(not your conventional wisdom)
As strict carnivores, cats do best on a prey model meat-based diet with little or no carbohydrates. Unlike domesticated dogs, they never developed the ability to produce enzymes needed for efficient carbohydrate utilization. A cat’s system will convert carbs into fat to be stored in fat cells as soon as they hit the bloodstream, while utilizing dietary fat for energy as a first choice and dietary protein second.
Conventional weight loss formulas rarely work. They generally contain less protein and fat, and are full of hidden carbohydrates. This encourages more fat storage, constant hunger and even some loss of muscle mass as the cat’s body pulls needed protein out. Cats will get lean and muscular, however, if their food is high in fats and proteins, very low in carbohydrates, high in moisture, mostly unprocessed and sensibly portion controlled. To slim down a fat cat, follow these guidelines:
- Reduce or eliminate dry food. The biggest driver of feline obesity is dry food. All kibble needs some carb content to hold the nugget together, and that can quickly raise blood sugar levels, triggering hunger and cravings when the levels come down again. Another drawback is the lack of moisture. Fresh prey contains 60 – 70% moisture, which gives a feeling of fullness and satiety that cats never get with dry food alone.
- End free feeding. Leaving food out all day encourages constant eating and doesn’t allow the digestive system to go into a resting state in between meals. A better method is two distinct meals a day – morning and evening – with an optional late night snack to tide your cat over at night. Remove and wash the bowl after 20 minutes whether your cat eats the food or not, otherwise the smell of uneaten food will keep his body in digestion mode all day long.
- Don’t be afraid of fats. Fats are the overweight animal’s friend! Unlike carbs or protein, fat doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin, the hormone that causes blood sugar to drop quickly. Fat helps curb hunger for many hours and spares valuable protein for muscles and tissue repair instead of energy needs.
It seems logical to choose a weight loss food based on low fat content alone, but many low fat foods replace the fat with hidden carbohydrates not listed on the guaranteed analysis. The food with the highest percentage of protein plus fat combined has the least carbs and is usually the best choice. While fat has more calories per gram, you can compensate for this by feeding a little less. (More about this in portion control section).
- Add unprocessed or less processed moist foods. This is the true weight loss key. Frozen raw food for cats is the nutritional gold standard, but re-hydrated freeze-dried raw and high meat human-grade canned food can work wonders as well. They are most like the natural diet cats evolved on, with high protein, high to moderate fat, and essential vitamins and minerals in the right proportions.
A complete switch away from dry food can yield amazing results, with weight melting off each week and your fat cat getting her mojo back. Even replacing one meal a day with moist food can make a difference, or you can add some into each meal. Be sure to subtract an equal amount of the old food to offset the calories
But cats aren’t fond of change, and introducing new foods can be a lengthy and arduous process taking a month or more. For tips on transitioning, check out an article from our information library, Transitioning Your Cat to Canned or Raw Food, and Coming Home to Raw (from our Sept. 2011 Gazette).
- Portion control and timing. Without rigorous and consistent portion control, even a totally moist diet won’t slim your cat down. It’s vital to establish what she needs to maintain the weight she is right now, and then deduct 10% for a slow and steady weight loss that is just below the hunger threshold. Your cat’s feeding level may be different than what is recommended on the bag or can, so don’t just go by that– every cat is unique.
If possible keep a log of daily portions and times. Same time of day is best to develop a routine. The body anticipates based on past experience, and your cat will look forward to meal time. If you have a baby scale, you can keep track of your cat’s weight. Otherwise, check your cat’s ribs weekly to see the progress, and don’t forget to raise the feeding level a bit when she’s reached her ideal size.
*If you need to continue feeding a dry food diet only, you can still establish portion control and feed 10% below maintenance rations. Try to substitute the highest protein + fat dry food you can find.