded outward instead of curving in to create a slight waist. Their ribs are not visible but also not easy to feel. Your cat will not only look different, but they may also have the following symptoms, which can be very mild and increase over time:
- Exercise intolerance. Your cat may tire quickly and be less active. Or when becoming active, they suddenly stop being active to sit or lie down and catch their breath.
- Lameness. You may notice a limp on one of your cat’s legs and that they are less likely to jump onto surfaces.
- Changes in breathing. Your cat may breathe faster or increase how much effort is given to breathing.
- Increased appetite
- Increased drinking
- Increased urination
- Skin changes. Cats who are obese cannot groom certain parts of their body well, so fur may be greasy or unkempt. An obese cat’s skin is often flaky with white flecks of skin or dandruff.
Diagnosing Cat Obesity
Veterinarians diagnose obesity by evaluating your cat’s body condition score. Evaluating past history for any weight gain or significant changes in health is useful in determining body condition score as well.
Obese Cat Weight Loss Solutions
There are multiple ways to help your cat lose weight. What every pet parent should know is that cats can lose weight too fast. Speaking with your veterinarian is essential to ensure that cat weight loss is safe. Veterinarians can calculate the amount of calories your cat should eat to lose weight at a healthy pace. A healthy goal is to lose 1 percent of body weight per week. For a 12-pound cat, this equates to 0.12 pounds or about 1/10 of a pound.
The two main strategies for cat weight loss include:
Feeding your feline cat food that is specially designed to promote weight loss is the best strategy for an obese or overweight cat. There are many different options to choose from, so always consult with your veterinarian before switching to a weight management formula.
Every cat is different in how they feel satiety, or full after eating. Some cats feel satiated with high-fiber diets while others need canned food due to its higher water content, which provides more volume of food for the same number of calories. Satiety is key to allowing your cat to lose weight without constantly begging for more food.
To ensure your cat is losing weight safely, ask your veterinarian for guidance. Depending on your cat’s weight, overall health, and how much they need to lose, your vet might recommend a prescription formula, such as Hill’s Prescription Diet Metabolic Weight Management Cat Food, or a non-prescription formula, such as Hill’s Science Diet Perfect Weight Cat Food.
Discover more veterinarian-recommended weight management cat foods, along with the pros and cons of each formula, here.
Increasing your cat’s activity level is another solid strategy for helping them attain a healthy weight. However, just like most people, you may find some cats easier to motivate than others. So you may need to get creative with some proven exercise ideas for cat weight loss.
To encourage more activity naturally, try to find toys or diversions that stimulate your cat’s playful (or predatory) side, such as a climbing tree or teaser wand. If your cat is food-motivated, a puzzle feeder may be a good option.
Just keep in mind that increased activity, while great for weight loss, may put extra strain on your overweight cat’s joints. Ask your veterinarian if your overweight or obese cat could benefit from joint supplements containing chondroitin and glucosamine, such as Dasuquin Advanced or Cosequin, to maintain joint health while losing weight.
How to Prevent Cat Obesity
There are many ways to help prevent cat obesity. These include:
- Avoid free feeding of food
- Decrease total amount fed after spay or neuter
- Limit cat treats to 2-3 per day, each approximately ¼-1/2 tsp in size
- Provide enrichment and opportunity for exercise
- Monitor your cat’s figure, and if it changes, seek veterinary advice on how to adjust diet and exercise
- Chiang, Chih-Fan et al. “Prevalence, risk factors, and disease associations of overweight and obesity in cats that visited the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis from January 2006 to December 2015.” Topics in companion animal medicine vol. 47 (2022): 100620. doi:10.1016/j.tcam.2021.100620
- Partington, C et al. “The effect of obesity and subsequent weight reduction on cardiac structure and function in dogs.” BMC veterinary research vol. 18,1 351. 20 Sep. 2022, doi:10.1186/s12917-022-03449-4
- Scarlett, J M, and S Donoghue. “Associations between body condition and disease in cats.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association vol. 212,11 (1998): 1725-31.