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We often talk about obesity in cats and how it can predispose a range of disorders and diseases, but rarely talk about the opposite issue of a cat being too skinny. However, if a cat is severely underweight it can indicate an underlying medical condition that needs treatment.
It is important to note that cats are naturally slinky and slim creatures. My cat is so skinny I can feel her bones, but this doesn’t indicate she is underweight. Besides, losing weight is a natural part of the aging process and many cats will become bonier in old age, so it is not always a sign for concern.
However, if your cat has no fat between her bones and skin or if you notice sudden and unexpected weight loss, it’s best to get her checked out. Being underweight is indicative of everything from parasitic infections to cancer and from anxiety to diabetes.
If you’re thinking “my cat is so skinny I can feel her bones” and you’re not sure what to do, don’t stress. From working out how skinny is “too skinny” and exploring the possible reasons why to my top tips on helping your cat gain some pounds, I’ve packed this article with everything you need to know.
How Skinny is Too Skinny?
Cats are agile and slim creatures naturally and as owners, we tend to give them a lot more food than we need to. This is why we hear more about cats being overweight than underweight – a shocking 59.5% of cats in the US are overweight! This gives us a warped perception of what being “too skinny” is, and, although it may surprise many, it’s normal to be able to feel your cat’s bones.
My cat is so skinny I can feel her bones on her rib cage. They feel like the bones on the back of my hand – I can feel them but they aren’t overly protrusive. This is a sign of a cat that is a healthy weight, so if your cat feels like this then well done!
However, if her rib cage bones look or feel like your knuckles, things have gone too far. At this point, your cat is underweight and needs to gain some extra pounds. The same thing does with their spine – feeling the bones is normal, but if the vertebrae are extremely pronounced your cat is too skinny.
Feeling your cat’s bones under the skin in the way is always easier for short-haired cats. In fact, whenever a short-haired breed is underweight, you’ll likely visibly be able to see their protruding bones without the need to touch. But for long-haired breeds, this can be harder. However, these home tests are still useful for a rough estimate of how healthy your cat’s weight is.
If you suspect your cat is underweight, book a follow-up appointment with your vet. They’ll be able to weigh your feline and know if this weight is within a healthy range for the particular breed. If not, they’ll be able to offer advice and diagnosis for any condition causing your cat to be too skinny.
Why Is My Cat Too Skinny?
If you’ve done these home tests and are thinking “my cat is too skinny I can feel her bones protruding”, it can be troubling. However, try not to panic! Sudden weight loss can be a sign of a medical condition, but worrying won’t help anyone.
Here I have listed all the common causes of weight loss in cats. Have a read through this list and check if they are showing any of the other symptoms to help you understand what’s wrong. Of course, always get confirmation and an accurate diagnosis from a trained veterinarian professional.
1. Old Age
My cat is skinny, but she is thirteen and well into her senior years. It is normal for cats to start to lose weight as they age in this way as their appetite is naturally reduced. This is partially due to reduced mobility. Reduced mobility will cause older cats to be less active and so will use less energy throughout the day. Therefore, they don’t need to consume as much food.
At the same time, the lack of exercise means their muscles start to waste away. This further contributes to weight loss. Most of the weight in a senior feline will be lost from its hindquarters. As such, an old cat losing weight in its back legs and becoming skinny is not worth worrying about. There is little you or a vet can do – this is just part of the natural aging process.
In other cases, weight loss in old cats can be indicative of an underlying medical condition. Well-recognized causes of weight loss include diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and dental problems. I cover all of these diseases in more detail late on, so I won’t go into much detail here. However, age is a risk factor for all of these diseases, so they could be the reason for a skinny old cat.
2. Intestinal Parasitic Infection
When we think of parasites, we immediately think of fleas. However, cats can get intestinal parasites as well. In fact, in some populations of cats, the prevalence of these pesky parasites is as high as 45%!
There are a few different types of intestinal parasites that can be split into two categories:
- Worm Parasites: Examples include roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms. Roundworms are the most common, affecting 25%-75% of all cats, and are especially prone to causing infections in kittens. Worm parasites all live in the intestine and either feed of the food and nutrients consumed or your cat’s blood.
- Protozoan Parasites: Isospora, giardia, and toxoplasma are three protozoan parasites. Isospora rarely causes issues in adult cats but can result in weight loss in kittens. Giardia is much more common in multi-cat household or catteries and often cause weight loss, though some infected cats will be asymptomatic. Toxoplasma is unlikely to cause harm and rarely results in disease.
Worm parasites are most likely responsible for unexpected and sudden weight loss in cats, causing them to become too skinny. This is because the infected cat will have a loss of appetite and vomiting. Alternatively, you may notice that your cat has diarrhea but seems fine otherwise. In all cases, this means your cat isn’t getting the nutrients they need from their diet and thus will lose weight.
Your cat may simply refuse to eat their food, causing them to lose weight. This is known as feline anorexia and can be split into two distinct categories:
- True Anorexia: Where a cat doesn’t want to eat and so won’t
- Pseudo-Anorexia: What a cat wants to eat but can’t due to other complications.
If your cat is not eating much but acting normal, it may have anorexia. This can be caused by several medical conditions, such as cancer, stomach ulcers, throat tumors, dental disease, and more! Anything that causes pain, nausea, or stress can deter a cat from eating.
On the other hand, their lack of eating could be down to something as simple as them being finicky over food hygiene or their food being stale.
Cats are notoriously fussy creatures, and if you don’t feed them what they, want when they want it, and how they want it, refusal to eat isn’t all that unusual.
Has your cat stopped eating dry food but eats treats? This is further evidence that your cat can physically eat and probably just doesn’t like what you’ve dished up for dinner.
4. Dental Issues
Dental issues are a common reason why cats refuse to eat. They may have inflammation of the gums or a cavity in one or more of their teeth. Gingivitis and periodontal disease are also extremely common dental issues that are present in cats. Even something like an oral injury can cause a reduction in appetite and weight loss.
In all cases, dental diseases can cause extreme pain when eating. As such, your cat may refuse to eat and lose weight as they aren’t consuming the food and nutrients they need. Thankfully, there are a few other symptoms aside from a loss of appetite to look out for:
- Cat drooling but acting normal
- Gums that are red and swollen
- Bad breath due to plaque build-up
- Cat pawing at their teeth or mouth
While your cat is recovering from a dental disease, softening dry cat food is a better option that causes less suffering or it would be a good idea to switch to a wet food diet. This is a lot gentler on your cat’s sensitive teeth and gums and will cause less pain. As a result, their appetite and weight will improve over time. However, you’ll still need to get the underlying problem treated too, so make sure you head to the vet.
5. Diabetes Mellitus
Is your cat losing weight but still eating? Your kitty may be suffering from a hormonal condition known as diabetes mellitus. The condition can affect cats of all ages and breeds, but it is most common in middle-aged cats.
Diabetes is where your cat stops producing enough insulin or loses the ability to respond to it. This hormone plays a crucial role in regulating blood glucose, and without it, blood sugar levels soar. With glucose mainly accumulating in the blood, cats are unable to get it into the body’s cells to use it as an energy source.
As a result, the body breaks down its own fat supplies to use these as fuel for the body instead, causing sudden and unexpected weight loss. This is typically seen despite an increase in appetite – the lack of energy causes feelings of hunger, but as the body cannot convert the food consumed into energy the excess eating doesn’t cause weight gain.
Hyperthyroidism is another hormonal disease, this time caused by an overproduction of the hormone thyroid. This hormone plays an important role in metabolism. Having excessive amounts of this hormone running around the body accelerates your cat’s metabolism, causing them to burn energy quickly and lose weight.
İf your cat is losing weight but still eating, hyperthyroidism is a likely culprit. However, a decreased appetite is sometimes seen, but always with an increase in thirst. If you see a cat not eating but drinking, don’t rule hyperthyroidism out.
Other symptoms you can watch for are as follows:
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Hyperactivity and restlessness
- Increased thirst and urination
- An unkempt or matted coat
Hyperthyroidism is a curable condition, so speak to your vet about your options. Surgical removal of the thyroid gland and iodine therapy are both curative. For a short-term solution, antithyroid medication can be administered as well. This is often done prior to the curative treatment options.
Whenever I think that my cat is so skinny, I always check for signs of stress and anxiety. Cats become stressed and anxious extremely easily which can have a huge impact on their appetite and weight. Examples of common stressors include:
- Moving to a new home
- Introducing new people or animals
- Changing your working schedule
- Switching to a new cat litter or cat food
- Visiting the vets or traveling
I can always tell my cat is feeling anxious as my cat wants me to watch her eat, needing constant reassurance. She also becomes much more vocal and restless, grooming excessively and sometimes drooling from her mouth. Many cats withdraw from social interactions and often hide in dark enclosed spaces for a sense of security.
8. Heat Cycle
For female cats that haven’t been spayed, they may be skinny because they are in heat. The heat cycle is an inevitable part of life and causes huge hormonal fluctuations. These changes in hormones often result in a reduction in appetite, which will return once the cycle is over. The stress of finding a mate can also be linked to weight loss during this period.
However, if your cat is in heat, loss of appetite will not be the first symptom you notice. Females become extremely vocal when ready to breed and will meow and yowl relentlessly. You’ll also notice them rubbing against everything and rolling around on the floor as if they were in pain.
Although a little annoying, these symptoms will all subside either after successfully finding a mate or when the cycle is over. To avoid these strange behavior changes and unwanted pregnancies, getting a cat spade is a good idea.
Neutering your cat also removes the risk of her developing uterine cancers and dramatically reduces the risk of breast cancer.
9. Gastrointestinal Disease
Gastrointestinal diseases are a huge umbrella term that encompasses all kinds of digestive issues. Examples include:
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD is when there is inflammation somewhere along the GI tract which disrupts the process of digestion. But IBD is without any known cause. It is thought that both genetic and environmental factors can trigger the disease.
- Pancreatitis: The pancreas plays an important role in digestion. Its main role is to produce enzymes that help break down food and extract nutrients. However, cats with pancreatitis release these enzymes early and end up digesting the pancreas itself, impacting its function.
- Inflammation of the Stomach (Gastritis): Anything that irritates the stomach lining can cause localized inflammation. Parasites, ingesting toxic substances, and even stomach tumors are all possible causes. The stomach will be sensitive, and vomiting is extremely likely.
Throwing up food but acting normal is normal for cats with gastrointestinal diseases, as is diarrhea. On top of this, the discomfort or pain in their abdomen and feelings of nausea typically leads to decreased appetite or anorexia. Combined, all of these contribute to weight loss.
10. Gastrointestinal Obstruction
Gastrointestinal obstructions can also impair usual digestive function. This is where the digestive tract becomes partially or completely blocked. The object blocking the GI tract could be a foreign material that has been ingested, such as a piece of string. Tumors on digestive tissues are another possibility.
Regardless of the cause, the blockage means that food and fluids cannot pass through efficiently to be eliminated. This leads to pain and discomfort. Thus, your cat will stop eating, and usually experiences vomiting and diarrhea. Over a longer period, this can lead to weight loss.
It is important to note that gastrointestinal obstructions can become life-threatening if the GI tract is completely blocked. Whatever is causing the blockage needs to be removed so that digestive function can return to normal.
11. Food Allergies
Your cat could be so skinny you can feel its bones as it suffers from food allergies. Allergies are different from food intolerances. In cats with food allergies, the immune system reacts to a specific food substance and triggers an allergic reaction.
Interestingly, most feline food allergies are caused by chicken, beef, fish, or dairy products. However, they can be triggered by any substance in your cat’s food. Ingesting the allergen will make your cat sick, and they’ll suffer from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. As your cat quickly passes all the food it is ingesting, the body is starved of nutrients. As such, your cat might be skinny.
Other signs of food allergies include:
- Itching and inflammation of the skin
- Overgrooming and hair loss
- Recurrent skin and eye infection
- Scooting along the floor
May cats with cancer suffer from muscle wasting and weight loss. In these cases, the weight loss will be extremely gradual. Any weight loss will occur despite the cat eating normally, a condition known as neoplastic cachexia.
This condition can explain why a cat is so skinny but eats all the time – they need more energy and so appetite increases to provide the body with the fuel it needs. However, simultaneously, the breakdown of muscle and fat will occur as cancer competes with the body for its energy.
In addition, chemotherapy treatment and radiation can both cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. This exacerbates the weight loss, reducing your cat’s appetite and making it harder for them to get any nutrients from the food they do swallow.
13. Lack of Nutrients
There is also a chance your cat is getting so skinny simply because it isn’t consuming enough of the nutrients it needs. As already mentioned, dental issues can be one reason for this. The pain when eating discourages your cat from engaging in the activity, so it simply stops.
However, there are many other reasons why your cat isn’t getting the nutrients they need from the diet, such as:
- Competition: If you have more than one cat, it could be that each of your furry friends isn’t getting their fair share at mealtimes. The dominant cat will get their paws on the food first. This is often the case even if you have separate bowls for your cats. It isn’t good for either of them – one cat will get too skinny while the other gets too fat.
- Food Quality: Some cats are extremely fussy eaters and will only eat a particular brand of cat food. Others might happily eat cheaper poor-quality food. However, despite eating their dinner, low-quality cat food might not provide all the nutrients your cat needs. Even though they’re eating a lot, it doesn’t satisfy.
- Mobility: It’s also possible that your cat cannot get to its food bowl anymore. For example, an old arthritic cat might struggle to climb up onto the counter to eat. Another example is if the door to the room in which your cat’s food is gets shut. They’ll no longer be able to access their dinner. When this happens repeatedly your cat could lose weight.
How Can I Help My Cat Gain Weight?
If you know your cat is too skinny to the point where you can feel her bones protruding, you’ll want to help her gain weight. When at a healthy weight, the body performs optimally and so this is crucial for overall good health.
However, when a cat doesn’t want to eat and refuses, it can make weight gain challenging! To help, here are my top five tips you can try to implement.
1. Visit the Veterinarian
If your cat is old and skinny or simply a fussy eater, a trip to the vet may not be necessary. However, weight loss – especially if a cat is losing weight but still eating lots – is a symptom of several serious medical conditions. As such, your vet should always be your first point of call.
Your vet will be able to diagnose and treat any underlying condition, which should in turn see your cat’s appetite and weight return to healthy levels. And even if there is no underlying medical condition, it is a good idea to have these ruled out. Plus, your vet can confirm whether or not your cat is underweight and give you tips and advice for weight gain.
2. Feed Smaller Portions Frequently
Cats are fussy eaters, and many won’t eat food that has been left in a bowl for hours on end. Dry kibble will go stale, and wet food can spoil completely. Not only is this unpleasant for your cat, but also dangerous. Wet food left out for longer than an hour can breed bacteria. If your cat didn’t have an upset stomach already, it might do after eating this!
If you’re home throughout the day, try switching to smaller but more frequent portions intermittently and see if this helps encourage them to eat. If not, automatic cat feeders with timers can feed your cat while you’re out of the house. Make sure you choose an automatic feeder that works with the type of food you want to feed your cat.
3. Create a Calming Home Environment
Appetite, weight loss, and stress are all closely connected. Therefore, creating a calming and stress-free home environment can help your cat establish a healthy relationship with food.
Start by trying to remove any unnecessary stressors from your home. For example, if you know your cat is wary of loud noises, don’t blast the television. Likewise, if they’re timid around dogs, don’t allow guests to bring other pets into your home. Whenever you do have to introduce unavoidable changes, do so as slowly as possible.
Moreover, providing plenty of places for your cat to hide and enough toys to keep them mentally and physically stimulated can be a great help. These act as a distraction technique and can make cats feel fully satisfied. The more stimulated your cat, the easier they will be able to manage change.
I also like to use cat calming products. My favorites are pheromone collars. Your cat wears this just like a normal collar, apart from these release calming pheromones into the air wherever they go. Other options include pheromone sprays and diffusers. Catnip is another option if you know that your cat responds well to it.
4. Reduce Food Competition
If you have more than one cat, there is often a more boisterous cat and a timid cat. This leads to competition over mealtimes. The boisterous cat will eat most of the food, pushing the timid cat out the way. The other cat then gets left with eating the scraps!
It’s important to stop this from happening so that both cats are getting a healthy portion. Also, allowing food-related conflict to happen can cause bigger issues between your cats. The bigger cat could start bullying the other cat in other scenarios and lead to a lot of tension and aggression.
One way to fix this is to feed your cats separately. You can put the bowls on opposite sides of the room or in different rooms entirely. Alternatively, you can purchase feeding stations with collar sensors that make this task much easier. Only cats with the corresponding collar tag can access the food, meaning you can precisely keep tabs on what each of your cats is eating.
5. Try a Different Cat Food
Finally, you might want to consider the cat food that you are feeding your furry friend. Cats are finicky creatures – if they don’t like what’s in their bowl then they simply won’t eat it! However, being too skinny has detrimental health consequences so it is worthwhile switching to food your cat does like.
Some cats prefer wet food, whereas others prefer dry food. On top, there are specific brands that your cat may love and others that they hate. Go through some trial and error and gradually introduce new foods to their diet to see which they prefer and then stick with this option. When trying new foods, mix the new food in gradually to not cause any added stress or upset.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
If your cat is so skinny, your first job is to establish whether she is underweight or not. Remember, you can feel the bones of healthy cats! But if the bones are strongly protruding, you do have an issue. Do the home tests to determine whether your cat is too skinny and take your cat to the vet can get this confirmed by a professional.
If you establish your cat is indeed underweight, try implementing my tips above to help her go up on the scales. With your help and a vet’s medication to treat any underlying condition, your cat will be back to a healthy weight in no time.