I’ve been asking myself this same question. My cat Loki at one point weighed in over 18 pounds at his vet visit. According to the vet, he was overweight and, as their owner, I should be doing something to help bring his weight down.

In Loki’s case, I’d been feeding him a good quality dry food twice a day and following the manufacturer’s directions for how much to feed them. Once food is in his bowls, however, I don’t have control over who eats it. I suspect he may have spent plenty of time eating more than his slimmer sister Beans.

Obesity is the most common preventable disease in cats and can lead to a shorter life span and numerous other diseases, like diabetes. Diabetes affects 1 in every 230 cats in the United States. While age and breed are factors, the greatest risk factor for diabetes is obesity.

After some research, I found that a dry-food-only diet may not be the best even if it is a high quality brand. Here’s why: cats should eat a diet that is at least 45% protein for optimal health, according to animal specialists. Although some dry cat foods do have 45 percent or more protein, many contain only 35 percent protein.

I also found that cats should eat a low-carb diet to stay healthy. Cats lack the enzymes to digest carbohydrates and simple sugars. Any carbs that aren’t needed immediately for energy will be stored away as fat. Experts like Gary Norsworthy, DVM, DABVP, a specialist in feline medicine based in San Antonio, TX, recommend that carbs make up less than 15 percent of your cat’s diet. Many foods, he cautions, have considerably more than 15 percent carbohydrates. Check the label!

My average-sized cats need fewer than 200 calories per day to maintain their weight, according to Norsworthy. That’s far fewer calories than I, as a cat owner, had thought. Add it up: protein malnutrition, plus carbohydrate and calorie overload causes cats to lose lean muscle and gain fat.

Some suggestions if your felines are a bit on the porky side:

  • Make canned food — not dry — the foundation of your cat’s diet. Choose a high-quality, properly balanced, meat-based food containing at least 45 percent protein. A small amount of dry is acceptable as cats enjoy the crunchy sensation.
  • Avoid free feeding dry food. Cats eat several small meals per day so mimic how your cat would eat in the wild by feeding at least two times per day.
  • Measure your cat’s food to ensure the right number of calories per cup or can.
  • Monitor what your cat eats. If you, like me, have more than one cat it may be hard to supervise them both. You might have to separate your cats at mealtime to prevent overeating.

Any change to your cat’s diet needs to be done gradually so they don’t stop eating altogether. Loki may not have liked the change in his diet at first, but he’ll thank me later!

If you think your pet is overweight or obese, talk to you veterinarian about a plan to help them achieve a healthier weight.