Recognizing and Helping Overweight and Obese Cats

Author: Dr. Jason Nicholas

Published: June 14, 2014

Updated: November 2, 2022

Our mission is to help save dogs' and cats’ lives through our educational content. To support our efforts, this page may contain affiliate links. We earn a commission for qualifying purchases – at no cost to you.

overweight and obese cats have more health issuesWhat do you think about your pet's weight? Be honest. Do you think that they're an appropriate weight? Do you think they're too thin? Too heavy?

Would it surprise you to learn that 56% of the dogs, and nearly 60% of the cats in America are overweight or obese? This is according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, and based upon the results of their 2017 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Study.

What is perhaps even sadder, and will make the problem that much more difficult to combat, is what they found in their landmark 2009 pet owner study... that many pet owners didn't recognize that their pets were at an unhealthy weight (and what that meant to their pet's health and comfort).

56% of dogs and 60% of cats in North America are overweight or obese:

  1. Owners often incorrectly believe their overweight pets are at a healthy weight.
  2. Reducing weight should always be done with your vet’s guidance.
  3. Weight reduction in pets is accomplished with a decrease in the calories consumed and an increase in activity.

Of dog owners, 33% in the 2009 survey incorrectly believed that their overweight pooch was actually at a healthy weight. For cat owners, this percentage was even higher at 46%. And when it came to obese pets, defined pets who were at least 30% heavier than what their normal weight should be, owner's perceptions weren't much better - 25% of dog owners, and 40% of cat owners, got it wrong there, too.

Why should you care?

Why is this important? Because excess weight on pets doesn't just worsen their arthritis and slow them down, it can have significant financial and medical implications in the event of an emergency or illness as well. This translates to more debilitation and longer hospital stays for them, and more inconvenience and higher costs for you!

Take 'Dave' for example...

obese cat dave
This poor guy is diabetic and has a tooth root abscess. The diabetes can predispose to the dental infection, and the infection can make the diabetes more difficult to regulate and control. Further complicating the problem, is the concern that if 'Dave' ever goes off his food (even if just for 24 hours) he will likely develop an emergency condition called Hepatic Lipidosis (see more below). All of this is brought on or exacerbated by his obesity.

Here's just a sampling of the illnesses and emergencies that are more likely and/or typically worse in overweight or obese pets:

  • Pancreatitis: Meaning 'inflammation of the pancreas,' this disease often results in decreased energy and appetite, with concurrent vomiting and diarrhea. While pancreatitis can be fairly mild, it can also be much more severe and can be fatal (due to the triggering of a body-wide inflammatory cascade set off by the pancreatic inflammation). Overweight and obese pets are not only more likely to develop pancreatitis, but because this condition is typically associated with concurrent inflammation and digestion of fat cells, they are also more likely to suffer from the more severe (read: painful, expensive, and more likely to be fatal) form of pancreatitis.

  • Hepatic lipidosis: A condition typically associated with cats who have gone 'off' their food for a period of time and for any reason (including dental pain, stress, or any other reason). Hepatic lipidosis results from an influx of fat into the liver, which damages the normal liver cells and prevents the liver from performing many of its vital functions. Among cats, this condition is pretty much exclusive to those who are overweight or obese. Diagnosis and treatment for hepatic lipidosis (and the underlying cause of their anorexia) typically requires multiple days of hospitalization and usually costs in the thousands ($4,000+ is not uncommon).

  • Heat Stroke: Because of both the insulating properties of their excess fat and the additional strain such excess weight puts on their joints, overweight and obese pets are at increased risk of developing this debilitating, expensive, and (often) fatal emergency condition. See further information regarding Heat Stroke here.

  • Urethral obstruction (in male cats): Urethral obstruction is an acute emergency condition where an animal cannot urinate because of some obstruction within their urinary outflow tract (the urethra). It is always painful and always fatal without treatment. This condition can happen in any cat or dog, but it is most commonly seen in overweight male cats. (Other predisposing factors, and the condition in general, are discussed in greater detail in this article on Feline Urethral Obstruction. Appropriate treatment and management of urethral obstruction in male cats typically requires the placement of a soft, indwelling urinary catheter and a multiple-day stay in the hospital. Costs are typically in the $750–1,250 range and can go above $3,000 if surgery is needed.

  • Diabetes: Especially in cats, obesity is a predisposing factor for the development of diabetes mellitus. Not only does this condition typically require life-long management and frequent monitoring at your vet, but it also carries with it the additional risks of a severe metabolic emergency condition called 'diabetic ketoacidosis,' recurrent urinary tract infections, and a few others. Read this article to learn more about Diabetes in Cats.

  • Others: Excessive weight and obesity also predisposes a pet to recurrent skin and urinary tract infections, worsens the pain associated with arthritis and other orthopedic conditions, and increases the likelihood that a pet with a pre-existing respiratory or heart condition will suffer an emergency related to their condition.

Hopefully now you are concerned about excessive weight and obesity in your pets. But how can you tell if your pet is overweight? Of course in some pets its just obvious. If you can balance a cup on your dog's back, or if he is routinely mistaken for an ottoman when he lies by your couch - your dog is overweight, and very likely obese. If your cat gets stuck in the cat door, or can't groom her own belly without difficulty - your cat is likely a bit too hefty. In most cases of excessive weight though, it’s just not this obvious.

How can you tell if your pet is at his ideal body weight?

We in the veterinary field use a combination of your pet's weight and individual 'body condition score' (BCS) to determine if your pet is overweight, underweight, or just right. When we are evaluating your pet's BCS we look primarily at the 'waist,' ribs, and any fat deposits on the back or near the base of the tail.

  1. Your pet should have a discernible 'waist.' That is to say, that when viewed from the side, your pet's abdomen should 'tuck up' as it approaches the back legs. When viewed from above, there should be a clear delineation between the back half and the front. If your pet looks like a sausage to you, you’re your pet is overweight - and potentially obese.

  2. You should be able to feel the ribs easily, without having to press through too thick a layer of fat. If there is excessive fat cover over the ribs, your pet is overweight.

  3. Your pet's back should not be perfectly flat, and there certainly shouldn't be a large fat pad along their sides or near the base of their tail. 'Love handles' are a dead giveaway for obesity in pets.

You can evaluate your pet's body condition score yourself at home, try it out and see what you think - remember be honest with yourself. It’s not just for their medical health, but for your financial health as well. To help you can use these Purina Body Condition Charts for cats and dogs.

Now that you've had a 'go' at evaluating your pet's body condition score, let your veterinarian do the same. As you can see from the study results mentioned at the beginning of this post, the two evaluations don't always come up with the same result. Besides, if your pet is not at his ideal weight, you will benefit from the help of your veterinarian and the support staff as you try to achieve a more ideal body weight for your pet.

Did you know that some pets actually do have medical conditions that can either make it difficult for them to lose weight, or that may cause them to lose weight abnormally? It’s true. Speak with your veterinarian.

How can you help your pet achieve their ideal body weight?

Let me start by saying this... once underlying medical conditions that can make it harder to do so have been ruled out, achieving weight loss in pets is typically far easier than losing weight ourselves. This is because of one simple fact... pets don't have opposable thumbs! And because of this fact, we have (almost) complete control over what our pets eat. So, with this in mind - here are some tips to helping you achieve weight loss in your pets.

Oh, and before we get to the tips, there is one very important thing that I must point out. Now, this should go without saying, but based on my experiences with owners in exam rooms across the country, I know that this 'sense' is not as 'common' as it should be, and so it warrants particular mention. Here it is... the 'cup' that is referred to on the back of your pet's bag of food is an actual unit of measure. It is a proper 8 ounce (oz) measuring cup! It's not an empty yogurt container or an empty drinking cup, and it is certainly not an empty 64 oz. BigGulp® cup (as I have had more than one owner falsely believe). It is a proper 8 oz measuring cup. You can pick one up cheap at most home goods or hardware stores. This one simple change can make a huge difference in helping you achieve and maintain a more ideal weight and body condition for your pets.

Ok, now the tips. They fall roughly into two categories – the same as with people. You’ll want, with your veterinarian’s guidance, to reduce your pet’s calorie intake and increase your pet’s activity level (and his caloric burn).

Decrease your pet's calorie intake

  1. Treats are typically the single biggest source of excess calories that most overweight pets consume on a daily basis. Decreasing the number of treats you (and everyone else in your family) gives to the family pet each day, and/or replacing your typical high calorie treat with a lower calorie one, can save a significant number of excess calories each day. Something as simple as breaking larger treats in half, or into quarters, can in and of itself save your pet 50-75% of these 'empty calories' each day. For healthier snacks for dogs, try air-popped popcorn, carrots, or apple slices (do not let them eat the core - they will become obstructed, it's Murphy's Law). For cats, try a low-calorie cat treat or give them a few pieces of a prescription dental diet instead - speak with your veterinarian. Be sure to inform the whole family of the importance of getting weight off the family pet. This way everybody will be on the same page and can work together to accomplish the goal.

  2. Don't feed your pet table scraps (for so many reasons).

  3. Decrease the quantity of food you are feeding your pet, or, if necessary, change the type of food you are feeding them. Speak to your veterinarian to see how many calories your pet requires each day for regular maintenance, as well as how many calories they should consume each day to achieve weight loss to their 'target weight.' In many cats, feeding a higher protein and lower carbohydrate diet can help with achieving weight loss - but these diets aren't necessarily safe for all cats - so speak with your veterinarian. The food your pet eats need not always be a prescription 'diet' food, but either way your veterinarian is your best source of information when it comes to your pet's health.

  4.  If you are feeding your pet a dry kibble diet and he gets too bored or demanding on the reduced quantity of food in the new diet, try this trick. Measure out the volume of kibble needed for each day. Take 1/3 of that total and feed it for the morning meal. Take another 1/3 of the total and feed it for the evening meal. With the last 1/3, try putting it in a puzzle toy and letting your pet play with and snack on that throughout the day. This will not only provide the calories your pet needs, but it will also stimulate your pet’s mind and encourage activity during the day while you are gone, thereby also increasing their calorie expenditures (which is the other important component of successful weight loss).

Increase the number of calories your pet 'burns' each day

  1. Increase your pet’s level of daily exercise - start slow and gradually increase, especially with pets suffering from arthritis or other orthopedic conditions. If your pet is suffering from such a condition, be sure to speak with your veterinarian about effective and safe pain management options for your pet before starting an exercise routine. DO NOT self-prescribe and administer ANY pain medications to your pets without first speaking with your veterinarian - you can cause more significant problems that those that you are trying to help by doing so. This applies to doctors and nurses within the human medical field too - our patients are not the same as your patients, and the differences in how they metabolize the human analgesics can lead to costly, painful, and fatal complications. I've seen it far too often not to mention it, so please - don't do it! Stick to treating people and leave the diagnosing and prescribing of medications to your pets to us. Thanks!

  2. To increase exercise in cats, try laser pointers and other toys. Be careful though if playing with strings - do not let them chew them and never let them play with them unobserved (and without you holding on to one end of the string). If cats ingest string, it is likely that they will wind up on the surgery table.

  3. For dogs, you can take them for longer or more frequent walks, or you can throw the ball for them more frequently. Just be careful not to do either during the heat of the day on particularly warm or hot days, as such pets are already at higher risk of developing Heat Stroke. A great exercise for many dogs, and one that is lower impact on their joints, is swimming. For dogs who like the water, this can be a great way to get some excess pounds off of them.

I hope that you now have a better appreciation for the dangers of excessive body weight in your pets and that you are motivated to help your pet achieve and maintain a more appropriate body weight. Armed with the information here and a conversation with your veterinarian, you will indeed be well equipped to accomplish this goal. Your pets really do depend on you to help them get there, don't let them down.

About the author

Profile picture for Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Jason Nicholas

Dr. Nicholas graduated with honors from The Royal Veterinary College in London, England and completed his Internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Nicholas spent many years as an emergency and general practice veterinarian obsessed with keeping pets safe and healthy. He is the author of Preventive Vet’s 101 Essential Tips book series.

Must-have digital books for dog and cat owners