An overweight cat sitting on a bed.

Nine Top Contributors to Obesity in Cats

Feline waistlines continue to expand, according to data collected by U.S. veterinary practices. In the 2021 clinical survey fielded by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP), 45 percent of cats were considered overweight or obese by their owners.

Many factors influence a cat’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. Since many of them are related to the cat’s environment — in other words, pet owner behavior and cat lifestyle — it’s important for cat owners to learn which factors cause cats to get fat.

Here are, in our opinion, nine of the top contributors to feline obesity.

1. Too much food.

Is your cat’s food bowl filled to the brim once or twice a day? Or is the daily amount measured out, divided and fed as at least two meals? Instead of providing large amounts of food at one time, check the cat food package for a feeding guide and measure out an amount that’s appropriate for your cat’s ideal weight. An alternative is to ask your veterinarian or veterinary technician to determine how much food you should be providing each day. Then measure or weigh out that amount and no more.

2. Free-choice feeding.

Free-choice feeding (aka feeding ad libitum) basically provides your cat with all-day access to a buffet table. While some cats will only eat what they need, others will eat as much food as is available — and then look for more. Inevitably, those cats will pile on the pounds.

If you want your cat to eat several small meals throughout the day, consider meeting his or her daily nutrition with measured amounts of dry kibble offered in a food puzzle, programmable feeder or free choice. It’s still important to feed distinct meals, even though you’re allowing your cat to eat small amounts of food frequently. This approach controls how much food is being fed and allows you to monitor your cat’s appetite. You can also substitute meals of canned food for a portion of the dry food.

RELATED POST: Meal Time Matters: How Often Should You Feed Your Pet?

3. A sedentary lifestyle that provides too little activity or playtime.

Many veterinary experts believe that a sedentary lifestyle is the number one cause of obesity in cats. However, they also agree that cats are safest and healthiest when they live indoors — unless you can provide a safe indoor/outdoor environment. Indoor living can lead to reduced activity and, in turn, weight gain. You can get your cat moving, however, by engaging his or her natural hunting instinct through the use of food puzzles or food-dispensing toys. Using an interactive toy to play with your cat for just 10 minutes twice daily can also increase your cat’s activity.

RELATED POST: How Much Activity Does My Cat Need?

4. Not reducing the amount of food fed after neutering or spaying.

A common myth is that neutering causes obesity in cats. That’s not exactly true. It’s how owners feed cats after neutering or spaying that predispose cats to becoming overweight.

Yes, neutering or spaying cats leads to slower metabolism, which means cats need fewer calories to maintain healthy weight. When neutered and spayed cats are fed like intact (non-neutered) cats, they’ll gain weight. So the solution is to reduce the amount of food fed to cats after they have been neutered or spayed.

RELATED POST: Debarking Pet Myths: Does Neutering Cause Pets to Gain Weight?

5. Too many treats.

It’s okay to spoil your cat with some treats if he or she likes them, as long as you don’t become an automatic treat dispenser. To keep your cat’s diet balanced, treats should account for less than 10 percent of your cat’s daily calories.

6. Food equals love.

The pet-owner relationship has a significant influence on a cat’s weight and activity. Many people equate food with love, and as pet owners they may tend to show affection by giving their cats extra food, treats and “people food.” Unfortunately for some cats, their owners may be literally loving their cats to death by overfeeding.

There’s nothing wrong with pampering our pets and showering them with affection. But how it’s done — as well as the “food-is-love” mindset — needs to change. A new toy, extra playtime or more lap time may be what your cat really wants instead.

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7. A change in perception of what’s normal.

To further complicate the problem of feline obesity, many pet parents may not realize their cats are overweight. The reason? One theory is that our idea of what a normal-weight cat looks like has changed. In fact, the 2014 APOP survey found a “fat pet gap,” in which 90 percent of owners of overweight cats incorrectly identified their pets as being a normal weight.

Keep in mind, too, that pets typically don’t pack on the pounds overnight. Because weight gain occurs gradually — and we see our cats every day — it may be difficult to notice changes in pet weight. Regular weigh-ins and veterinary checkups can help cat owners monitor their pets’ body condition and weight.

8. Breed predisposition.

In cats, mixed breeds such as domestic shorthair or domestic longhair cats may be twice as likely to become overweight than purebred cats.

9. Hitting middle age.

Cats are most likely to become overweight between the ages of 2 and 12 years and particularly when they reach middle age. Then, as they become “senior kit-izens,” the tendency to become overweight decreases and cats may even lose weight. Monitoring your cat’s body condition and adjusting the amount of food fed as needed can help you keep your cat at a healthy weight.

RELATED POST: Do Senior Cats Need Special Nutrition?

As the list shows, a variety of factors play a role in cat weight and body condition. Whether excessive weight results from too much food, too little exercise or advancing age, the bottom line is that overweight cats are consuming more calories than they are expending. As cat owners, we’re ultimately responsible for adjusting our pets’ calorie intake and activity level. We’re also responsible for seeking help from a veterinarian to help keep our cats at an appropriate weight. If you have any questions or concerns about your cat’s weight, be sure to talk with your veterinarian.

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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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