Exercise and Your Obese Cat

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

How can I help my cat lose weight in addition to his special diet?

Losing weight can be difficult, and animals, like people, often take weeks or months to shed those unwanted pounds. Feeding a prescription weight reduction diet is certainly a good start in a weight loss program for your cat, but it is important to remember that food intake is only one part of the problem. Energy expenditure is also significant, and if you simply reduce the amount of food your cat is consuming and do not alter the amount of exercise he is getting, you will find that the rate of weight loss is almost negligible.

Encouraging your cat to exercise by playing with him, putting his food in unusual places so he has to look for it, and making him work for his food (e.g., training, foraging toys) will help. Remember, slow weight loss is best for your cat’s health.

How can I encourage my cat to be more active?

Cats are designed to engage in short bursts rather than in long physical activity sessions; therefore, you need to provide toys and games that encourage this sort of action. Games that stimulate predatory instincts are usually irresistible for cats. Using wand toys that encourage some aerobic activity will be a valuable part of your pet’s diet regime. If you provide tiny food morsels at the end of each chase, this can help to encourage further aerobic play. A few reward-based training sessions can also be a valuable way to help your cat exercise away a few calories while giving you a better way to communicate effectively with your cat. Call him to come or teach him to chase a play toy or come to his food bowl on command, and your cat will learn a few words, burn off a few calories and enjoy doing it.

How can I encourage my cat to be more active when I am at work all day?

Although one of the most challenging things to do is encourage activity in a cat who is alone for long periods, it is possible. A wide range of toys and feeding equipment is available to stimulate feline activity (see the handout “Behavior Management Products for Cats” for more information). Some of the timed cat feeders that can be set at pre-determined times to allow access to food can be useful. If you also provide your cat with a puzzle feeder, it can lead to a significant increase in activity. Cat aerobic centers that incorporate hiding places where you can put part of the cat’s daily food ration can also be helpful (see the handout “Cat Behavior and Training – Enrichment for Indoor Cats” for more information).

"If you also provide your cat with a puzzle feeder, it can lead to a significant increase in activity."

In addition to food-related activity, you can encourage other forms of activity by providing play toys. It is better to use items that have intrinsic movement, as these will stimulate your cat to play even without a human operator! Again, if manipulating and chasing a toy leads to delivering small treats, your cat will be encouraged to play.

Is there any other way to increase my cat's energy expenditure if he won't play?

When cats are obese, play can be challenging, so they spend most of their time eating and sleeping. In these cases, it is important to increase the level of activity associated with feeding. Simple changes may be beneficial, such as placing the food bowl in a slightly less accessible location. You can try putting the food bowl on top of a small platform, so your cat has to climb to gain access to it, or you can place multiple bowls around the house so that the cat has to walk from one bowl to the other to complete his meal.

Some commercial toys, like the KONG® Wobbler™ and PetSafe® SlimCat™, are designed to deliver the food as they are batted, rolled, or chased. You may also consider making homemade puzzle feeders out of plastic bottles so that your cat has to roll the bottle across the floor to access the food inside.

As the weight loss begins, you will find that your cat has more energy to engage in play and other activities, but in the early stages feeding time may be your only opportunity to make him burn off some of those calories.

"As the weight loss begins, you will find that your cat has more energy to engage in play and other activities..."

I feed my cat two good meals daily, so why does he keep asking for treats between meals?

The cat’s digestive system is designed to take in multiple small meals throughout the day rather than two in larger ones. Often cats learn to consume larger quantities in one or two sittings because they realize that food is not available at other times. Since their natural instinct is to eat smaller amounts more often, they will certainly do so if they can access snacks between meals. In many cases, owners misinterpret their cats’ attempts to elicit social interaction, through vocalization or rubbing, as a demand for food; when the cat realizes that treats can be elicited in this way, he quickly learns this food-soliciting behavior. To decrease this desire for snacks between meals, you should increase feeding frequency and spread your cat’s daily food intake between multiple small meals rather than two main sittings. However, ensure the total number of calories does not exceed the cat’s calculated requirements.

Related Articles