Overweight cat sitting in the corner

Though fat cats may be funny in cartoons, in real life the growing number of overweight or obese cats is no laughing matter: It’s a preventable problem with predictable outcomes when it comes to serious health problems.

Few of my colleagues know as much about feline health as Dr. Susan Little of the Winn Feline Foundation, and I bet even fewer know more than she does. I made a list of all the problems I could think of associated with obesity in cats to see if I had them all. I missed a couple, but Dr. Little? No sweat.

“The most common health problems associated with obesity are diabetes, liver disease, lameness and chronic skin conditions. Other diseases linked to obesity include dental disease, lower urinary tract disease and cancer,” Dr. Little says. “In addition, overweight pets are at increased risk if they require anesthesia or surgery, their immune function is decreased, their mobility may be poor, and they have decreased exercise and heat tolerance.”

She adds, “Life as a fat cat is not fun!” That’s an understatement in my view.

Few Cat Lovers Know the Risks

Sadly, too few cat owners are aware of the risks. Dr. Little told me only about a third of all cat owners can tell their pets are overweight. Even worse, less than 1 percent know that an overweight cat is at any increased risk for health problems, much less the comprehensive list Dr. Little shared.

So just how common is the problem? Cats, like people, tend to be leaner when young, but weight tends to increase in middle age. One-third of all cats are overweight or obese, but when you narrow that to middle-aged cats, the percentage shoots to near half. (Overweight is defined as 10 percent over ideal body weight, with obese being 20 percent or more.)

In addition to being middle-aged, the cats who are more likely to be overweight tend to be:

  • Neutered males
  • Sedentary indoor cats
  • Free-fed a diet with high caloric density

That doesn’t mean all those factors need to be in place — any one of them is enough to tip the scale (so to speak) toward fat for your cat.

Make Slow Changes (No Crash Diets) and Go to Your Vet

What do you do first? Most important is to know what not to do, and that’s put your cat on a crash diet. When you cut your fat cat’s food intake suddenly and dramatically, you are putting your pet at high risk for hepatic lipidosis, also know as “fatty liver disease.” And you don’t want that, because it’s potentially a killer.

Get your veterinarian’s help in figuring out how much food to feed, when to feed it and what kind of diet to provide. And then it’s up to you to change your relationship with your cat, altering the way your pet interacts with food. We’re social eaters, but cats aren’t until we teach them to be. Fortunately, you can "unteach" them as well. Instead of using food as a stand-in for your love, be generous instead with praise, affection and exercise.

For exercise, you’ll need interactive cat toys such as a cat “fishing pole” and a mere 10-15 minutes twice a day to play. Exercising your cat is not only fun for you both, but it also helps preserve your cat’s lean body mass so what gets lost is fat, not muscle. You can also make your cat exercise without you by turning him into the hunter he was born to be. That can be as simple as hiding small bowls of food throughout the house for him to nose out on his own or by making him work a little harder by putting kibble in food puzzles.

Since a lot of indoor cats are also challenged by behavior problems caused by boredom, turning the all-you-can-eat buffet into an unending work-for-your-food safari will do more than help keep your cat lean: It will also keep him busy, mind and body both.

When it comes to weight loss, you must be patient: It can take up to a year or more to safely shrink an obese cat. But it’s worth it, both in better health and in how much happier your cat will be with the agile and active body every cat deserves.