Tubby Tabbies: Why Cats Get Fat & How to Help

December 21, 2018
cat health
overweight cat

There’s nothing like a snuggle with a ‘fluffy’ feline friend but obesity in cats is a problem. Compared to their previously wild ancestors, the cats we know and love today don’t work nearly as hard for their food, or spend nearly as much time on the move.

Wild cats are never lazy – or bored

In nature, cats do not have an ad libitum (as desired), free-choice, all-you-can-eat environment. They make numerous – up to 50% failed – hunting attempts for every successful kill. To avoid starvation, the drive to see, stalk, pounce and kill is permanently turned on.

Each hunt requires intense concentration, processing ultrasonic and other acoustic and visual cues while remaining motionless until pouncing. Most prey are small mammals and birds, none of which are large enough to share with another cat. Cats may hunt 80-100 times/day to meet their caloric requirement, an intellectually stimulating and physically active endeavour.

Why are so many cats plump?

There are numerous reasons, the most obvious being that they eat more calories than they need. But it is more complicated than that.

  • Easy eats Our cats don’t have to work for their food, and become overweight because they eat too much and their food is calorically dense. One mouse, a 30 kcal meal, is equal to approximately 10 pieces of an average maintenance dry food; even eating 10 extra pieces/day results in a 10% (1b) weight gain/year.


  • Trained for treats We like to see our cats eat and may interpret inquisitive, verbal or rubbing cues made by kitty as a request to be fed. Rewarding these behaviours with food or treats teaches the cat to ask for food. We feel rewarded because we feel needed and cared for each time our cat repeats the behaviours. In this way, we inadvertently train them to ask for food and they train us to respond to their boredom and other unmet needs by feeding them!
  • Surgical alteration Spaying and neutering reduces metabolic energy requirements by between 7-33% (most studies indicate 20-25%).
  • Stressed out snacking Like many of us, eating makes the cat feel good and eating becomes solace for negative experiences that cause distress or fear, or plain old boredom. In multiple cat households where cats aren’t fully socialized to each other, stress may be expressed by overeating, especially if cats do not have the chance to achieve the amount of personal space they feel comfortable with.

Body weight is very important

Knowing how much food to feed each cat is extremely important. While obesity is a big problem, it is also critical (especially in older cats) to ensure cats aren’t underweight, which can result in a loss of muscle and frailty.

We tend to overestimate the body condition of thin cats and underestimate the body condition of overweight and longhaired cats. Learning how to accurately assess your cat’s body condition plays a key role in preventing weight problems.

Body condition indicates whether kitty is getting too many, too few, or the right number of calories. Muscle condition scoring specifically reflects the amount of calories from protein.

Help your cat stay svelte

You can manage your cat’s weight by not feeding them too many calories, but also through making them work for their meals. This stimulates more natural hunting, killing and eating behaviour which makes for a happier cat.


  • Hunt for dinner Hide small bowls with very small portions around your house.
  • Puzzle it out This is so important, that the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) just released a Consensus Statement discussing the connection between HOW we feed our cats and their health and wellbeing. There are many great feeder devices available, including a set of feeders that actually look like mice. For a guide on how to transition your cat to food puzzles, visit foodpuzzlesforcats.com.

Let’s get our tabbies to their top condition! Know how much to feed, how to feed it, and how to check whether it’s working for Tom or Tabitha.

This article was written by feline specialist Dr. Margie Scherk DVM, Dip ABVP (Feline Practice)

Subscribe to the Meow & Mail