Updated - Jun 7th, 2021
Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM.
Whether you’re new to pet parenting or a long-time pet owner, you know by now that it’s impossible not to spoil the four-legged member of your family. But between the salmon treats, tuna paté, and chicken-flavored kibble, your cats may be overindulging. While a few extra pounds might not seem like a big deal, heavier cats have a higher risk of developing diabetes, arthritis, pancreatitis, cancer, and other serious health problems. So how do you strike a balance between pampering your favorite feline and promoting a healthy lifestyle that meets their needs?
The best place to start is assessing your cat’s unique circumstances. As with humans, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to weight management and health goals for cats. While some kitties need to lose weight, others might need to gain a few pounds to reach their ideal weight. First things first: identify what makes your furry friend one of a kind!
Every cat has a unique set of health needs – specific to their breed, gender, exercise level, diet, and environment. By understanding the different factors that affect your cat’s weight, you’ll be better equipped to minimize health risks and ensure your cat is feline their very best – with routines and preventative care that keep them purring for years to come.
How does weight vary depending on breed?
With over 80 different breeds of domestic house cats, there isn’t any one ideal weight for cats. For example, a healthy Maine Coone might weigh 25 pounds while a Siamese cat may only weigh five pounds. Your cat’s breed is one of the first factors you should consider when asking “How heavy should my cat be?”
The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention recommends the following weight ranges as ideal for different breeds:
Domestic cats: 8-10 lbs.
Persian cats: 7-12 lbs.
Siamese cats: 5-10 lbs.
Maine Coon cats: 10-25 lbs.
While this information offers a helpful benchmark for where your cat should be coming up on the scale, keep in mind that these estimates do not account for your cat’s body condition, diet, or daily routine. If your cat is under or over these numbers, don’t panic – remember that multiple factors are at play when it comes to your cat’s body weight.
How does gender affect weight?
Like breed type, gender also plays a significant role in how heavy your cat is. Generally speaking, male cats tend to be bigger, and therefore heavier, than female cats.
The reproductive status of your cat is another important consideration. Cats that have not yet been spayed or neutered tend to have higher metabolisms, and as a result can maintain a healthy weight more easily. While research is somewhat limited, veterinarians tend to agree that post-spaying or neutering, cats gain weight more easily. Veterinarians recommend dieting and portion control for cats after spaying or neutering.
While breed, gender, and reproductive status offer valuable insight into your cat’s ideal weight, it’s always a good idea to consult a veterinary professional for a more comprehensive assessment of your furry friend. They can provide you with a wealth of information, including your cat’s BCS score (more on this below), your cat’s ideal weight, and how much (exactly) you should be feeding your cat everyday.
The Body Condition Score (BCS)
Veterinary professionals have developed an organized system for evaluating animals’ weight, similar to the Body Mass Index (BMI) for humans. The Body Condition Score (BCS) assesses cats on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 identifying a severely underweight cat and 9 indicating obesity. There is also a BCS rating from 1 to 5 that some veterinarians may use.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA)’s Global Nutrition Committee outlines each number on their scale in depth. Numbers 1-4 describe a cat that is underweight with ribs that are either visible or easily felt. A well-proportioned cat is represented as a 5 or 6 on the scale, with slight fat covering over the ribs and a small amount of abdominal fat. Finally, cats who fall between 7 and 9 are considered “over ideal,” with excess fat covering their ribs, fat deposits in the lower back area, and a waist that isn’t easily visible.
Despite your veterinarian’s knowledge and expertise, no one knows your furry friend like you do. This scale is particularly useful when pet parents can offer context. By providing your veterinarian with a holistic view of your cat’s life, you can help them evaluate your cat’s health needs with a more personal, customized approach.
Assessing your cat’s exercise levels
After having an informed conversation with your veterinarian, you likely have a better idea of how heavy your cat should be. The next step? Determining how best to help your furry friend gain weight if they are in the 1-4 range on the BCS, maintain a healthy size, or if they score 7-9, or shed the extra pounds that are putting them at risk. Assessing your cat’s exercise levels is essential to developing a weight management plan that fits your kitty’s needs.
Like humans, pets also need to stay active. While dogs typically exercise more frequently than cats, it’s essential that you are still prioritizing exercise and playtime with your feline friends too. Not only does exercise help your cat lose weight, but it also helps minimize depression and boredom that can lead to more health and behavioral problems.
Seize the meow-ment with toys that inspire your kitty to get off the couch and play. Think: laser pointers, feathers, interactive mice – the list of cat-friendly toys is endless. Playtime will increase your pet’s mood, help deepen your connection with them, and encourage physical activity. Scheduling 15 to 20 minutes of playtime a day can make a huge difference in establishing a consistent exercise routine for your cat.
For outdoor cats, time spent outside is another excellent way to encourage movement. Allow your kitties to roam free and explore, as long as they have been trained to come home safely. Cats can also learn how to walk on a leash, especially if you train them from a young age. Consider buying a harness for your new kitten and set a healthy precedent for daily walks that can continue into adulthood.
If your cat isn’t trained to explore on their own, consider investing in a “catio” or an enclosed outdoor space like this one from PawHut. For busy pet owners who are working and caring for little humans, this is a helpful way of ensuring your cat is safe, happy, and still active. You won’t have to worry about them running away, but you will encourage some fresh air and movement. Don’t forget to leave lots of water for them outside!
For cats who are on the lower end of the BCS scale and need to gain weight, exercise is still an important part of their overall wellbeing. Encourage physical activity but be mindful that their needs are slightly different. Alongside exercise, the purr-fect diet is critical to any weight management plan – for underweight and overweight kitties alike.
Designing the purr-fect diet
Now that you’ve established an exercise routine for your furry friend, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re fueling their body – and how often.
For cats that are underweight, it’s important to choose nutrient- and calorie-dense food that is also high in protein. While veterinarians might recommend different brands and flavors, you probably know what your pet likes best. Experiment with different flavors and forms, including dry and wet food, to find the meals they enjoy most.
The Cornell Feline Health Center also recommends buying food that corresponds to your cat’s stage of life – whether that’s kittenhood, adulthood, seniorhood, pregnancy, or lactation. Some brands, like Whole Earth Farms, offer food that is ideal for cats of any age to make pet parents’ lives a little simpler.
Kitties who need to gain weight to reach a healthy size might benefit from wet and dry food, such as Dr. Elsey’s Cleanprotein Formula and ZIWI’s beef, chicken, lamb, and venison canned food. These options are high in protein and calories, intentionally designed to optimize your cat’s appetite and help them gain healthy pounds. If your cat isn’t a big eater, try feeding them small meals throughout the day rather than large portions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Additional tips include:
- Splitting their daily food portions into smaller meals and feeding frequently throughout the day
- Slightly warm food in microwave to increase aroma
- Don’t watch your cat eat (it can stress them out)
- Feed them in their preferred bowl/location/method
- Separate food and water bowls from the litter box, to mimic their natural behavior to separate these areas
- Does your cat still not want to eat? Have your cat checked by a veterinarian to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical cause, and ask your vet about appetite stimulants
For cats on the other end of the spectrum who may need to lose a couple of pounds, consider cat food that emphasizes weight loss and management. Purina ONE’s Healthy Metabolism dry food is high in protein to keep your cats full, with added vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to promote a healthy metabolism. Hill’s Metabolic Feline Diet dry food also helps your cat feel satisfied while metabolizing fat and maintaining lean muscle.
Canned wet food is another satisfying, nutritious option for cats on a weight management plan. Blue Buffalo’s True Solutions Fit & Healthy canned food was created by veterinarians and animal nutritionists with enriched fiber and wholesome, healthy ingredients that keep cats full without too many additional calories.
For pet parents looking to change their cat’s diet in either direction, remember that drastic changes can be unsettling and stressful for pets. Ease into a weight management program by mixing your cat’s new food with their old food so their first bite comes as less of a shock. For cats who need to lose weight, try decreasing the number of treats you give them throughout the day, and slowly adjust their caloric intake with progressively smaller portions. Your cat may be picky initially, but they will likely adjust to the transition in a matter of weeks.
While it can be difficult to tell if your cat is making progress on their diet or weight gain journey, a small pet scale can help you follow their progress and measure their weight from week to week.
Create healthy habits for your kitty
According to the Veterinary Center of America, obesity is the most common preventable disease in cats. Approximately 30-35% of the general feline population is obese, with 50% of cats aged 5-11 years old weighing in higher than their ideal weight.
With such a large percentage of the cat population at unhealthy weight, it’s critical that pet owners are aware of the health problems their kitties may face. Your favorite felines need your help achieving their ideal weight. Pet parents lead busy lives – juggling work, friends and family, and of course precious pets. A routine can help you manage tasks efficiently, and beyond that, support your favorite furball’s health needs. If your cat’s current habits aren’t healthy, try restructuring mealtime and playtime with healthier, exercise-focused activities that could potentially add years on to their life.
This is an op-paw-tunity to be creative and enjoy time with your cat. Consider combining mealtime and playtime with a feeder ball toy that can hold treats or food. This toy encourages your pet to move around to get to their food, while also controlling their portion sizes.
For pet owners working from home, consider moving your cat’s food bowl to different areas of the house to encourage movement during meals. If possible, avoid free feeding that leaves your furry friends to their own devices. Cats left unsupervised with a mountain of food tend to overeat, so budget time in your routine to be with them in the early morning or evening during meals.
While building healthy routines at home, be sure to check in with your veterinarian to share your cat’s progress along the way. Whether your pet is underweight, healthy, or obese, an ongoing dialogue with your veterinary professional about all factors that affect your cat’s weight will help you adjust and strengthen their health plan.
Remember: a healthy cat is a happy cat – and part of being a good pet owner is knowing where to draw the line between spoiling and supporting.
Help your favorite furball reach their full pet-ential with a diet, exercise routine, and lifestyle that is customized to their specific needs – and prevent them from developing harmful health conditions later in life. Learn more about preventative care for cats at Pumpkin.