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Five Tips for Starting Your Cat on a Weight Loss Program

Many cat parents understand why their feline friends are known for being finicky eaters. Switching a cat’s food for any reason can be challenging, frustrating and even annoying. Too often a cat will initially accept but then reject the new diet (hey, it’s a cat’s prerogative!). Or a fussy feline will start begging, meowing, pestering and following their owner around more intently than before. It’s no surprise these behaviors cause many cat owners to give up and give in!

If you’re reluctant to put your chubby cat on a diet, here are five tips that can make the transition to a weight management program and diet a little bit easier.

Don’t go it alone

You’ve probably heard by now that fat cats are at greater risk for diabetes, arthritis, non-allergic skin problems, lower urinary tract disease, breathing problems, heart disease and a shortened life span compared to normal-weight cats. Tubby tabbies are also at risk for a potentially life-threatening liver disease — hepatic lipidosis, in veterinary-speak — if food intake drops too rapidly or if they stop eating for more than 36 hours.

That’s why your cat’s weight loss program should be supervised by your veterinarian. But it’s not the only reason for having your cat seen by a veterinarian before starting a weight loss program.

A physical exam and blood and urine tests are needed so your veterinarian can rule out potential health problems that may be contributing to your cat’s excess weight. Your veterinarian will also obtain an accurate weight and assign a body condition score. Then, assuming there’s no medical reason for your cat’s weight problem, your veterinarian can determine how much you should be feeding your cat for safe weight loss.

An added bonus for a veterinarian-supervised program: Many veterinary health care teams can provide support, encouragement and insights during your cat’s weight loss journey.

Figure out how much your cat currently eats

Many cat parents have no idea how much their cats really eat. Too often cats are fed “free choice,” and that’s the main reason so many cats are overweight — in fact, more than half of U.S. cats are overweight or obese. Free-choice feeding means plenty of food is always available, and a cat can eat as much as they want whenever they want.

As part of a nutritional assessment, your veterinarian will want to know what food, treats and table scraps, and how much of each, your cat is currently eating. Be honest!

If you’ve been feeding your cat free choice, you can still determine your cat’s daily food intake. Here’s how:

  1. Fill the food dish as you normally would. Before setting it down, however, measure the amount of food in the bowl using a standard 8-ounce measuring cup. Set the dish down to allow your cat to feed.
  2. Twenty-four hours after filling the bowl, measure the food amount that remains to determine how much your cat ate.
  3. Repeat the process for two more days. Average the three amounts to estimate the amount of food your cat eats daily.

If possible, bring the package of cat food and any treats with you to the veterinary appointment. Your veterinarian can then calculate the calories and other important nutrients such as protein that your cat has been receiving.

No crash diets allowed

You don’t want to drastically reduce an overweight or obese cat’s food and calories overnight. Instead, weight loss needs to occur gradually to avoid triggering hepatic lipidosis. According to Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, a safe, realistic weight loss goal for cats is 0.5 to 1 percent of body weight per week. For a 20-pound cat, that translates to 0.2 pounds per week or less than 1 pound per month.

Use portion-controlled feeding

While free-choice feeding allows cats to eat small, frequent meals like their wild ancestors, the amount of food made available to your cat must be controlled for weight loss to happen. That’s why some veterinarians will recommend feeding two to four small meals daily and using a measuring cup to get the calories just right.

If your cat has been getting a significant number of calories from treats, those should be limited — if not eliminated altogether. But if treating your cat is important, treats can be factored into your cat’s weight management plan. Veterinarians generally agree that no more than 10 percent of a cat’s daily calories should come from treats.

Take time when switching foods

As part of a weight management program, your veterinarian may recommend feeding a diet specifically formulated for weight loss, such as Diamond CARE Weight Management Formula for Adult Cats. The key to switching a cat’s food is to proceed slowly since some cats may stop eating if they’re suddenly confronted with different food.

There are a number of ways to transition your cat from their current food to a new diet. Two common schedules for switching cat foods were discussed in a previous post. So here is yet another option, known as the “¼ every four days” rule: Replace 25 percent of your cat’s current food with the new food every four days until they’re completely transitioned to the new diet. (Yes, it’s a variation on a seven-day transition to new food.) For the first four days, you’ll feed a mixture of 75 percent current food and 25 percent new cat food. If your cat is accepting of the new food, you feed a mix of 50 percent current food and 50 percent new cat food for four days. Then you feed a mixture of 25 percent current diet and 75 percent new food for four days. Finally, you should be able to feed only the new diet.

Some veterinarians also recommend putting the two foods in different bowls, since some cats accept new food best when they’re not mixed together in the same bowl. Put the new cat food in your kitty’s current dish and have the current diet in a new bowl. You can use the same gradual replacement amounts of the new and current foods, and you can also provide the new food first when your cat is hungry to encourage acceptance.

When you first start limiting your cat’s food, you may notice an increase in begging or pestering behavior. You can either do your best to ignore the behavior or use it as an opportunity to play with your cat. After all, recent research shows that as cats lose weight, they become more interactive and affectionate. Maybe pestering behavior is your cat’s way of saying they want your attention rather than they’re hungry.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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