How to Help Your Cat Lose Weight

Resist the urge to 'free feed' your feline. Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock

There's perhaps nothing cuter than a chubby kitty, but unfortunately, that extra weight is keeping your cat from living her best life. Obesity in cats can lead to diabetes, arthritis and liver problems — just to name a few.

Researchers at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine just released their findings of a yearlong study on how to keep indoor cats at a healthy weight. There's no magic formula; just like humans, cats need to move more and eat less.

The study, sponsored by Purina, selected 44 obese cats and created a custom weight-loss plan that included weight-loss food and low-calorie snacks. Some cats wore activity monitors to measure their movements, while others were given food toys. All owners recorded their observations in monthly questionnaires about their cat's perceived behavioral changes.

The biggest takeaway? The weight loss improved each cat's day-to-day living experience — from mobility to grooming to their overall mood. "It's not hard to overfeed them in a 'food is love' culture," Megan Shepherd, assistant professor of clinical nutrition, told NPR. While some admirable cats can self-regulate their food, most cannot. And they can't always depend on their humans to have the best self-control, either.

Pick up the food, put down some toys

young boy dangles stick for cat to play with
It doesn't take much to get your cat moving. Catnip toys, string, feathers or even a cardboard box can tickle their fancy. Tatiana Bobkova/Shutterstock

For starters, stop "free feeding." That is, only feed your cat the vet-recommended amount at the same time every day. This will hopefully discourage your cat from expecting too many extra treats and leftovers from your own table. Shepherd adds, "If you have a cat that's screaming for food, and yet we still need to keep those calories restricted," try feeding them vegetables. In the study, cat owners had success with Purina’s Fortiflora probiotic product.

If you can't stop yourself from treating your furry friends, try zucchini. Seriously. Dr. Lauren Dodd, a resident in clinical nutrition at the college, suggested just that. Another significant takeaway from the study was that cats need to eat their greens, just like us.

Self-control is hard enough when we're watching our own waistlines, but rein in the human snacks when it comes to Fluffy. Human foods are full of preservatives, sugar, additives and a whole bunch of other substances cats simply do not need. The way you feed them can also help with a host of behavioral issues.

Besides dieting, consider investing in some interactive cat toys, especially ones that contain catnip or simulate prey. Cats are most playful early in the morning or late in the afternoon, so try to schedule your playtime when they're feeling their most feisty. You don't need to invest in anything fancy, either — an empty box or old newspapers might be all your cat needs to get moving.

This can be especially helpful if you've got a nocturnal kitty that enjoys waking you up in the middle of the night — a play session right before bed can be all they need to get them (and you) through the night.

It can take cats a full year to lose weight, so be patient, and practice a little empathy. Both Shepherd and Dodd concur that the most successful weight loss involves a meaningful connection with you and your cat. One of the study participants actually dieted with her cat. Dodd told NPR, "Her cat needed to lose. She needed to lose. So it was kind of like that social support, where she was able to tell her cat 'no,' 'cause if she couldn't eat, the cat couldn't eat either."

Not sure if your cat needs to drop some pounds? Try feeling their ribs. There are two versions of this test, both of which involve using your hand as a tactile guide. Of course, if your feline is on the fluffy side, a trip to the vet might be necessary.