Weight-Loss Lessons From My Parents’ Cat

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Chester, nine pounds lighter. Photo: Courtesy of Charlotte Cowles

When Chester the cat first moved in with my parents, he was four years old and just shy of 30 pounds. "He’s actually skinnier than he used to be," said my cousin, whose mother was Chester’s previous owner. "Last year he got so fat he couldn’t even fit through his cat door."

"He should lose at least nine pounds," the veterinarian told my mother. My mom gritted her teeth, hefted Chester back into his cat carrier, and started him on a strict weight-loss regimen that very night. Two years later, Chester is down to a healthy 21 pounds. After some close observation over the holidays, I have concluded that Chester’s weight-loss regimen holds lessons for non-felines, too. Though his willpower was never a factor (my parents, who are otherwise nurturing, butter-loving, dessert-pushing types, made all his healthy choices for him), the basic tenets of Chester’s slimmer lifestyle are as follows:

1. Eat four small meals throughout the day, not one big one.
Chester gets a tiny spoonful of food four times a day: one at 9 a.m., one at noon, one at 4 p.m., and one before bed. He has this schedule memorized and prowls around meowing at mealtime. Routines are good; learn to take pleasure in them.

2. Slow down the food-inhalation process. Use any means necessary.
Chester will rapidly consume any food placed before him, to the point where he gets sick and throws up afterward. As a preventative measure, my mom put a racquet ball (which is small and rubber, but big enough that he can’t eat it) in his food dish, forcing Chester to nudge the ball around with his nose while he eats, thereby slowing him down. Now, even without the ball present, Chester eats at a civilized pace.

3. Exercise should be fun, but if you can’t pull that off, try adding desperation and/or danger.
Chester has a particular fondness for a feather toy attached to a long wand that my parents wave around for him. Most of the time he just watches, though, too lazy to get off his duff and lumber after it. But his constant hunger has resulted in a new calorie-burning hobby: hunting. While most cats leave dead animals as presents for their owners, Chester actually consumes his prey, leaving only a grisly remnant on my parents’ doormat — a beak, say, or a tail — which seems more like a “Fuck you, I’m starving” than a loving gift. But my parents consider this behavior positive: “Think of all the calories he must’ve burned chasing after that thing,” says my mom, cheerfully sweeping a sad little pile of sparrow feathers into a plastic bag. "I know he ate it in the end, but there couldn’t have been much meat there."

4. Substitute physical contact for food.
Chester gets lots of pats every day, even though he’s always grumpy and never actually wants to stay in your lap after he finds out you’re not going to share your snack with him. Human contact is almost as good as food. 

5. Don't aim for perfection.
At 21 pounds, Chester would hardly be described as svelte, but he's always been big-boned, with meaty paws and a melon-size head. He now has several rolls of loose tummy skin that puddle at his feet when he sits down. It reminds us all how far he's come, and it's even sort of cute.

6. Accept that crankiness is inevitable.
Chester is constantly resentful and, despite his jolly orange tummy, is not that into snuggling. He is constantly awaiting his next meal and gets annoyed when it’s not time yet. But the truth is that it’s almost impossible to lose weight without being hungry, and not being able to eat what you want really sucks. Which is why I’m very glad I’m not a cat and very glad it’s pie season.