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How to help indoor cats lose weight

Updated on December 18, 2008

Food Puzzle Box

My "practice" puzzle box.  I made this one from a cardboard box.  The feeding triangle should actually be a bit bigger.  Anyway, you can see that most of the food is at the far corner, though Tash had already pushed some towards the triangle.
My "practice" puzzle box. I made this one from a cardboard box. The feeding triangle should actually be a bit bigger. Anyway, you can see that most of the food is at the far corner, though Tash had already pushed some towards the triangle.
The tape is showing where to cut to make a puzzle-feeder using a plastic storage container.  You can cut the lid OR the bottom of the box (then put the lid on and flip it over before filling).  The bottom is sturdier, so easier to cut.
The tape is showing where to cut to make a puzzle-feeder using a plastic storage container. You can cut the lid OR the bottom of the box (then put the lid on and flip it over before filling). The bottom is sturdier, so easier to cut.
Tasha checkin' out the puzzle box.
Tasha checkin' out the puzzle box.
Tash snagged a piece of food,and is eating it off of her paw.
Tash snagged a piece of food,and is eating it off of her paw.
"Hey, has anybody seen my leg warmers?  The community theatre is auditioning for CATS! and I am soooo out of shape!"
"Hey, has anybody seen my leg warmers? The community theatre is auditioning for CATS! and I am soooo out of shape!"

Or outdoor cat. Or both.

Obesity is a national epidemic here in the good ol' US of Abundance, and it isn't limited to our two-legged citizens. People love to feed animals. I mean, it isn't just the kids holding out handfuls of cracked corn at the petting zoo, is it? And admit it, you've plucked some grass and held it over the fence for somebody's cow, horse, or sheep, haven't you? As if there weren't any grass on the other side of that fence....

Anyway, the fact is, people equate food with love, and our pets do, too. That's why we get along so well.

It's also why so many people have to learn how to give their cats insulin injections, and how the pet food companies manage to keep giving their employees Christmas bonuses when the rest of the business world is having nightmares about the next Great Depression.

I have listened to many, many lectures on feline obesity over the years, but the best advice I ever heard came not from a nutritionist or internal medicine specialist, but from a behaviorist. That's right: the key to understanding how to get a cat to lose weight lies not in understanding how many calories it needs, but in understanding WHY it over-eats in the first place.

First of all, let's just look at feral (stray) cats. Now, I know you good-hearted people are sneaking bowls of food out, even though your practical relatives are telling you not to. Still, stray cats don't sit in one place and gorge themselves, as a general rule. They hunt. They kill one small rodent or bird, eat it, and move on. If they are still hungry, they have to find, catch, and kill another little soul. Er, I mean animal.

So...cats are biologically wired to eat as much as they can in one to three minutes and MOVE ON, lest they become the prey of some larger predator themselves. They don't eat until they are full, like people. They eat until that internal timer goes off, and then they walk away and groom themselves. If there is a full bowl of food right there in front of them, they will eat and eat and eat, despite feeling full, until their time is up. Has your cat ever eaten, and then almost immediately thrown up a huge pile of undigested food? Well, that's why. It ate more than its stomach could hold, but its stomach doesn't control the drive to eat. Its brain does.

Another thing to keep in mind with cats is that they are not designed to sit and drink. Like many highly adapted predators, cats are supposed to get their daily fluid allowance, not from some ice-cold kitty water fountain, but from the flesh of their prey. That means that when they get thirsty, they think they are hungry, unless they see, hear, or smell water. Then they'll get a drink before heading to the food bowl.

Before you start scooping up bowls and pulling out cat-sized leg warmers, let me give you this very serious piece of advice: never, ever starve an overwieght cat. Cats are very good at pulling fat out of stored areas and transporting it to the liver to be converted to blood sugar. They do this when their blood sugar gets too low, for instance from missing a meal. Unfortunately, their liver can only transform so much fat, and what doesn't get changed to sugar gets stuck in the liver cells, interfering with liver function to the point that they can actually go into full blown liver failure. It's called hepatic lipidosis, more fondly known as fatty liver disease, and it is a serious problem. The ideas I've listed below should NOT lead a cat to develop this condition (since food is always available), but you do need to watch to be sure the cat is eating if you alter its feeding routine the way I'm suggesting.

Alrighty, then. If you are serious about getting your cat to lose weight, whether it be an indoor, outdoor, or 'both' kind of cat, here are some things to try:

1) Spread the food out. Rather than putting half a cup of food (look at it! Do you really think a normal cat's stomach can hold all of that at once?!) in one bowl that the cat could possibly consume within its one-to-three-minute lunch period, spread it out. You can get four or five bowls, and put a tablespoon (or LESS) of food in each one, spreading them throughout your house. You will never have to feel guilty about your cat going hungry, because there will always be food available, but if your cat eats the little bit that's in one bowl and is still hungry, it will have to MOVE in order to find more. You can also spread food out over cookie sheets, so your cat has to move around the pan to eat its fill. It will consume fewer calories in its 3-minutes-or-less binge this way than it would if all the food was neatly piled in one small place.

2) Make a food puzzle box. (see pictures) I love this idea. Now, if you think of it as, "I wouldn't like it if I had to work for every morsel!" you will start feeling guilty. Instead, keep in mind that most cats love to play. So, using a cardboard box with a lid, or better yet, one of those plastic under-the-bed storage containers, make a toy that also feeds your pet. Here's how it works:

  • Cut 2 inch wide slots 3 or 4 inches apart in the top of a shallow plastic storage container (or practice with a cardboard box, first).
  • In one corner, make a triangular hole that is just large enough for the cat to get its head into without getting stuck.
  • Poor food in at the opposite corner. The cat will have to stick its paw into the slots, pushing food from one to the next, until it gets food all the way to the 'feeding corner'.

Again, your cat can eat as much as it wants, but of course their timer goes off before they've eaten too much. My cats seem to think this is a great game, especially if I put cheese cubes in the box instead of food. Do as I say, not as I do! :) Oh, if your cat is quite overweight, you may have to pad the cut edges of your slots by putting duct tape over them, otherwise he (or she) may rub those armpits raw.

3) Invest in a cat water fountain. I know it sounds ridiculous, but do you like drinking stale, room temperature water? Why do you think dogs drink out of the toilet? And cats as a rule do not take in enough water. I'm convinced that the real reason so many cats suffer from urinary tract problems--including kidney failure--is a lifetime of being mildly dehydrated. Their urine is too concentrated, so crystals can form in it, irritating the delicate lining of the oh-so-fragile urinary tract. When cats smell or hear water, and see it moving (movement is almost irresistible to cats), they take a drink even if they didn't realize they were thirsty. They will eat less, because they are often eating due to misunderstood thirst, and their urinary tracts will be healthier. There are other benefits to staying properly hydrated, but that's enough for now.

4) Replace treats with play as your expression of love. There are so many great toys out there nowadays, how can you not be tempted? Beware of the small, rabbit-fur covered plastic mice or sparkly balls. I've seen cats swallow these whole, and need surgery to get them out. Is it safe to assume that you all know how dangerous string, thread, ribbon, Easter grass, and tinsel can be to cats? All of these things can get lodged in their intestines, causing obstructions and sometimes even cutting through....bad, bad, bad. This constitutes a surgical emergency that can prove fatal. Choose large toys, and supervise play with anything that can be torn into small pieces or has a string attached.


A word about foods.....

Dry vs. canned? Diet or regular?


The short answer to the dry vs. canned debate is: the jury is still out on that one. We (meaning vets) used to say dry was better for pets' teeth. Then we realized that most pets, especially cats, don't really chew their food. Cats don't have a string of nicely apposed molars, like people or cattle. They aren't intended to grind food up. They are meant to...pardon me for being graphic...pull off chunks of meat and swallow them. So is dry food helping if the cat doesn't chew it? No more than your dental floss is helping when it stays in the medicine cabinet. From a urinary tract health standpoint, canned food may be better, but from an obesity and owner-sanity standpoint, unless you have the patience to give your cat a mouse-sized spoonful of cat food 10 times a day, you may have a hard time keeping your cat in a healthy weight range using canned food alone.

I would like to say that I find diet foods to be helpful, because...well, fewer calories in just makes sense. However, my Jibber-kitty was on diet food for most of his life, and he was a good five pounds overweight--in other words, he weighed almost twice what he should have. Maybe diet foods combined with the tricks above will be more effective than either diet foods or 'tricks' alone. Feel free to let me know what you discover!

I will leave you with this tidbit from one of the many obesity-management lectures I attended during vet school. Keep in mind that this was a guest lecturer from a well-known pet food manufacturing company, who bribed us to sit through a talk during lunch by bringing in free pizza and pop. That's soda, to the rest of the US. Anyway, he didn't bring salad and bottled water, is the point I'm trying to make.

So, he started by reminding us that it can be very difficult to tell a client that their pet is overweight, because often the client is overweight, as well. I should mention that I was eight months pregnant by then. One of my male classmates, Brian, turned to me and said, loudly, "Wow, your pets must be HUGE!" No, he wasn't married....And yes, he did leave on a stretcher. :)

I'm just saying, if you like this information and want to share it with a friend, just be careful how you broach the subject....

C'mon, Kitty! Feel the burn!

Da Bird Single 3 Foot Pole Cat Toy with 2 Extra Guinea Feather Refills
Da Bird Single 3 Foot Pole Cat Toy with 2 Extra Guinea Feather Refills

This is one you have to hide when you are done playing with your cat--too many swallow-able pieces.



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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This has been very helpful. Thanks so much, Larry

    • Guru-C profile image

      Cory Zacharia 

      9 years ago

      Thanks, Doc!!!!

    • kellyfilmgirl profile image


      9 years ago

      Just happened to see this one as I was perusing Hubpages. I'm going to have to bookmark it and try some of this. My baby is getting too lazy lately.


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