One of my favourite cartoons is that of Garfield on the scales with a disdainful look on his face and a comment which says: ‘I’m not fat; I’m undertall for my height.’ love that cartoon. Another favourite picture is that of a very round, very plump cat who says: ‘I’m not fat! I’m fluffy!’  And still another one where the cat is shrieking to its bewildered owners, ‘I’m not fat! It’s my glands!’ Even cats can conjure reasons to excuse their expanding waistlines, it seems.

Forget big bones. Forget extra fluffiness. If your cat’s undercarriage sweeps the floor as he walks, collecting dust or polishing the floorboards, or carves a groove in the carpet as he makes his frequent forays to his food bowl, it’s time to accept the truth – he’s overweight.

But the sad fact is that just as human obesity in the Western world has rocketed, and shocked the World Health Organisation with the figures, so too, has the obesity figures in our domestic pets causing our vets grave concern. Eight out of 10 vets are seeing increasing numbers of obese pets, yet 90% of pet owners believe that their pets are not overweight.

As we plump humans slouch on the couch in front of the television only exercising our thumbs when changing channels, or slump in front of our computers, our cats and dogs are being ignored. The bigger we get, the less exercise our pets receive – and worst still, we feed them our leftovers which, despite not being good for OUR health, we think that it’s ok to give them to our cats and dogs.

Paws up if this sounds familiar? Compassion moves us when we see an animal that, through neglect and abuse, is showing its ribcage. But it is not healthy for an animal to be overweight – it’s another form of abuse. In today’s paper I read of three children who were classed as morbidly obese being taken from their parents and placed in foster care for their own safety. Whether or not you agree with this is beside the point – the fact is that just as underfeeding your pets (and children) is abuse, so is over-feeding them – or not giving them the correct food for their species.

For just as in humans, obesity causes a raft of serious health issues, so it is with a portly puss. Vets are finding that many overweight pets are getting the same type of illnesses that overweight people can get. A plump feline is at risk from diabetes, stroke, heart attacks, arthritis and joint problems, to name but a few.

In the UK, a staggering 60% of cats are obese! Cats, by their natures, are not usually given to overeating. In the wild they would stalk their prey, catch it and eat it. It could be several hours before they would catch something else to eat, but those hours would be spent grooming, sleeping, and stalking, being on the move. A cat that doesn’t have access to the great outdoors might miss out on vital exercise if it has owners that are out of the house all day and are too tired when they return home, to play games with it. All games are a form of exercise and a cat will readily chase a ball, rolled up piece of foil or catnip mice if they are thrown. 

At his ideal weight, your cat’s ribs and backbone shouldn’t be visible, but you should be able to feel them and not see too much fat. If the bones are difficult to feel, and the tummy looks a bit plump, he’s overweight and if you can’t find the bones, he’s obese! 

About one in four cats in Europe is overweight, and the numbers are rising. And it is relatively easy to put right, just as it is for overweight humans. Although there doesn’t seem to be a feline equivalent of Weight Watchers just yet, most veterinary practices do have weight-reducing clinics that are held on a regular basis. is very important that an overweight/obese cat checks with the vet first to see what a realistic goal weight might be and then he must follow the new ‘sensible eating plan’ (I hate the word ‘diet’ – conjures up all sorts of deprivation!) for some months so that the weight loss will be consistent and appropriate. It cannot be stressed enough that it is very dangerous to put a cat on a weight-reducing plan without seeking veterinary advice first. It could be that the cat has a medical reason why it is overweight and this needs to be addressed – and once on medication to remedy the problem, the weight loss may regulate itself.

It’s important that your cat is fed at the same times each day and that one person is responsible for feeding it, to avoid several people in the same family thinking that because the food bowl is empty, the cat needs feeding. So agree on times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and stick to them.

Just as a Weight Watcher attends regular weekly weigh-ins, so the overweight cat attends weekly or monthly clinic where he is weighed and his vital statistics are recorded. Every encouragement is given to the owner to help them to understand the need for sensible eating and to cut out all the snacks, which are often leftovers from a takeaway. Eating Chinese food, a curry or a pizza is NOT, repeat NOT, good for a cat and filling your cat’s arteries with high cholesterol food is going to cause him heart problems. A cat eats cat food. A human eats human food. And just because your cat will eat Peking Duck or chicken vindaloo it doesn’t mean it’s good for him.

Exercise is a vital part of any weight loss programme and it is no different for our overweight cat. Reducing his input and increasing his output are sure-fire winners to an improved slim line feline. So he may not have a year’s membership to the latest celebrity endorsed gym, but he needs very little equipment in order to lose weight and tone up his flabby parts. This is something where the whole family can get involved. your overweight cat is an indoor cat, then it is important that he has regular chase the prey type games to keep his hunting skills well honed. True, he isn’t likely to encounter a vole or shrew in an apartment, but it’s all part of a cat’s psyche to instinctively know how to catch prey. Indoor cats need more regular exercise than outdoor cats because by the very fact outdoor cats go through the cat flap into the garden (unless their maid or manservant opens the door for them thus eliminating the need to stretch themselves through the cat flap) and clambering over neighbouring fences to look at an interesting piece of fauna will keep an outdoor cat exercised.

Not so for the indoor cat. He doesn’t have this added bonus. So he must take his exercise where he can and this is where the family can be enlisted, perhaps on a rota system, to help play with Portly Puss.

First, take a piece of silver foil (aluminium) and roll it up into a small ball. Now roll this gently towards the cat, aiming to roll it just past his position. Hopefully, and paws crossed, he will jump out on it, burning up at least 2 calories in the effort! He may, if he is feeling ultra lazy, just put his paw out to stop the ball on its journey – burning up probably a nano calorie – but, hey – every little helps!

Don’t be surprised if your cat is reluctant to run about after being used to being inactive. Just as the overweight person has to make an effort to get up off the sofa and perhaps go for a ten-minute walk, the overweight cat is likely to close his eyes, mutter ‘whatever’ under his breath and hope you’ll come to your senses before too long. It will take perseverance and patience – in bucket loads. 

Take a catnip mouse – or catnip anything – and throw it gently up and over your cat’s head. Hopefully, and paws crossed, he will jump up to catch it, burning up at least 5 calories in the effort. He may, if he is feeling ultra lazy, just look at you with absolute disgust and walk away, leaving you to feel pretty stupid, but at least getting up and walking away burns another 3 and a bit calories. So you can see how they’re mounting up!

An ordinary bird’s feather tied to the end of a piece of string or ribbon can be pulled either along the floor or allow it to float in the air within paws’ reach. Hopefully, and paws crossed, he’ll decide that it’s an interesting enough diversion and will race after it or again, jump up for it, burning another 2 or 3 calories depending on the thrust of his jump.

Sam taught me this next exercise, which is excellent. Take the catnip mouse again – or catnip anything – and, if you have stairs, throw the catnip mouse up the stairs and go and sit down. With luck, and paws crossed, he’ll rush upstairs, bat it down again and bring it back to you and lay it at your feet, ready to do it again.  This is a win-win game because you are both exercising and therefore you are both burning calories. If you have a competitive nature you can see which of you loses the most weight in one week!

For outdoor cats, all the chase games can be played in the garden and you can run (or waddle if you’re carrying too much weight yourself) up and down dragging the feather on a ribbon or bit of string as often as you like to encourage your Portly Puss to follow, thereby burning up several calories in the process. Or, he may just sit and watch you dumbfounded as he wonders if you have taken leave of your senses. Of course, he may think this if he is used to seeing you slumped in front of the talking box in the corner of the room!

Like Ollie, when he practised his ‘T’ai Chi’, outdoor cats are more in tune with nature and chasing butterflies and bumble bees – but not necessarily catching anything – all makes for good calorific reductions.

Although this article is written very light  heartedly, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that it is extremely dangerous to embark on a weight-loss programme for your cat (or dog – or even yourself) without seeing a vet and getting their advice first. You cannot just cut food out or cut it down if your cat has been used to eating a certain amount. You may have to get the equivalent ‘light’ version of the food he has been used to eating.

Many cat foods contain sugar and salt – which many owners are unaware of so it’s a question of reading labels to identify which foods are better. A cat in the wild will just eat his freshly caught prey. He won’t look around for the salt pot or the bottle of tomato ketchup – and it does annoy me that cat food has additives which are completely unnecessary.

Some owners will wrongly identify their cat’s meows as ‘feed me now’ demands when all the cat wants is, perhaps, just a few minutes of your time to interact with you. And some behavioural problems seen in cats, which are caused by stress – yes, cats DO suffer from stress – are often, inadvertently rewarded by the owners when they give the cat extra food.

When Portly Puss begins to lose a few pounds, the benefits to his body will be instant. The strain placed on his heart will lessen; any pains in his joints will diminish and with each pound he sheds, threat of contracting any or all of the other named illnesses are lessened. It won’t be long before he is strutting his stuff up the garden path, impressing all the female felines at his new physique or the feline equivalent of a six-pack. Or if he is an indoor cat, dusting the floor while he walks will be a thing of the past.

The exercises can be carried out as many times a day as he shows interest. Never force a cat to play if he’s not interested and give him plenty of encouragement and praise when he does something – even if it isn’t quite what you wanted him to do – it’s his version of the game and he must be allowed to win sometimes, at least. So praise ALL his efforts, however tiny they may be. Within a short space of time, not only might you have a new slim line puss, but you might notice some changes in your own waistline too.  

* Reference to Ollie and his T'ai Chi can be found in his diaries 

Illustrations by Laura Dumm:

© Pauline Dewberry September 2007

Related article:

When Pets Need to Diet


A Cats Prayer

Lead me down all the right paths,
Keep me from fleas, bees, and baths.
Let me in should it storm,
Keep me safe, fed, and warm.


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