All About Cat Diets — How and Why to Put Your Cat on a Diet Safely

Cat diets don’t have to be so complicated — we’ve put together a few tips to help your cat get healthy safely and effectively.

A gray cat licking his lips with his hand in an overflowing food bowl.
A gray cat licking his lips with his hand in an overflowing food bowl. Photography ©adogslifephoto | Thinkstock.

According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 59 percent of cats living in the United States are obese. If you have a fat cat, helping him shed a few pounds will do wonders for his health and might even add years to his life — there’s no better motivation than that to inspire healthy cat diets.

Cat diets are not something to take lightly. Cats are sensitive when it comes to weight loss, so crash diets are a big no-no. “If weight loss is too fast or there is not adequate protein in the diet, the risk of a disease called hepatic lipidosis — a very serious metabolic liver disorder — is a very real danger,” explains Ken Lambrecht, D.V.M., medical director of West Towne Veterinary Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here’s how to configure cat diets safely and effectively:

When It Comes to Cat Diets, Work With Your Vet

A fat cat on the scale, licking his lips.
Your vet will weigh your cat when he comes in for his visit. Photography ©sae1010 | Thinkstock.

“It’s very important for cat owners to work directly with their veterinarians regarding weight-management issues, especially for cats that are significantly overweight,” Dr. Lambrecht says about cat diets. Your vet will help you select the right food and feed the right amounts, as well as monitor your cat’s weight loss to ensure the diet is working. At the first visit, your vet will weigh your cat and also identify his ideal goal weight.

When It Comes to Cat Diets, Aim for Slow Weight Loss

If cats lose weight too fast, they may become very sick. “Weight loss has to be slow and steady, with frequent reassessments by the veterinary team to make sure muscle loss does not occur,” Dr. Lambrecht explains regarding cat diets. The rate of weight loss should not be more than 1 to 2 percent per week.

Choose the Right Diet Cat Food

Cat diets should include foods that are high in proteins and moderate to low in calories. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need meat and a good amount of it. Some “diet cat food” contains a lot of carbs, which is not great for weight loss. Most canned foods will have more proteins and fewer carbs than dry foods, but it’s possible to find high-protein, lower-carb dry foods. Again, your vet will help guide you to choose the ideal food for your cat’s weight loss.

Feed the Right Amount — And Don’t Be Fooled by Food Bags

When it comes to cat diets, free feeding is usually not helpful. Measured meals allow you to keep track of how many calories your cat is consuming. But figuring out exactly how much food to feed is tough. “Calorie needs vary according to lifestyle, age and individual cat,” Dr. Lambrecht explains. “Calories are not always clearly labeled. The bag feeding guide often shows too many calories for most cats.” Once again, this is where your vet comes in. Decide on a brand and have your vet calculate how much of that particular food to feed your cat in order to achieve a slow and steady weight loss.

Cut Out — or At Least Cut Back on — Cat Treats

Awwww, no treats? So sad. Commercial cat treats are high in calories and low in nutrition, so there’s no place for them on most cat diets. If you must feed your cat treats, keep them to a minimum and preferably stick to small amounts of high-protein human foods, like tiny bits of cooked chicken or a little bit of scrambled eggs.

Bottom Line: Cat Diets Take Time to Work

A fat cat lying on a hardwood floor.
A fat cat lying on a hardwood floor. Photography ©ESezer | Thinkstock.

It might take some time, but with diligence, the right cat diets will help your cats drop those pounds and get healthier. “Weight loss can be tricky, but the rewards are huge,” Dr. Lambrecht says. “A cat that feels better, lives longer and acts like a kitten again is a win/win/win.”

Tell us: Have you ever put your cat on a diet? What did you feed him or her? Did you see results?

Thumbnail: Photography ©adogslifephoto | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2017.

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28 thoughts on “All About Cat Diets — How and Why to Put Your Cat on a Diet Safely”

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  4. I have rescued 3 kittens. when they were about 4 weeks old. My oldest cat is 14 years old and had been on the YD Thyroid diet food. Unfortunately she started eating the kittens food and I can’t get her back on her diet. I have tried everything but she manages to sneak food from them.
    The other problem is 2 of the kittens (they are now 4 months old) eat their food a little at a time. But the 3rd kitten (the little runt) is becoming a very cubby female. She gobbles up her food including licking the plate clean, and then tries to finish the other kittens food. All of the kittens also try to steal people food even when they have eaten their own food.
    The vet says they are very healthy but their eating habits are because they have been rescued from the street.
    Any sugguestion would be very helpful..

    1. Hi there,

      Definitely stay in touch with your vet regarding your cats’ diets. These articles might provide some insight as well;

    2. Your vet will probably tell you to feed separately in different rooms. Unless you are able to give meds successfully, the thyroid diet is important, so whatever you can do to get your car to eat it would be worth the effort. Good luck!

  5. My sweet ‘DannyMeow’ at 12-1/2 years, has developed Hyper Thyroid condition. I would do anything to save my very special (a Designated ‘Service Cat’ for this 77- yr. old senior). I have researched online the UC of Davis, CA; Cornell U, et al and also have an excellent vet locally as well as many other caring cat lovers. I will always do the ‘right thing’, however, he does not tolerate the Meth/meds and throws up almost daily. They have killed his appetite. He began to gain the necessary weight back but lost them with this med. Our Vet took him off for a ‘rest’ but I am inclined to no longer use this medicine. I am a low income/HUD Senior w/o resources to pursue the one time injection called I-131, nor keep our surroundings totally clear of the side-effects. (2) cat non-profits can no longer help w/vet bills.

    Is there anyone out there who can professionally advise the best care for this dear companion? His personality of talkative, sweet, even playful at his age, has returned to the Danny I rescued as a 7-weeks old kitten. Pls help! Thank you very much!

    1. Hi there,

      Sorry to hear your cat is going through this. We suggest keeping in touch with your vet. Here are some ways to make vet bills more affordable:

  6. Our vet recommended that I get a “baby” scale and weigh my two cats daily, so I’d be able to tell if they were getting enough to eat, and if they were losing weight or not, since predicting how much any given cat needs to eat is not an exact science. My two are a brother and sister that we adopted as kittens from a local shelter. The shelter raised them on kibble, and it took me several months to “convert” them to wet food on the advice of my vet, after my boy had a serious bout with urinary tract blockage. They each get half a can of wet food mixed with a tablespoon of warm water, four times a day now, and have been doing well for the last 8 months.. They each have lost about one pound over the 8 months, he from 15 pounds to 14 and she from 14 to 13. They seem healthy and happy and are now eating the wet food with no complaints.

  7. Per the advice of my cat’s vet, I put my overweight boy on a diet of a metabolic dry food. The vet advised following the package advice as to daily quantity, and that is what I did. I gave my boy very infrequent treats. I followed this plan for 1 year, and my boy did not lose any weight.

  8. How in the world do I put my FatBoy on a diet with 8 other kittehs in the house (who are not fat like him…he’s a food thief). Black Magic should probably weigh about 15# (he’s kind of a big boy), but he’s pushing over 20# at this point. I’ve put him on fatboy dry food, 2oz/day (I slowly cut him back from 4oz/day), along with a 1/4 can of canned food. I know he’s not losing weight because he allows me to weigh him, if anything he’s getting fatter!

    1. Marilyn Widdifield

      I had the same problem with 6 cats in the house and one overweight (he was 23lbs). My vet suggested I but a large plastic tub with a lid (about 3ft) long and cut a hole in one end big enough for all the normal size cats to fit through but not big enough for the fat one (ours is about 5.5 inches in diameter). Keep all the other cats food dishes in the tub at the far end so the fatty can’t reach in and move it (he tried!). Then we bought an automatic feeder that puts out the fat cats meals three times a day. We feed him Royal Canin Calorie Control from the vet and he gets 1/2 cup each meal.
      It has worked great and our fat cat is now 16lbs and he is 14 years old and healthy. The other cats all eat in the tub and are good with it. My fat cat also gets a bit of canned cat food twice a day and two treats at bedtime.

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  10. Is Your Cat Fat?
    An average domestic shorthair should weigh between 8 and 10 pounds, and although you can attempt to put Tiger on a scale, there are other ways to check his fitness:

    Gently squeeze the sides of your cat’s rib cage. If you can easily feel the ribs, he’s probably not overweight. If you have to press to get at the ribs, he may be heavier than he should be.
    Look at your cat’s waistline. His body should become more slender from the belly to hindquarters.
    A swinging pouch between your cat’s hind legs is an indication your cat is overweight.

    1. Swinging pouch means overweight? So not true. My 3 year old outdoor feral male cat was neutered at 6 months of age (has never been overweight; he is quite slim, fit and very active) and has developed this flap of belly skin that flops side to side at the slightest trot. When I asked our veterinarian, she said this is common in neutered cats.

  11. My Mele is 14 lbs. when I brought her home she was 10.i put the weight on her…to many treats at a time. I never had a cat before…this is my first,
    She does not play much, loves to cuddle and sleep. I give her 1/2=can of cat food (small can)in morning and 1/2/in evening. I also give her a scoop of dry food. It came with the container I have her dry in. I have cut back on her treats, but she does not seem to be losing. I wonder if I should giver her 1 can in morning and 1 in evening I would cut out her dry, but if I ever leave her for the day,she won5 get any cans . I do not want her to get finicky about her food.

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  14. my cat is 30lbs and i am having trouble getting her to loose the weight as she is a VERY picky eater. the vet has tried to help but she eats almost anything (even paper….lol), i am not sure what to do anymore any other ideas? i wish jackson could come here to stop her from some of the things she does to my company she bits them every time they come to visit, she is even biting me.

    1. Shawna, have your cat checked for Cushings! My cat was also becoming obese and would eat anything not nailed down. Until I did some reading and made a suggestion to my vet, they would have never found it. Unfortunately, that is one disease that is pretty much skipped over by vet schools. Even my vet said that she had NEVER treated a cat with Cushings, therefore, had to consult with other vets and schools about it. We put him on trilostane, which is initially used on dogs, but am having good luck in keeping his cortisol level down, but he still needs to lose weight. Two of the symptoms are a ravenous appetite and drinking lots of water.

  15. I have my kitties on a diet and found this post very helpful. I’ve tried gradually cutting down on how much food is available but didn’t understand the risks and what a proper diet is. I will now be more careful and choose the right food, instead. I’ll also consult the vet to make sure bloodwork is good and I can do what’s healthy for them. I’ve heard before that wet food is better than dry because of the carbs, but will follow vets recommendation rather than taking on this “project” myself.

  16. My big Leo gets aggressive towards my other kitty when he has no food…makes it very difficult to restrict him as she is getting a little older

  17. Baby Boy weighed 22.5 lbs when he visited the vet in May of this year. The vet recommended a puzzle feeder which I bought from Catit. It worked for a month until one day Baby Boy simply emptied all the tubes and then proceeded to eat his face off. I then put my cats (I have 5) on a feeding schedule. Baby Boy would eat from his bowl and then finish off the other cats’ bowls unless I watched them eat. So, I put the other cat’s bowls on a high table that Baby Boy couldn’t reach because he couldn’t jump up to it. This worked until he lost a little bit and figured out he really could jump. Now Baby Boy eats his food in a crate while the others eat on the table. The only problem is one of my cats is a nibbler and only eats a few pieces at a time. I have her food way high where Baby Boy definitely can’t reach it. Another of my cats is very jealous over this. It takes work to keep them all fed properly and feeling loved. Baby Boy’s target weight for next May is 14 lbs. We may actually achieve this. It takes perseverance on my part because cats are challenging. The food I’ve been using is Nutro Essentials weight loss formula.

    1. I hear you. I’ve got a 22-lb cat that we’re also trying to get to lose weight. Over the last year he lost 2 lbs so he is now down to 20. His target weight is 16 lbs. Unfortunately he is not terribly physically active, but with the colder weather he will run laps across the (enclosed) yard when he goes out. I try to get him to play for exercise but the only thing that motivates him to chase is… food. He was orphaned at a very young age so I think this is where his “food insecurity” comes from.

      So what I do is get some more health-conscious chew treats (like probiotic chews, or digestive enzyme chews, or dental chews, etc). I take one at a time like the show dogs on TV and let him have a few licks of it, then lead him on a few back and forth running laps down our hallway, letting him have a few more licks at the end of each lap. At the end of the last lap I then toss the treat a little ways away so that he can “fetch” it and finally eat it. This way he gets exercise, he only gets fed a single chew that at least has some health benefit to boot, and he gets to feel accomplished for having chased and caught something.

      His sister OTOH is extremely high energy and high metabolism. Like your cats, they won’t respect each other’s separate dishes if they’re fed at different times, so they are on the same feeding schedule based off the caloric needs of her brother. To fill in the gaps for her (she doesn’t need to lose weight), I hand feed her smaller “snack portions” more or less evenly spread between their meal times, that way she gets her appropriate meal size and I can make sure that her brother doesn’t sneak any of her food.

      TLDR: Feed multiple cats on the same meal schedule the diet portion of the overweight cat’s food, and give in-between meal snacks to the non-overweight cats to tide them over.

      1. I made a box so that only the skinny cat can go in. This way I can make sure my skinny cat gets the dry he likes. It is working great.

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