Cat Playing With Toy
In January a 36-pound cat named Meatball was dropped off at an Arizona shelter. Volunteers and staff at Maricopa County Animal Care and Control made him comfortable in a box in the office, because he was too big to fit in their cat kennels. That’s astounding — and sad. Cats are meant to be sleek, sinewy predators, not huge, inactive lumps of fur.

Obesity is a big problem in cats, for a number of reasons. At the very least, fat cats can develop skin problems because they’re unable to groom themselves properly. Beyond that, we veterinarians worry that cats who are overweight may have shortened lifespans because of their predisposition to osteoarthritis, diabetes mellitus and fatty liver syndrome. And overweight animals have an increased risk for many types of cancer.

Of course, be sure to introduce exercise gently and gradually. Fat cats can injure their joints if you try to get them to do too much too quickly. Check with your veterinarian before beginning any exercise program to make sure your cat doesn't have any underlying health issues that would make exercise difficult, and hold off on the jumping and stair running until your cat has lost some weight.

If your cat is starting to look tubby instead of trim, I’ve got some tips and tricks to share with you to help him regain his proper feline figure. A change in diet helps, but getting your cat moving — more than just from the sofa to the food bowl and back again — is the real secret to lasting weight loss. Bonus: With the new activity in his life, your cat may not only be healthier but also happier.

An Exercise Plan for Overweight Cats

Just like dogs, cats need daily interactive play and exercise. The good news is that it’s normal for them to be active in short bursts. Just a couple of minutes two or three times a day is a good start to getting your cat the activity he needs. First thing in the morning, midday if you’re around, and once or twice at night — especially before bedtime — is a good schedule to help satisfy your cat's needs and burn a few calories in the process.

Evening activity is a product of a cat’s nocturnal nature. Your attempts to get your cat to exercise may be more productive once the sun goes down — or before it comes up, if you happen to be an early riser. We’ve all seen cats get what I like to call the late-night crazies. They zoom through the house at light speed, up and down the hall, on and off the sofa. It always makes me laugh.

Cats are natural hunters, so use their instincts to motivate them. They like to pursue moving objects, so intrigue them with electronic mice that make a squeaking noise as they move, balls that light up or flash in motion, and catnip-scented toys that crinkle when your cat pounces on them. A simple, inexpensive option is a Ping Pong ball tossed down the hall. Other feline favorites are wand- and fishing-pole-type toys that dangle feather or fabric lures. It’s amazing how easy it is to get a cat to do spins and flips as he tracks the lure. (Just be sure he doesn’t have any orthopedic problems that could be worsened by jumping.) You can operate these toys from your recliner, exercising the cat while you watch TV.

Speaking of hunting, let your cat do some real hunting for his meals. No, not mice. Take his daily allotment of food and divide it into four or more portions. Then hide them in different places around the house. They can be upstairs, downstairs, on the top ledge of the cat tree, on top of the washing machine, under the bed — the possibilities are endless. Your cat gets activity, a brain workout and a meal, all in one.

The easiest cat toy in the world, however, is a brown paper bag. No cat worthy of the name can resist crawling into one and fighting it to the death. Leave a few lying around the house for him to play in.

Cats are also climbers. Your cat probably lives indoors, but even if he doesn’t have a tree to climb, you can still provide him with a manmade cat tree that goes floor to ceiling. Place it where he’ll have a view, whether that’s of the goings-on in the family room or the squirrels out in the yard. Take a wand toy and run it up and down the cat tree. The motion and sound will encourage your cat to take a running leap up.

And don’t forget to work your cat’s abs: When he’s lying on his back, tickle his tummy with a wand toy to elicit a few kitty crunches.

Finally, ginormous cats like Meatball can benefit from working out at the gym. No, really — if your cat is seriously obese, a stint with a pet rehab therapist can help whittle his waist. And it may be hard to believe, but many cats take readily to working out on an underwater treadmill.

The bottom line is this: If your feline friend is looking a little larger these days, take steps to get him slimmed down before he's giving Meatball a run for his money. You — and he — will be glad you did.

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