If your cat has lost weight, switching it to a new food or offering it high-calorie treats might help. But what should you feed it?
What can you feed a cat to help it gain weight? Feed it unlimited food (free feeding), as cats like to trickle-feed throughout the day. Switch your cat to a new higher-calorie food using the 80/20 method if it refuses to eat. Offer it high calorie cat treats made of meat in the meantime. Check for reasons why your cat may have stopped eating, such as dental disease, bullying from other cats, or insecurity around the food bowl. Talk to your vet if you notice that your cat is underweight, and/or before you switch it to a new diet.
The guide below first addresses how you find out whether your cat needs to gain weight or not. Most cats are overweight rather than underweight. We’ll then look at what to feed your cat to encourage it to gain weight, and other ways to help it gain weight aside from new foods.
Does Your Cat Need to Gain Weight?
Before we list any high-calorie foods that would help your cat gain weight, ask yourself: does your cat actually need to gain weight? What are you basing the assumption on?
The reason we ask is that somewhere around 50% of cats are overweight or obese. You may therefore think that your cat is underweight, when in reality, it is only smaller than other cats because the other cats are too big. Generally speaking, cats only need to gain weight under specific circumstances:
- Before and after weaning. Weaning is when a kitten stops drinking its mother’s milk and starts eating solid foods. The process takes several weeks, and the kitten gradually eats more and more solid food and less and less milk. Difficulties during this time can cause failure to gain weight or weight loss.
- After an illness. Cats experience anorexia when they are ill, especially when severely ill. Part of your cat’s recovery is gaining that weight back.
- When the cat is reaching old age. Cats naturally lose weight when they get older. They lose muscle tone and condition. Feeding high calorie foods can help the cat gain some weight back, or at least stave off weight loss.
You can roughly tell whether your cat needs to gain weight with your fingers. Place your hands around your cat’s middle from above, with your fingers around its chest, i.e. its rib cage. You should be able to feel its ribs. If you lay your hand flat on a table and feel the back of it, running the other hand’s fingers over your fingers and knuckles, that’s what a cat’s ribs should feel like. They shouldn’t be poking or jutting out. The same goes for your cat’s spine.
Besides considering these things, you should also talk to a vet about any changes you plan on making to your cat’s diet. Any changes, even positive ones, can upset your cat’s gut and cause vomiting and diarrhea. That applies even more so if you don’t introduce the foods correctly.
What to Feed a Cat to Help It Gain Weight
If you are certain that your cat is underweight, there are several things you can feed it to help it gain that weight back.
1) High Protein & High Fat Cat Foods
Foods that are higher in protein and higher in fat have more calories than foods high in carbohydrates. That’s because fat and protein contain more calories per gram than carbohydrates do. That’s besides the fact that cats struggle to digest carbohydrates anyway.
You should therefore look for cat food brands with higher protein or higher fat content. Kitten foods contain higher protein values, since protein is essential for a kitten’s growth. The protein content of cat food can be increased by adding more lean meat, which contains a higher ration of protein to fat. It can also be improved by means of a more rich gravy for the food to come in.
There are also foods marketed specifically as ‘high calorie cat foods’. These are worth considering too.
2) Unlimited Food
If you find that your cat finishes what you put in front of it, feed it more food than you usually would. But what cats really like is to have lots of small meals throughout the day. They love to have a small feed every hour or so, eating a small amount each time.
Free feeding is where your cat has the access to as much food as it wants. This is better than opening a tin or shaking out some more biscuits every time your cat wants a meal. Rather, you set out a large amount of food that your cat can come back to continually throughout the day.
This is best done with dry foods. That’s because dry foods don’t go bad unless they get wet. Your cat should still have wet food too, because it’s less than ideal for a cat to eat nothing but dry food. You could set out the wet food as normal, i.e. twice or three times a day, but ensure there is always dry food available.
With unlimited amounts of food available, your cat will eat more than it did before.
3) High Calorie Treats
For whatever reason, your cat may not want to eat its regular food. If that’s the case, you should do what you can to help your cat eat something. High calorie cat treats are useful here.
The best cat treats are those that are most closely aligned with your cat’s wild diet. Unprocessed meat is ideal. Raw meat isn’t, because it can contain salmonella; cats avoid this problem in the wild by killing their prey and eating it there and then, not allowing it time to go off. But store bought chickens and the like have had time to develop bacterial issues like salmonella, so are not safe for your cat to eat. Deli slices of meat are better.
If your cat will eat cooked meat, then you could consider feeding it that instead. Meats that are cooked in oil are good, since these contain more calories than normal meat. The bacon or whatever you choose to feed your cat shouldn’t be dripping with oil, though; dry it off and allow it to cool first.
There are also, of course, cat treats marketed as containing lots of calories for the purpose of weight gain. These contain meat too, although they may be more processed. You could try your cat on a variety of them to see what it enjoys.
The only problem with this approach is that your cat may become even less likely to eat from its bowl. You therefore must balance feeding your cat treats to maintain its weight, with encouraging it to eat its regular food.
4) Weight Gain Supplements for Cats
Cat weight gain supplements are high-calorie powders and gels that can be added to your cat’s food. They add calories into your cat’s meal without stunting its appetite, meaning that they make your cat gain weight.
These supplements are often given to working animals, e.g. hunting dogs that need to expend a lot of energy while they ‘work’. They are also used before and after pets give birth to litters, as this is a critical time where the mother has to maintain a healthy weight. However, they are just as effective when fed to cats that are chronically underweight, or which have lost lots of weight suddenly. There are many brands available, so pay attention to reviews, looking in particular for ones which:
- Are palatable. There’s no point using a supplement that cats don’t like the taste of.
- Work, at least according to the reviews.
- Are affordable. You may need to feed these supplements over a long period of time.
Talk to a vet before feeding your cat any kind of supplement. The vet may also recommend a particular brand of cat weight gain supplement for you.
Other Ways to Help a Cat Gain Weight
Your cat’s low weight may not be related solely to what you feed it. Your cat may feel unable to eat for some reason. There are therefore ways you can help your cat get weight that don’t relate to its food per se.
Check Your Cat’s Oral Health
Your cat may not be eating because it has a problem with its oral health. A loose tooth, gum disease, or something else could make it painful for your cat to eat. If it’s painful for your cat to eat, it won’t eat as much, or maybe won’t eat at all. Taking your cat to the vet and having the problem resolved will mean it can eat again.
There are also steps you can take at home to improve your cat’s oral health. While it isn’t commonly done, you can brush your cat’s teeth. This has the same effect for cats as it does for us, in that it stops gum disease occurring and caries from forming. Dry food also has an abrasive nature which can clean teeth to an extent.
Make Sure Your Cat Has Somewhere Safe to Feed
Your cat may feel unable to eat safely. It may feel insecure when it eats, whether because of loud noises nearby, bigger pets like dogs feeding at the same time, or because it doesn’t like you. By rectifying this problem, you help your cat eat more, and thereby gain weight.
The key to doing this is understanding your cat’s nature. If you know that your cat likes quiet conditions, then feed it somewhere quieter, or lower the volume where you normally feed it.
Check Your Cat Isn’t Being Bullied
Another issue your cat might have when feeding is if another cat is bullying it.
Often two cats living in the same house won’t get along. Cats can dislike each other because in the wild, they’re solitary creatures. They therefore may fight over both territory and food. This is the root cause of why house cats kept together don’t get along.
If one of the cats is significantly bigger than the other, or is more confident, it may bully the other one. It may pick fights with the other frequently, so the bullied cat doesn’t feel comfortable in its presence. Another way bullying occurs is for the bully to steal food from the other cat. The bully will push the other cat out of the way to eat from its bowl, as if to say ‘What are you going to do about it?’
While the bullied cat will still get opportunities to feed, it won’t be able to eat as much as it might like. This deficiency can add up over time and cause the cat to lose weight. So, conversely, making your cat more comfortable when it eats can help it gain that weight back. Ways you can do this include:
- Feed the bullied cat somewhere that’s inaccessible to the bully. You could lock the bully out of the room when the bullied cat eats, for example.
- Feed the bullied cat at a different time to the bully.
- Ensure that there is always food available, so that the bullied cat has access to as much food as possible.
And if the fighting between the pair continues to get worse, you could think about putting them in separate homes.
Check Your Cat Doesn’t Have Worms
Gastrointestinal parasites can cause your cat to lose weight. That’s because the worms take part of the nutritional value of the food your cat eats. Severe infestations will cause your cat to lose weight, but at the same time, have a pot belly (because of all the worms they have).
You can tell that your cat has worms by observing its behavior and its feces. Your cat may lick itself ‘down there’ more frequently, or rub its bottom on the carpet like other pets might. You can also see worms or their eggs in its feces. To fix the problem, you need anthelmintics, the fancy term for worming tablets. You can either get these from the vet, from online or from pet stores. If worms were the issue, then your cat will gain weight again when they’re gone.
How to Change Your Cat’s Diet
To conclude, a brief note on changing your cat’s diet in any circumstance: go slowly.
This is an issue that prevents many owners from selecting the right diets for their cats. When you change a cat’s diet suddenly, it will react badly to the change. It may turn its nose up at the food. If it doesn’t, it may vomit or experience diarrhea. This happens even if you change a cat’s diet for the better. Owners can mistakenly think that the new food is bad for the cat, and switch back to what they were feeding before.
You therefore must change your cat’s diet in a specific way. This could be called the 80/20 rule.
You begin by feeding your cat its old diet. You then switch out a fifth (20%) of your cat’s diet for new food. So, your cat eats 80 grams of its old food for every 20g of its new food. The precise weight of the food doesn’t matter, so long as you start out only feeding your cat a small amount of the new food. Next week, increase the amount of new food you feed: 60% can be old food, and 40% can be new food. The week afterwards, the ration should be 40/60, and the week afterwards, 20/80. You then finish by solely feeding your cat its new food.
Switching in this way means that your cat doesn’t notice that its diet has changed. Its gut won’t react so badly, as it got used to small amounts at first before having to digest big amounts. This will hopefully also stop your cat from turning its nose up at its food, because its dish is still, at first, mostly old food.