Exercising Your Cat for Weight Loss

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Catherine Barnette, DVM

What is obesity?

Obesity is defined as an excess accumulation of body fat. A cat that weighs 20% or more above its ideal body weight is considered obese. Obesity leads to several adverse effects on the body. Fat cells release chemicals that are pro-inflammatory in nature, leading to stress and inflammation within the body.

Various hormonal imbalances may occur, including diabetes. Finally, obesity makes it more difficult for cats to move around, compounding weight gain and contributing to osteoarthritis and a decreased quality of life.

How can obesity be treated?

Obesity occurs when a cat consumes more calories than it expends. Effective weight loss in cats typically relies on two changes:

  • Reduce caloric intake: This can be achieved by feeding low-calorie foods and measuring portions to prevent overfeeding. Your veterinarian will help you select the best diet and meal portions for your cat’s needs.
  • Increase calorie expenditure: This requires increasing your cat’s daily exercise, so she can burn more calories than she consumes.

How can I encourage my cat to exercise?

Cats are predatory animals that evolved to be active hunters. Many of our cats, however, live a sedentary indoor lifestyle because owners provide their food and there are no hunting opportunities. To increase calorie expenditures in an indoor cat, you must consciously promote activity and exercise inside the home.

There are several ways to encourage exercise. Cats are individuals, and their preferences may vary, so you will likely need to try multiple methods of encouraging exercise to find something that appeals to your cat.

Use toys to recreate hunting behaviors. Cats are naturally predatory animals. Although it may be hard to imagine your fuzzy couch potato hunting small prey, most cats retain some hunting instincts. You can use this to your advantage by finding toys that encourage hunting behaviors in your cat, such as wand teasers, toy prey animals that look realistic and make chirp or squeak sounds, or battery-operated toys that move in unpredictable patterns the way prey animals do.

Create an agility course for your cat. Although many think of agility training as a dog’s sport, cats can be very good at it. Use various household items to create an obstacle course in your home, then use a highly desirable toy or treat to lure your cat over, under, and through various obstacles. While not all cats will enjoy this activity, those that do can burn a lot of calories while having fun.

"...use a highly desirable toy or treat to lure your cat over, under, and through various obstacles."

Set up a cat tree to promote climbing. Most cats love cat trees and will eagerly climb to the highest resting spot to have a good vantage point in their home. As your cat climbs, she will be getting exercise and burning calories. If your cat is hesitant, place a bit of kibble on each level of the cat tree. This will encourage her to climb and explore and may lead her to start using the cat tree on her own.

Allow your cat to safely explore the outdoors. If you have a backyard, you can install cat-proof fencing to keep her in and other animals out. You can also build a "catio" enclosure if you cannot install a fence. If neither option is possible, introduce your cat to a leash and harness, so she can take you for a walk.

"If you have a backyard, you can install cat-proof fencing to keep her in and other animals out."

Turn mealtime into an activity. Hide your cat’s meal around the house, such as behind the sofa and on stairs, chairs, and window ledges, to encourage your cat to “hunt” for her food. Puzzle feeders that require movement, such as pushing, digging, or sliding to dispense kibble, encourage activity (they are great for mental enrichment, too). Start your cat with simple puzzles to prevent frustration, then gradually introduce more complexity.

While some cats may not be receptive to all the above suggestions, trying each idea may help you find several ways to promote activity in your cats. Any increased exercise will lead to increased calorie expenditure, promoting weight loss in your cat.

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