Here are four changes you can make to help you and your cat shed pounds together.
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cat sitting next to a scale
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When Kelley Joseph of Nazareth, PA, and her cat went through menopause, they both gained weight. "After I had her fixed, it seemed she doubled her weight within a month," she says. "I didn't do a single thing different, but she put on so much weight." Joseph herself concedes, "I work out all the time, and I eat really healthy, but it's a fight to keep the weight off."

You've likely seen the memes or gifs of a fat cat lounging on a sofa with a joke about "living the life." But for cats, as for people, being overweight can have serious health consequences. According to data from Nationwide pet insurance, obese pets tend to live shorter lives with more medical problems, such as arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention reports that nearly 60% of household felines are overweight or obese.

But how can you tell? It's not like your cat's jeans don't fit anymore. Jade Lea Rekai, DVM, a veterinarian who works with animal shelters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, says, "Recognize what a healthy weight looks and feels like." You should be able to see a waist behind the ribs and feel them under a thin covering of fat; the abdominal fat pad should be minimal."It's a health issue," says Richard Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, lecturer and author of Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats.

Here are four ways you and your cat can get healthier—and shed pounds—together.

Rethink Your Protein

For people, cutting down on animal protein may help you lose weight. Vegan diets are naturally rich in produce and fiber, and research has shown they can help with weight loss. Plus, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, recommend humans cut back on the amount of red meat we consume to reduce our risk of chronic diseases.

Our feline friends typically eat a high-meat diet but Pitcairn advises that steroids in meat, may contribute to weight gain in cats. The FDA has approved steroids, among other hormones, for use in livestock to make them gain weight.

"Steroids are still active after the meat has been processed," says Pitcairn. And while these hormones may be generally recognized as safe for human consumption, "as far as I know, they've never been tested on cats," he adds.

Pitcairn says it can help to "introduce a more wholesome and healthy diet for your cat." He suggests minimal meat and more vegetables and grains. "You don't have to make the pet food yourself, but some pet-food companies have formulas that are more plant-based," he adds. If you do go the homemade route, Rekai cautions, those diets "can be challenging to balance and should be prepared according to veterinary nutritionist guidance."

For Joseph, she went "90% vegan," but changed her cat's diet to include wet food because "the uptick in protein and reduction in carbs was supposed to help. And it did." She notes the meatier wet food better satiates her cat. "She loves it," adds Joseph.

Make Your Calories Count

"I don't think it's usually that people are feeding their cats too much," he says, "after a while, most cats will stop eating when they're full. But their metabolism could also change."

Joseph agrees. "Menopause completely changed my body and my metabolism. I have to be so careful now, and we both eat less in the evenings. I buy a better-quality food for her, since I'm feeding her less, and I eat organic as much as I possibly can."

"You have to make your calories count," adds Joseph. "If you're eating less, you want to eat the right things. I make sure I'm eating nutritionally dense food that satisfies me. I prepare my meals for work every Sunday and I absolutely make what I love."

Keep Portions and Snacking in Check

Because she eats nutritious food that tastes good, Joseph says she doesn't have many cravings. "I rarely snack anymore. My cat doesn't get treats like she used to, either. I'm the only one feeding her, so I know what and when she's getting fed."

Rekai recommends feeding cats at regular mealtimes with monitored portions. "Avoid leaving a huge bottomless bowl of food," she says, noting that "multi-cat households may need separate feeding areas for individual cats to ensure portions for each are appropriate." She says nearly all of her cats are separated for feeding, with specific portions for each. "It takes extra time and effort, but they're worth it," she adds.

Make Time for Exercise

Diet aside, "we have to consider their lifestyle, too," says Pitcairn. "In nature, cats would spend a lot of time hunting, whereas domestic cats spend most of their time sleeping. It's a lack of exercise." For humans, we can burn calories by heading to the gym, going outside for a jog or even gardening. But you can't exactly take Mittens to your next spin class, so what can you do to help her shed pounds?

Rekai suggests giving puzzle feeders a try. They can "slow intake and provide stimulation." Slowing down when eating also gives time for the body to send signals to the brain that it's full.

Above all, "Always make changes gradually, including introducing different foods. Do NOT put fat cats on crash diets!" says Rekai, adding, "consult with your vet about how to best approach your individual situation."