“Just like people, cats need to eat less and move more in order to lose weight,” says Dr. Aimee Simpson, medical director of VCA Cat Hospital of Philadelphia.
Think cats are too slothful to exercise? Not true. You just need to encourage the right kind of exercise at the right times.
“Cats are not lazy,” says Dr. Lisa Radosta, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist with Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach. “They work hard, play hard and sleep hard. Cats are built emotionally and physically for short bursts of intense activity. Resting between those times is normal.”
If your vet says your cat needs to lose a few pounds, making diet changes is one part of the plan. But to really accelerate your cat’s weight loss, you need to add in some exercise.
Make it the right time
Timing is everything when it comes to cat exercise.
If you try to entice your cat to play during her sleepiest time of the day, you’re likely to get a yawn and a blank stare.
Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn, Dr. Simpson says. “This comes from their history as predators that hunt at night. Your cat is naturally most active in the early morning and evening hours, so you can capitalize on their energy by scheduling playtime during these hours.”
Plan it out
Encouraging your cat to exercise is a two-pronged approach. First, schedule in mini sessions of active play with you in the morning and the evening. Keep exercise sessions short and sweet — five to 10 minutes at a time, several times a day.
“Cats are not built for stamina, so multiple short periods of play works best,” Dr. Simpson says. “Five minutes may not seem like much, but considering a house cat can run up to 30 miles per hour, they can do a lot in that amount of time!”
Get kitty motivated
For play sessions, use toys or treats to encourage your cat to move (make sure treats are low calorie, or use some of your cat’s kibble instead). Get creative to get your cat moving.
“Put treats on the stairs so he will climb them, use small treats to lure the cat onto the cat tree, up and down the stairs or onto the couch,” Dr. Radosta says. “Use motorized toys so that he can play even when you are busy, and rotate toys so they retain his interest even when you can’t play with him.”
Try some different types of toys to spark new interest in play. “Cats often gravitate toward certain classes of toys, so you may need to try a few types to see if your cat prefers fetching soft toys, batting at a toy dangling from a fishing pole, chasing a laser pointer or playing alone with an interactive toy,” Dr. Simpson says. “If your cat is food-motivated, an easy way to get them moving is by throwing pieces of their kibble across the room.”
Change things up
Next, try some easy strategies to trick your cat into being more active without even realizing it. Enrich your cat’s home environment with new interesting toys with different textures, plus scratchers to scratch and towers or trees to climb, sprinkling them with some catnip to entice your cat to explore them.
Dr. Simpson recommends offering your cat’s daily food portion in a puzzle feeder to tap into his predatory behavior. Once your cat figures out how to extract the food, you can make the game more challenging by hiding the feeder in the house and encouraging your cat to “hunt” for it.
“When your cat masters the game and quickly finds your puzzle feeder hiding spots, increase the difficulty level,” she said. “For example, rather than putting the feeder under the couch, hide it under a pillow on the couch.”
Run kitty, run
Very active breeds like the Abyssinian or Bengal might enjoy running on a cat exercise wheel, which is essentially an oversized hamster wheel lined with carpet, sisal or foam to help your cat grip. Your cat controls the movement, running as slowly or quickly as he wants.
Penn-Plax Heeled 35-inches Sisal Cat Tree $244.99. chewy.com
Cat Exercise Wheel $249. onefastcat.com
Practice safety first
Don’t overdo it with exercise, especially for very overweight cats who are not used to a lot of physical activity. During intense play sessions, watch your cat for signs of overexertion.
“If you see panting, stop playing and contact your veterinarian if your cat’s breathing does not return to normal quickly,” Dr. Simpson says. “Some conditions like heart disease can be exacerbated by physical activity and may require medical intervention.”
If you use puzzle feeders to help your cat expend more energy by foraging for his food, make sure your cat understands how to get food out of the feeder, and check that he is not missing any meals. “Overweight cats are at risk for a condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease) if they aren’t getting enough calories,” Dr. Simpson says.
Don’t forget the other important component to feline weight loss: diet. Exercise is important, but it must go hand in hand with an appropriate diet in the right amount.
“Partner with your veterinarian to make a diet plan for your cat,” Dr. Simpson says. “They can calculate your cat’s body condition score to determine their ideal body weight, how many kilocalories a day your cat can eat and how long the weight loss should take.”
It’s nice to know if upping your cat’s daily exercise has paid off with some weight loss. You can check your cat’s weight at home to see if the scale is going up or down, but it’s not necessary to weigh your cat every day. “Weekly weigh-ins will give you the facts about your cat’s weight loss,” Dr. Radosta says. “Baby scales are inexpensive and sold online.”