- Overweight cats may have a cuddly appearance, but they are also at a higher risk for health problems.
- Veterinarians recommend using the Body Condition Scoring Chart to check your cat’s size and shape at home.
- Always ask your veterinarian about the right diet and the right amount of food to help your cat lose weight safely.
Overweight or “chonky” cats can feature in a number of memes and viral videos, but gaining too much weight can put your cat at risk for a number of health issues.
Excess fat can:
Up to 60% of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. But you may not always find it easy to tell the difference between a large cat breed and an obese cat.
Here’s how to check your cat’s size under all that fluff, plus some tips to help her lose weight safely, according to vets.
What is a healthy weight for cats?
A healthy weight depends on feline breed and body size, and there’s a lot of variation between cats: some breeds, like the Siberian, can weigh 26 pounds. Others, like the Munchkin, might weigh as little as 5 pounds.
Body condition scoring (BCS) is the best way to check your cat’s weight, says Angela Topf, veterinarian at The Vets.
The BCS chart provides healthy weight guidelines for pet owners and veterinarians by breaking down a cat’s potential weight into several categories:
- A score of 1-3: Under ideal weight. If you are a short-haired breed, your cat’s ribs may be clearly visible. You will feel his ribs more easily and you will notice a marked drop in his waist just before the hips.
- A score of 5: Ideal weight. You can feel your cat’s waist and ribs, but there is subtle, healthy fat covering her rib cage.
- A score of 7-9: Above ideal weight. You may notice excess fat or a lack of waistline in your cat. You may have trouble feeling his ribs and his abdomen may appear rounded.
Every score above 5 indicates a 10% increase in body fat, says Julie Churchill, a veterinarian and professor of veterinary nutrition at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Obesity generally means that a cat weighs at least 20% more than its recommended weight according to its breed. This means that if your cat has a BCS score of 7, they have 20% more fat than is considered healthy for that cat’s size and breed.
However, it is important to note that BCS is to cats what BMI is to humans. In other words, it’s not always an accurate measure of obesity.
In fact, a BCS score between 6 and 9 is considered healthy for some cats. For example, older cats often cannot get nutrients from their diet as efficiently as they age, so they may need more food to get enough vitamins. This can result in a higher weight.
Why do cats gain weight?
Of course, if you constantly give your cat treats and lots of food, he’ll probably gain weight.
But many other contributing factors can also play a role:
- Medical conditions: Both hypertension and hypothyroidism can lead to weight gain in cats, Topf says. These conditions can also increase your cat’s risk of cardiovascular disease, which can make physical activity more difficult and indirectly lead to weight gain. That said, hypothyroidism very rarely affects cats.
- Castration or castration: A 2021 study found that more than half of spayed or neutered cats examined were overweight. Spaying and neutering can slow down your cat’s metabolism. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should avoid neutering your cat, just that it’s important to determine the right diet to maintain its weight.
- Raising: Another study of overweight and obese cats noted that domestic shorthair cats were more likely to suffer from obesity than other breeds, such as Persian cats or Norwegian Forest cats.
- Dry diet only: There is evidence linking a diet without wet food to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.
- Lack of activity: Cats that live primarily indoors are also more likely to gain weight due to lower activity levels and less excitement in their environment to keep them moving.
- Free food: Keeping your cat’s bowl full all the time can lead to weight gain for cats that graze even when not hungry.
Health Risks of Overweight or Obese Cats
Weight gain increases your cat’s risk for a number of health problems because excess body fat increases her levels of inflammation, Churchill says.
An overweight cat has a higher risk of:
An obese cat may have a lower activity level, reduced quality of life and shortened lifespan, adds Churchill.
How to help your cat reach a healthy weight safely
“First, you need to take your cat to a vet to ensure healthy, slow weight loss,” says Churchill.
Churchill recommends always consulting your veterinarian before reducing your cat’s food or changing brands – sudden or major changes in a cat’s diet can lead to malnutrition,
“The calories in cat food can vary widely, so if you switch foods, a cup probably won’t contain the same amount of calories,” Churchill says.
Plus, losing weight too quickly can increase your cat’s risk of diseases like fatty liver disease, Topf says.
“Weight loss should occur over weeks or even months at a rate of 0.5% to 2% of their starting weight per week,” says Topf. For example, a 20 pound cat can safely lose just under half a pound per week, but no more.
Your veterinarian may recommend the following tips to help your cat lose weight:
- Outdoor play time: Walking and playing outside helps your cat get more physical activity. Just note that it’s safest to do this by taking your cat in a harness to reduce their risk of injury, unless you have a fully fenced yard or other enclosed space. You will also want to consider treatments to prevent fleas and other pests.
- Monitoring of their BCS: “Pet parents can learn to check their cat’s body condition score, and we recommend every pet owner do this once a month,” says Churchill.
- Slow down your diet: Cat feeders with puzzles or games encourage your cat’s natural playfulness and curiosity, which can slow her eating and reduce her risk of obesity.
- Measure your kibble consumption: Using a scale to measure food rather than a measuring cup helps you avoid overfeeding your pet – or underfeeding it when you cut back on dry food.
- Exchange their food: Dry foods are generally higher in calories than wet foods. Ask your veterinarian about adding canned wet food to their diet or replacing your dry food with healthier kibble.
Losing or gaining weight isn’t just about changing or limiting your cat’s food, which could do more harm than good without veterinary advice.
If your cat seems a little heavier than usual, a good first step is to check her weight with your veterinarian.
Your vet can recommend treatment for any underlying health conditions, like arthritis or diabetes, and craft the perfect health plan (pun intended) for your cat to get her to a healthy weight.