Chunky cat looking a camera
Carl Sandburg’s fog may have come on little cat feet, soft and silent, but in my practice I’ve seen a number of cats big enough that their tread is more like rolls of thunder. And these felines aren’t just big-boned, as their owners often describe them — they’re downright fat.

Obesity is a big problem in cats — literally. So many cats are overweight or obese that it’s a national scandal. (And yes, there’s a difference between overweight and obese: Overweight cats are 10 to 29 percent over ideal weight while obese cats are 30 percent or more over ideal weight.) More than half of our feline friends — nearly 58 percent — could stand to shed a few pounds. That’s not something to take lightly.

It’s not easy to put your cat on a diet and exercise plan, especially if he lives a sedentary indoor life. And the answer isn’t to let him roam outdoors — unless you have a safely enclosed area for him. But you can work with your veterinarian to develop a feline weight-loss program designed to improve your cat’s health and activity level. And that will leave both of you purring.

The First Step Is a Visit to the Vet

Start by taking a cue from Weight Watchers: Schedule your cat for an official weigh-in at the vet’s office. This allows you and your veterinarian to figure out how much weight he needs to lose as well as how much he can safely be expected to lose each month.

Along with the weigh-in, your veterinarian should give your cat a good once-over. A veterinary exam can help to ensure that your cat doesn’t have any underlying health problems that could interfere with or be worsened by weight loss.

If he gets a clean bill of health, you can proceed, with the guidance of your veterinarian. My colleague, feline expert Margie Scherk, DVM, says that any successful cat weight-loss program has three components: diet, exercise and recheck visits.

Calorie Reduction 

Any diet starts with decreasing the number of calories your cat takes in and increasing the number of calories he burns through activity. Dr. Scherk recommends keeping a feline food journal for one or two weeks. Log everything your cat eats, from food to treats to nibbles the kids and your spouse sneak him when they think you’re not looking. It should include the brand of food or treats as well as amounts.

With that information, your veterinarian can determine how much your cat needs to eat to lose weight. Most cats can safely lose ¼ to ½ pound per month.

That may mean reducing the amount of food he gets or switching his diet to a different food. A higher protein diet — sometimes nicknamed the “Catkins” plan — may help, but according to Dr. Scherk, the scientific evidence isn’t conclusive: While some studies have connected increased protein consumption with feline weight loss, the finding is not consistent across all studies.

If you switch to a new food, your veterinarian will recommend introducing it over a seven- to 10-day period. Take that advice. Gradually mix in a small amount of the new food with your cat’s regular food. This helps reduce the risk of stomach upset and lets your cat slowly adjust to the taste of the new food. You probably know as well as anyone that most cats hate change and like it to be on their own terms, so give him time to adapt.

If it’s necessary to change your cat’s diet and he doesn’t like the food, it’s essential that you not employ the “take it or leave it” approach. Not eating is not an option for felines: Cats who don’t eat for as little as two days can develop a serious and sometimes fatal liver disease called hepatic lipidosis. You may have also heard it called fatty liver syndrome. Either way, it’s bad news. If your cat won’t eat his new food, talk to your vet about other options.

Get Moving

Cats and exercise go together like … well, okay, they don’t seem to go together, but the truth is that many cats are athletes of the highest order. Anyone who has seen one jump onto the kitchen counter or a high bookshelf knows that cats often have the capacity to move with speed, power and agility. We just need to harness their desire to do so.

Encourage your cat to move by spreading his food out around the house. Divide the amount of food he’s allowed daily into half a dozen small portions, place them in little containers and hide them in different places: upstairs, downstairs, in your closet, on a windowsill. Make him work for his food. You can also place the food inside a puzzle toy that he must roll or push to get the food to fall out. The goal is to keep him moving while he’s eating.

You can’t rely on your cat to up his exercise quotient, though — you’ll have to participate, too. Schedule two to three minutes of playtime several times a day. Wiggle a peacock feather or fishing-pole-type toy for him to pounce on. Toss a small ball down the hall for him to chase. Schedule some of these exercise sessions first thing in the morning and in the evening, when your diurnal pet is most likely to be active, and he’ll be more willing to participate.

Follow Up  

Work out a schedule with your veterinarian for brief exams to check his progress. Often, this simply involves a quick in and out visit to get him weighed and won’t cost you a cent, other than the drive time. Your veterinarian may check in with you by phone or email to make sure you aren’t having any problems or to see if you have any questions.

At the four-month mark, Dr. Scherk recommends another visit to make sure weight loss is on target and see if any changes must be made. And if you have any questions or concerns along the way, don’t be afraid to ask — your vet is happy to help you and your cat out on this weight loss journey.

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