Fluffy looking a little… well, “extra fluffy” these days? It’s surprisingly easy to accidently overfeed your precious furry friend. A cat’s stomach is fairly small—and they don’t need nearly as much food as humans often presume. Which is why cat obesity is, unfortunately, a very common thing. In fact, 50% of the cats that vets see are overweight or obese. Luckily, there are several ways to maintain and course-correct your cat’s eating habits. The best diet for cats is rich in protein, low in carbs, and most importantly, tailored to their specific needs.

What Affects Your Cat’s Calorie/Nutrient Needs?

·   A cat’s dietary needs depend on different factors, such as: 

·   Life stage -  age

·   Life style - indoor, activity level, spay/neuter, stress

·   Body condition and/or weight

·   Individual metabolism

The best diet for cats is one that takes all of these things into consideration. It’s also important to note that spayed and neutered cats need less food than those who haven’t had the procedure. Also of note—as cats age, they need less calories and thus, less food (but should be high in protein to help maintain lean body mass). But after 12 years of age, cats suffer a decrease in protein and fat digestion, which increases their need for food intake. 

What Type of Food is Best?

It should come as no surprise that cats love protein! Not only do they enjoy the taste of protein-rich foods, but it has been proven that their bodies and metabolism need high amounts of it in order to sustain their overall well-being.  Cats are obligate carnivores and require meat protein for certain amino acids in order to survive. While protein is their preferred source of energy, cats can utilize carbohydrates as an energy source. Cats cannot survive on a vegetarian diet!

What else should you look for? When selecting a cat food, ensure it includes omega-6 fatty acids, which aid in immune health, vitamin E for a shiny coat, calcium and phosphorus to support strong bones, and vitamin A and taurine which will help keep your cat’s vision sharp.

Different Formulas for Various Stages of Life

Just like babies need certain nutrients to grow and thrive, so does your kitten. It’s important to pay attention to what you feed your cat during its various life stages. Be sure to give kittens specific cat food designed for kittens and one that includes DHA, which helps support vision and brain development. It will help set the stage for a long and healthy life. As your cat approaches one year of age, transition to adult cat food, which is properly formulated to give your pet plenty of energy, and a shiny, slick coat. Later in life, it’s best to give your cat food created just for senior cats. Cats over age 11 tend to lose weight, so a formula created specifically for their evolving nutritional needs is always best.

Portion Control — It’s Not Just for Humans!

How much food is appropriate for your fluffy friend? Actually, not that much. The average cat weighs between 7-11 pounds (with Siamese breeds weighing less and Maine Coons weighing more), and pets with a body condition over 5 (on a 9 point scale) are considered overweight. With this in mind, portion control is crucial to your cat’s well-being. Even a few extra pounds can have an impact—from her joints to other health conditions like diabetes.

The trick is to monitor how much they are eating, and the quality of the ingredients. While most owners tend to a leave a dish of food out for their cats to graze upon throughout the day, experts recommend 2-4 small portions or 'meals.' An 8 pound cat needs around 220 calories/day. Divide that by 2-4 small meals and that's not much food each 'meal.' It may seem like not much, but for your cat, it’s plenty. If your cat doesn’t eat the food you put out within 30 minutes, take it away. Eventually they’ll get the hint and begin to eat the food when it’s put out. Maintaining a strict feeding schedule will help regulate their digestion and how their body uses the food for energy. That said, it never hurts to double check with your vet just how much they should be eating per meal and per day.

Big Meals Equal Big Health Concerns

Diabetes, hyperglycemia, arthritis, kidney failure…these are just a small handful of medical issues an overweight cat may endure. Just like humans, an unhealthy diet, combined with overeating, drives up the risk for many serious health concerns. But it’s not just big meals that can cause obesity. Cat treats can also be a huge contributor to your cat's health and weight gain. Be sure to limit the treats—especially those filled with carbohydrates that are difficult to digest. 

Happily, Healthfully Ever After

If you do think your pet needs to lose a few pounds, it’s best to first consult a vet who understands your cat’s dietary needs. And though it may take a while for your kitty to once again become “itty bitty,” it’s always great to show your pet your endless love and affection by ensuring their health is a top priority.