Cat Playing with Toy
At one time, the phrase "fat cat" conjured up images of wealthy and powerful people. Nowadays, with obese felines like Sponge Bob and the recently departed (39 pound!) Meow making headlines, the meaning has taken a more literal turn.

The negative health effects for plus-size cats include a potentially shorter lifespan and an increased risk of diabetes. But the solution isn’t always simple, especially if your kitty is also getting up there in age.

Vetstreet looks at some of the ways that veterinarians who work with senior kitties can address an older pet’s portly physique, taking her aches and pains into account.

Why Feline Obesity Is a Growing Problem

When it comes to pudgy cats, although some owners may think they “look cute, [obesity] is cutting down their quantity and quality of life," says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, DVM, of the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California.

According to Dr. Cruz, obese cats are about four times more likely to develop diabetes mellitus, plus they are more prone to developing urinary tract disease, heart and liver problems, and certain types of cancer. “So being obese is a true medical disease,” says Dr. Cruz.

Unfortunately, the reluctance of many owners to bring their cats to the veterinarian also means that some senior cats don’t get recommended twice-yearly wellness checkups, which enable a veterinarian to properly monitor a kitty’s weight and overall health.

Dog owners can more easily get a sense of a pup’s added poundage by monitoring the fit of a harness or a collar, but it’s more difficult to notice weight gain in cats. So it’s important to keep regular tabs on your older kitty’s physique by checking for the waist and ribs when your pet is in a standing position. Ideally, you should be able to see a defined waist when viewed from above, as well as feel the ribs, which should have a thin layer of fat over them.

How Can I Help My Senior Cat to Slim Down?

If you think that your cat is overweight, it’s essential to get her to the veterinarian, who can rule out any underlying medical conditions — such as abdominal tumors or fluid buildup from feline infectious peritonitis — before working with you to create the right fitness and weight-loss plan.

Cats should lose no more than 1 to 1.5 percent of their total body weight per week, says Dr. Cruz, noting that owners should never decide on their own to switch their feline to a new food without consulting a vet.

Cats are notorious for turning up their noses at grub, and if a feline skips even a few meals (or eats, but is losing weight too quickly), she can develop hepatic lipidosis — a life-threatening fatty liver syndrome that can cause jaundice, among other health issues. “When I was in vet school, they used to say a yellow cat equals a dead cat because it was so hard to treat,” says Dr. Cruz. Although treatments have since improved, many cats still die from the disease.

Most veterinarians agree that the best food for an otherwise healthy cat is a balanced diet that the individual finicky feline will actually eat. “Some cats have strong preferences between canned and dry, so the owner and cat both have to think it’s a good idea to change a diet,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, MS, Ph.D. Diplomate ACVN, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University.

And keep in mind, adds Dr. Cruz, that the recommendations on the package are usually for non-neutered, active cats — today’s mostly indoor cats won’t need as much. Plus, you’ll need to adjust feeding, based on changes in weight, in consultation with your veterinarian.

Some veterinarians recommend that allowing a bit of extra curve to a senior cat’s physique may be forgivable. “Weight loss is a stressful undertaking, and a difficult one. For an old animal with other problems, weight loss could exacerbate those problems,” says Dr. Buffington. “We don’t push obesity therapy in aged animals. We do push increased activity.”

What Can I Do to Keep My Older Kitty Active?

For many cat owners, the prospect of getting an older feline to move more can sound more daunting than putting her on a diet.

Once past the kitten stage, cats often settle into a more sedate lifestyle, compared to their canine counterparts. But this doesn’t mean that your senior kitty can’t benefit from less napping in sunbeams.

Dr. Cruz emphasizes the importance of trying to get cats to “move their little paws,” while acknowledging the inherent difficulties. “Often, they’ll look at you like, ‘Are you serious?’ " she says. “Or they’ll chase a toy once, and go, ‘That’s enough, thank you so much.’ ”

Dr. Buffington offers some tips. “We recommend that clients know their cats’ play preferences, which correspond to their prey preferences,” he says. By dangling strings (birds), rolling kibble, using laser pointers (bugs) and offering small rodent toys (mice), you can determine which of the three types your cat likes. Some people give up too soon, notes Dr. Buffington, and a cat who has a distinct preference for playing with bug substitutes, for instance, may not respond to the dozen catnip mice you toss her way.

Both Dr. Cruz and Dr. Buffington suggest using a chubby tabby’s love of food to keep them active, like placing her meals in small containers throughout your home. “The novelty is stimulating,” says Dr. Buffington.

Food puzzles are also available for purchase. Or you can make your own, using household items like muffin tins and egg cartons. Even wrapping some kibble in a paper towel, so she can tear into it, helps to boost a cat’s brain and brawn.

Walking an older cat on a harness is also possible, but it typically requires an extended training period for most kitties. “When you first put a harness on a cat, if they move at all, they look like land crabs,” quips Dr. Cruz.

How Important Is Daily Interaction for Senior Cats?

Dr. Buffington sees owners who lose interest in their older pets as they slow down, and then the animals stop coming to their owners for playtime. So when a kitty no longer brings a toy to you, it’s your turn to go to her.

Playtime with your cat helps her to stay younger mentally — and keeps her healthier physically. Even if you have a stubborn feline who doesn’t want to engage, Dr. Buffington suggests keeping the physical bond intact through petting or brushing.

Dr. Cruz points out that chunky cats who have trouble reaching around their portly bellies to clean themselves really benefit from daily brushing to keep their fur mat-free and their skin healthy, until they slim down enough to groom themselves again.

“The most important toy is you. Interact with your cat,” says Dr. Cruz. “Try chasing her up and down the stairs or down the hallway — just keep the kitty’s paws active.”