You’d think it would be easy to figure out how many calories your cat needs or that she could manage portions if you just let her graze. But life in the wild for our cats’ ancestors meant hunting for multiple small meals throughout the day. And they likely got a lot more exercise than current-day kitties usually do (unless we count padding between bed and food bowl as reps). How much food your cat should eat can also change as she ages. For these reasons, it’s important to be mindful of how much you feed your cat throughout her life.
Ensuring your cat gets the right amount of calories is key for her growth as a kitten, keeping her energy up as an adult, and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy weight throughout her life. Over 60 percent of cats are classified as overweight or obese, according to 2022 survey results from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. And, despite the viral appeal of chubby cat videos on TikTok, weight control problems in cats often lead to reduced lifespans and increased risk of expensive health problems like diabetes, mobility issues, and cancer.
No matter your cat’s current weight, you can ensure she’s getting the calories she needs with a quick lesson in cat nutrition and some help from your veterinarian. Learn about how many calories cats generally need, how to figure out the best calorie goal for your pet, and what you can do if you suspect it’s time for a weight-loss plan.
Calories in Cat Food: A Brief Overview
Calories measure the energy released when your body breaks down food. The calories in cat food are calculated the same way as calories in human food. The type of calories a cat eats matters, too. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they need lots of protein and fat from meat sources with only moderate amounts of carbohydrates.
You can ensure your cat gets the nutrients she needs by checking the nutritional adequacy statement on her pet food for the phrase “complete and balanced nutrition,” a standard set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials. If you see that statement and follow the instructions on the label, you can rest assured that you’re giving her the calories, nutrients, and protein she needs to thrive.
Different types of cat foods can have different calorie levels. And, sometimes, comparing nutrition labels can create more confusion than clarity. For example, canned cat food is generally lower in calories per volume than dry cat food — but that’s simply due to their higher water content. Limited research exists on raw cat food diets (which might pose health risks for cats and pet parents alike) so it’s unclear how calorie counts in raw cat foods compare to more traditional cat foods. As you may have guessed, kitten food has more calories than adult cat food.
Because a cat’s energy needs are so individualized, talk to your veterinarian if you’re concerned about how many calories your cat gets from her food. They can help direct you to the best choice for your cat’s unique needs and your budget.
How Many Calories Should a Cat Eat?
“The ballpark calorie needs for an average 9- to 10-pound cat are around 200 calories, or about half a cup of food, per day,” says Dr. Nancy Welborn, an assistant professor of veterinary clinical sciences at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in Baton Rouge. She says pet parents are often surprised when they hear such a small estimate, but cats typically need far fewer calories than many might assume.
That said, this is a very rough estimate. Welborn says many factors can impact a cat’s energy needs, including age, size, activity level, and underlying health conditions.
How Many Calories Do Kittens Need?
Life with a kitten looks like life with an adult cat — nap, play, eat, repeat — all on fast forward.
“Kittens have a higher metabolism than adult and senior cats and are usually more active, so they will need more food per pound of body weight,” says Dr. Kelly Gehlhaus, managing clinic veterinarian at Animal Humane Society, a nonprofit organization with adoption and veterinary centers in the Twin Cities.
For example, a 6-week-old kitten that weighs ⅔ of a pound may need ¼ cup of dry food for about 129 calories per day. By the time she’s 5 months old and weighs 5 ¾ pounds, she could be up to ¾ cup of dry food for about 386 calories per day. That’s far more calories than her adult counterpart would need.
Because kittens grow fast and their calorie needs can change drastically quickly, it’s important to give a kitten food specifically formulated for their age and follow pet food label feeding charts carefully to avoid under or overfeeding.
How Many Calories Should Senior Cats Eat?
As they grow older, cats’ calorie needs change in interesting ways. Mature cats between the ages of 7 and 10 often gain weight and may need about 20 to 30 percent fewer calories due to age-related dips in their metabolism. Senior cats (11+) start having higher calorie needs because it’s harder to digest calories from proteins and fats as they age.
Choosing the right cat food for a senior can be incredibly challenging because there’s no agreement on what counts as a “senior” label-wise, and calorie counts may be lower or higher depending on the age of the cat they’re intended for. Sometimes, there’s no difference in calorie counts between adult and senior foods. In other cases, foods for cats aged 7+ may be lower in calories. In contrast, those for cats aged 11+ may be higher in calories, according to a 2020 review of senior cat foods published in the Journal of Internal Veterinary Medicine. Moreover, Welborn says senior cats may also have health problems like chronic kidney disease, which requires a prescription veterinary diet.
For these reasons, it’s best to choose a senior cat food and daily calorie goal based on your veterinarian’s recommendation rather than relying solely on generalized calorie counts and arbitrary marketing labels to guide your choice.
Calories for Cats Trying to Lose Weight
If your cat is overweight or obese and you want to help her get back to a healthy weight, step one is to know how much you’re feeding her now versus how much you should feed her with help from your veterinarian and a cat calorie calculator.
“Cats should lose weight over a very long period—anywhere from six months to a year,” says Welborn. While you might be tempted to drastically reduce your cat’s kibble rations, doing so could lead to a life-threatening health problem called fatty liver syndrome (hepatic lipidosis).
While it might also seem like you should start with a cat food specially formulated for weight loss, Welborn says veterinarians generally try to stick with the food your cat is already used to and gradually reduce her calorie intake.
Gradually switching to a weight-loss cat food is another option. In many cases, weight-loss formulas are higher in fiber because this may help cats feel full and satisfied with fewer calories. You might also ask about metabolism-boosting cat foods like Hills Prescription Diet Metabolic, which may help your cat burn more calories with a revved-up metabolism.
Besides slowly lowering her daily calorie intake, replacing your cat’s bowl full of food with new options that better imitate life in the wild can also help support weight loss.
Welborn recommends feeding your cat multiple small meals with the help of automatic feeders or food-dispensing toys hidden throughout your home. As a bonus, your cat will get extra mental stimulation and exercise—a plus for maintaining that weight loss and boosting her overall health and wellness.
The bottom line with cat weight loss and calorie counting is that it’s essential to do it under the guidance of a professionally trained veterinarian. With one call and a quick consultation, you can skip hours of label-reading, price comparisons, and complex calculations to get personalized advice based on your cat’s unique needs.