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The Endless, Thankless Task of Making My Cats Lose Weight

What am I do to about my hungry little fellas?

Two orange Tabby cats sitting in the basket of a brown cat tree, looking at the camera
Photos by Samantha Grasso

It was August when the vet first told me that my two cats both needed to lose some weight.

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I had known that they were gradually getting a little bigger. Early in 2019, I got them an automatic feeder, mostly because I had roommates, and wanted to curb the cats’ inclinations to beg from anyone who would listen. Tangie, my 3-year-old medium-haired tabby, isn’t really the beggar, but she’ll go along for the ride if Biscuit, her 4-year-old short-haired tabby brother, is on one. He loved to jump on closed doors and do what I’d characterize as a “cat running man” on them, sounding like he wanted to break the door down, in between bouts of loud yodeling. This was always his thing, regardless of whether he was on a diet, or whether he just ate. The night I first got Biscuit, when I lived by myself and had no problem leaving my bedroom door open, I woke up to his then-tiny 7-month-old frame solidly standing on my torso. He was hungry. And so I put a little bit of kibble in his bowl, and went back to bed. And he’s never stopped being hungry since.

Like I said, I got an automatic feeder, and was still using it when that call I got from the vet. At the time, I thought this was my saving grace. “Great! The cats will always get fed by the feeder, and no one will try to feed them more than they’ve been fed in a day!”

Two plump orange Tabby cats sitting on a stair banister
Tangie and Biscuit, July 2020

I was very wrong. The cats continued to beg, regardless of how often they were getting fed by the feeder, and how much. Which turned out to be way too much. Perhaps that is another wacky thing that the Chewy Industrial Complex doesn’t really tell you about cat feeders: they don’t really work for two cats! And if you have the feeder disperse enough food for two cats, one of the cats may eat more than his own allotment! And that depending on the size of feed (or maybe even regardless of size, per my experience) you’re likely to get really inconsistent portions deposited into the attached bowl, and that your teeny-sized feed isn’t probably as regulated as you think it is.

And even once they were overfed, they’d go back to my cousin, or our other roommate, and feign starvation. Please, please, mother hasn’t fed us in days! And sure enough, taking pity on these poor near-orphans, whoever was accosted would take a little scoop and drop it in their automatic feeder bowl. Upon seeing the food in the bowl, I’d think, oh, weird, they weren’t that hungry! I thought that even though these cats were clearly getting a little thicker, a little fluffier, and a little more labored when they played with their cat toys. I mean, all you had to do was look at a few photos from a year ago to tell that they had gained weight, and not necessarily weight that their little cat bodies could carry. At some point, my dad, after seeing these thicker cats in person, had started calling Biscuit “Garfield.” What a fool, I was.

The vet said that both cats needed to weigh 11 lbs. At weigh-in, Tangie weighed 14 lbs. OK, 3 lbs to lose, no big deal. But Biscuit, my sweet con-artist of a cat, had convinced the house he was so underfed that he now weighed 18 lbs. Shit, OK. This will be hard, I thought, but between me and my boyfriend and my cousin, we could all communicate about feedings and get Biscuit down to his slim-hipped figure once again. And while I took the vet’s orders seriously, I wished that my cats could just stay their fat, happy selves. Why did these precious whiskered cherubs have to lose any weight! But, of course, while I am well-aware of the ways that fatphobia has shaped medicine for humans, I am not sure the same applies to house pets.

So I went to work online, looking up the best foods for my cats to lose weight on, and pulling up various “cat diet” calculators that supposedly give me the right amount of food to give them. Between the Google search phrases, “how to put cat on diet,” “wet cat food for diet,” “why cats cry when you’re in another room,” “when is a cat too skinny,” “austin cat urine removal,” and various iterations of the phrase “how to train your cat to stop begging for food,” I felt we were as prepared as possible to begin this journey into cat diets.

And then we took away their automatic feeder, and started measuring out their daily food intake every night before, and started feeding them from separate bowls. I think we did a good enough job of making sure that Biscuit wasn’t siphoning off Tangie’s food anymore, and then eventually it got easier, and we didn’t have to hawkishly watch him, though of course we still kept an eye out. We didn’t change their exercise too much aside from incorporating more play, because we lived in a two-story house so these cats were getting enough walking in throughout the day. It looked like they were losing weight.

Two semi-plump orange Tabby cats sitting on a carpet
Biscuit and Tangie, December 2020
Two plump-ish orange Tabby cats sitting on a windowsill in the sun
Biscuit and Tangie, March 2021

But then Biscuit started getting scarily thin in the waist, and me, having previously watched my old roommate’s cat get scary thin and then turn out to be fatally ill, freaked out and took him to the vet. “No, he’s not sick,” the vet told me. “In fact, he’s gained a pound.” Reader, I couldn’t work it out either, though the theory I’m sticking with is that it was water weight.

At that point, the cats became even more hostile about food. Biscuit was running in front of us and purposely tripping anyone who walked into the kitchen, especially if you looked like you were headed to the food bowl. We started keeping track of their feedings on a whiteboard on the fridge, but their nightly harassment continue. Biscuit began engaging in weekly standoffs with my cousin’s dog over the food in her bowl, even when it was human food that he had never tried. Biscuit’s diet had turned him into an irritable menace on society (our household), and he still hadn’t lost any weight, even though he was looking significantly slimmer. You had to be fucking kidding me!

Since then, we have, as the vet advised us, cut down their food even more. She also sent me home with some special cat diet food that is, you guessed it, very expensive! But we’ve continued to use it, because it seemed to be working. Until we moved, and then all hell broke loose.

Maybe it was because I was scrambled and stressed about the move, but for whatever reason, my brain thought, oh, these cats are over their diets, they’re doing fine and we can start feeding them more! And sure enough, I was very wrong. In three weeks, it was visibly clear that I had made a grave miscalculation. In our one-floor apartment our cats were free to move about the unit without taking stairs, and with the extra food Biscuit once again had vest-like padding. And when we went go back to feeding them less, it became clear that all of the bad-habit weaning we had (tried) to do over the past half year had been undone.

Biscuit started chasing us through the apartment, hellbent on getting fed more. When we didn’t give in, he staged occupational protests on desks during work, and kitchen counters during dinner time, and right between the two of us as we ate on our couch. He’s gotten bold, slowly creeping from the couch, toward the human food perched on the coffee table we eat off of, despite rarely having a taste of it. Last week, his paw patted a chicken nugget before I had the chance to stop him. Yesterday, he manhandled some sliced mushrooms that had fallen off my boyfriend’s pizza. Even as I try to finish writing this blog, Biscuit has jumped atop my desk THREE TIMES in 10 minutes, stepping over my keyboard to look me in the eyes and demand his hunger be satiated. Tangie hasn’t caught on, but she is crying louder when we go to their bowls to feed them throughout the day.

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This is normal, right? These cats begging for food and acting as if they’re the most starved beings in the world is normal? I hear about animals begging for meals all the time, but this seems particularly desperate. And maybe they’re just drama queens!

I still don’t know what do to with the fact that they no longer get the physical exercise they used to in the house. Biscuit ignores playtime mostly, since Tangie gets so excited and involved. Even when he participates, he mostly rolls around on his back, too tired to jump around chasing a ribbon on a stick. And I think cat walking is out of the question now that they’re older. I tried to put a harness on Biscuit a few years back, and he ran around the room then jumped onto a set of fancy curtains and clung to them for dear life. Alas, what are we to do?

Two furry, thick orange Tabby cats sleeping together on a chair cushion
Tangie and Biscuit, yesterday
Two furry, thick orange Tabby cats sleeping together on a window sill and desk
Tangie and Biscuit, yesterday

Dear reader, if you have any suggestion on how to make a fat cat less fat, please, send them my way. I am begging you, just as my cat is begging me, only nicer and less militant.