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Pets: The Slim Down

Sometimes cats have to lose weight too

Illustration by Jared Scroggins

Our cat Simba thinks breakfast should be served at 4 o’clock in the morning. First, he purrs loudly next to your ear. Then he knocks pens, cups or phones off the dresser. I’ve tried to shut him out of the bedroom rather than pacifying him with food, but he’s recently learned to jump up and pull down the door handle to let himself back in. 

Simba, a domestic shorthair, is on a diet—and he’s not happy about it. As annoying as he is, our big orange ball of fluff is also very lovable. Simba greets you at the door, lets you cradle him like a baby and curls up at your feet. The problem is, there’s a lot of him to love.  

When we adopted Simba, along with his sister, Luna, a black and white cat, six years ago, the kittens could easily fit together in my lap. Last summer, Simba hit a new high of 21.8 pounds; Luna remains petite at 13 pounds.

Vets can tell you, as ours did, if a cat needs to slim down. Dr. Shanthi Ramachandran of Alpine Veterinary Hospital in Cabin John says that while some cats are big-boned, they generally should have an hourglass shape, and you should be able to feel their ribs. 

Ramachandran, along with her colleague Dr. Alice Sartain, estimate that 65 percent to 75 percent of indoor cats they see in their practice are overweight. When we adopted Simba and Luna, we agreed to follow the rescue group’s policy and not let the cats outside. Cats are safer indoors, but that can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and excess pounds.

At first, our family joked about Simba’s swaying water balloon-like belly—technically his “fat pad”—but it began to sag more each year. My vets explained that obesity can lead to joint problems, hygiene issues and an increased risk of diabetes. So, it was time to help Simba drop some weight. The strategy, as it is for humans: move more and eat less. 

Since Simba can’t burn calories by climbing trees outside, Ramachandran told us to get creative. “Try toys that are flying,” she said. “Cats have an affinity for string objects and small little shiny things.” Simba liked the balls and mouse-shaped stuffed animals we got him, as well as jumping up at feathers dangling from a stick. He moved the most, however, when we simply dragged a piece of yarn up and down the stairs or gave him a binder clip to bat around.  

Then my kids tried walking Simba on a leash, something they had dreamed of doing, but he preferred lying on the sidewalk or eating grass to any movement resembling a walk. When exercise alone didn’t work, we took a serious look at his diet.

I admitted to Sartain that we mostly bought whatever cat food was on sale and that the options confused me. She told me to look for varieties high in protein and suggested being more consistent about feeding him set amounts at specific times. Ultimately we made the switch to prescription wet and dry food. It’s more expensive, so I was committed to measuring and to keeping the cats’ bowls separate. Still, it’s hard not to cave when Simba begs for more food. He follows me into the kitchen and sits by his empty bowl, looking at me longingly until he’s fed. But I’m sticking with the plan—when he’s needy, I brush him and give him a small treat and he seems content. 

As of November, after a couple months on the new diet, Simba had lost just over a pound. My vets said it takes time, and that it’s risky for cats to lose weight too quickly. At least the scale is moving in the right direction. Next, maybe I’ll post a photo of a skinny cat on the bottom of the fridge for motivation as swimsuit season approaches. 

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