by Liz Bales DVM
When veterinarians talk about a cat’s weight, it’s usually focused on feline obesity.
While obesity is a prominent health issue among cats, many cats are also struggling with being underweight. And similar to losing weight, gaining weight gain can also be a tricky issue for cats. It’s not just about changing food portions.
First, you’ll need to find out why your cat is losing weight. Then you can determine a plan of action that includes a diet that will safely help your cat return to a healthy weight.
- Intestinal parasites
- Kidney disease
- Dental disease
- Gastrointestinal disease
- Lung disease
- Chronic pain
Create a Plan of Action for Your Cat
Once you and your veterinarian have a plan for treating the underlying disease, you can get to the hard work of weight gain. Your veterinarian will likely have specific suggestions for your cat based on their age and medical needs.
A diet that is customized to your cat’s specific medical condition is likely to result in the best outcome. Your vet will also identify your cat’s ideal weight, and can do regular weigh-ins to make sure that your plan is effective and that your cat does not exceed his/her ideal weight.
For sick cats, returning to a healthy weight is about more than just calories. Diets for specific conditions are customized to have the right macronutrients and micronutrients to provide weight gain while addressing the unique disease-related concerns.
What to Feed a Cat to Help Them Gain Weight
If your cat’s medical problem is under control—parasites are treated or painful teeth are pulled—correcting the calorie deficit may be the only treatment necessary.
Here’s what your veterinarian will look for in a healthy cat food for weight gain.
Find a Type of Food That Fits Your Cat’s Preferences
The most important first step is to find a food that your cat enjoys eating but that doesn’t cause stomach upset. You want a food that fits their dietary requirements but is also highly palatable so they will want to eat it.
It’s not unusual for a cat to have a strong preference for a specific flavor, type (canned/dry) or even texture of food. The same goes for a cat being repulsed by one or more of these factors.
Navigating your cat’s preferences is the first, and most important, step of getting your cat to eat well.
Make Sure the Food Fits Their Nutritional Needs
Cats are obligate carnivores. This means that cats need to get the essential nutrients for their health from animal products.
The natural prey for cats, such as small rodents, are estimated to contain around 55% protein, 45% fat and 1–2% carbohydrate on a dry matter basis.
Although the macronutrient breakdown of prey is only 1-2% carbohydrate, most cats can use up to 40% of their diet in the form of carbohydrates as a good source of energy.
In general, dry food contains more carbohydrates than wet food.
Cat Food Options for Weight Gain
Good quality kitten food is an excellent choice for weight gain in healthy cats. And most cats enjoy eating kitten food.
Royal Canin Feline Health nutrition dry cat food for young kittens is nutrient- and calorie-dense and tends to be highly palatable to most cats.
Your veterinarian can also prescribe high-calorie cat foods like Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Recovery RS canned cat food or Hill’s Prescription Diet a/d Urgent Care canned cat food.
These formulations are highly digestible and provide the extra calories your cat needs to gain weight.
Calculate How Much to Feed Your Cat
Once you have found a food that fits your cat’s needs and also gets them excited about mealtime, it’s time to work out the right portion sizes.
Math is our friend here. In general, for gradual and healthy weight gain, it’s best to assess your cat’s resting metabolic needs and then to feed this amount of calories plus 20% more.
Your vet can help you translate this into the correct amount of the food to feed.
Tips for Helping a Cat Gain Weight
Addressing the underlying health issues, selecting the right food and figuring out how much to feed are vital for success.
But that’s just the starting point. Once you have that sorted, you will need to establish a feeding routine.
Here are a few tips for getting your cat to eat reliably and gain weight safely.
Feed Small, Frequent Meals
A cat’s stomach is only about the size of a ping-pong ball. So it’s normal that your cat won’t eat a lot all at once.
Whether your cat prefers wet food, dry food or both, try feeding one tablespoon of food every few hours.
These small, regular meals are better tolerated than large meals and can reduce the risk of vomiting after a meal.
Try Warming Up Your Cat’s Wet Food
Cats are stimulated to eat by the smell of their food. Warming up wet food can help make the food more aromatic and enticing to your cat.
To heat your cat’s food, put their food in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave it for a few seconds.
The optimal temperature for most cats is at, or near, their body temperature—38.5°C (101.5°F).
Offer the Right Snacks Between Meals
Healthy snacks between meals can aid in putting weight on your cat.
Try tempting your cat with a few high-protein, simple bites of freeze-dried chicken, like PureBites chicken breast freeze-dried raw cat treats, between each meal.
Decrease Your Cat’s Anxiety
A calm cat is a happy cat, and happy cats are more likely to have a good appetite.
Cats are solitary hunters and solitary eaters. That means that they prefer to eat their meals without being bothered.
When your cat has been unwell, it’s normal to want to hover over them. But your cat will likely eat better if you give them some space.
Talk to Your Vet About Appetite-Stimulating Medicine
There are a few medicines available from your veterinarian that can help stimulate your cat’s appetite.
An hour or so after talking the medicine, your cat will feel the urge to eat. You can even ask if your vet can get the medicine in a transdermal form (patch or gel for the skin or gums), so that you can avoid having to give a pill.