Is your cat packing on too much extra weight? According to a recent survey organized by The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, chances are high. Veterinarians in 29 states concluded that 53 percent of all cats studied were overweight, with 19 percent being downright obese.

“We are becoming a nation of couch potatoes and lap potatoes,” says the study’s lead investigator, Ernie Ward, DVM, a Calabash, N.C., veterinarian. He points out that too much weight may contribute to health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

If your cat does fall into the hefty majority, the extra weight may have more to do with domestication than intentional laziness. Pet nutritionist Hilary Watson of Ontario, Canada, thinks the switch from outdoor wild to indoor mild may be at the root of the pudginess problem.

Wild, Wily and Thin
Watson, who has over 20 years of experience in pet food formulation and quality assurance, explains that in the wild, feral cats primarily eat small prey, like rodents. Since there isn’t much meat on a mouse, and feral cats do not store food, a cat in the wild is constantly hunting during its waking hours.

While feral cats face numerous health threats, ranging from malnutrition to predation by other animals, they generally don’t suffer from obesity. Cats’ bodies are best adapted to the feral eating lifestyle, which includes many small meals during the day paired with a certain amount of exercise. But how can you duplicate this regimen at home?

Tap Into Your Cat’s Inner Hunter
Your cat may take care of some of the problem itself. You may have noticed that unless your feline is famished or is a very heavy eater, it probably eats a certain amount of food in a single sitting and then returns every so often to the dish throughout the day. Unfortunately, naps may be all that occur between the noshes.

Watson suggests adding a hunting element to the routine. Place small bowls in four different rooms of your home that your cat can access. Leave three of the bowls empty each day, using just one for the day’s food, but vary the bowl choice. For example, on Monday, feed your cat from the bowl in the pantry. On Tuesday, use the bowl in the kitchen. “Your cat won’t keep track but will likely march around throughout the day investigating the different bowls,” Watson says, adding that she’s coaxed many cats to “exercise” with this technique.

Multi-cat, Multi-weight Households
If two or more cats live in your home, and your veterinarian believes only one has a weight problem, Watson offers a few suggestions. If your heavy cat has difficulty jumping, try raising the other cats’ food bowls off the ground so the fat cat can’t get to them. This can help solve the problem of the heavy cat refusing to eat its weight-control food.

If the above fails or isn’t possible, place a chain on a door between two rooms. The chain allows the door to remain slightly ajar, allowing the svelte cats to slip through for easy access to their food bowls. The heftier cat is then fed its weight-control meal separately in the other room.

Tips for Keeping Tabby Un-tubby
Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers these additional tips for keeping your cat at a healthy weight:

  • Schedule regular weigh-ins Your veterinarian has a scale that is sensitive enough to pick up slight changes in weight in an 8- to 15-pound animal. Aside from the importance of noticing these otherwise difficult-to-detect changes, the regular weigh-ins create a positive motivational factor, similar to a person going to Weight Watchers.
  • Make sure your cat is eating what it is supposed to and nothing else Avoid offering table scraps and other calorie-rich snacks.
  • Don’t go overboard If your cat is still overweight after your home efforts, an underlying health problem could exist, such as hypothyroidism. Treat your cat to a full check-up. When your cat receives a clean bill of health, buy a quality weight control cat food and expect gradual results.
  • Offer interactive exercise Find a toy you can both play with — something that dangles on the end of a line, for example — and get your cat off the couch a couple times a day. 

As Dr. Ward suggested, both people and pets have a tendency now to be too sedentary. Remember that your “lap potato” is lounging over a potential couch potato — you. If you develop better eating and exercise habits, chances are, those will benefit your pets too.