My Cat Is Skinny: Is It Normal or Should I Be Concerned?

by K Marie Alto July 07, 2022 12 min read

My Cat Is Skinny: Is It Normal or Should I Be Concerned?

One of the most common health issues cats can have is weight problems, but what's a healthy weight for a cat? If my cat is looking skinny, is that normal, or is it something to be concerned about?

In most situations it can be surprisingly hard to tell whether your purr baby is healthy by just looking at them.

The truth is healthy weight is somewhat skewed by our individual perceptions and of course the internet. Some (myself included) may perceive skinny cats as healthy while others may see their overweight fur children as a sign of good health and general well-being. 

There are a ton of adorable felines online, including quite a few chonkers, but those adorable fat kitties are just that: obese. It's only a matter of time before that added weight puts too much stress on their joints and/or leads to other problems like kidney issues or feline diabetes. And, while a chonky cat may be adorable, the risk of getting diabetes is not worth it. I still remember the day when my angel Moose had a seizure during his insulin treatment.

On the other end of the spectrum, how skinny is too skinny for a cat? There's no fixed weight you can look to for all ages and breeds, but there are tests you can perform at home (don't worry, they're not invasive) to give your furry friend a quick checkup.

As an adult, I’ve been blessed with four very different kitties that have taught me a lot. I’ve had kitties that have a very healthy body conditions and one that was overweight or obese several years of his life. As they aged, three of my four babies turned into skin and bones – a not so unusual part of an aging kitty with several health conditions.

I hope that by sharing my personal experience I can contribute a little bit to help you and others around you navigate any weight concerns you might have with your cats.

For pet parents looking for more cat care guides📚, make sure to not miss the read further section at the bottom. As usual, it is loaded with resources.

Most Lean Cats Are Not Underweight

Before getting into specific tests, I need to mention one thing: many cats are technically overweight.

Weighing a Cat Image by Toe Beans

You might be surprised at just how common an issue it is:

"In the U.S., roughly 60 percent of cats are overweight. Similarly, 39 to 52 percent of U.K. cats are overweight, according to International Cat Care. Because so many of the cats we see are overweight, a normal weight may seem abnormally thin to their pet parents." – Pet Obesity Prevention

Seeing a skinny cat can immediately make you think they're underweight, but that's not usually the case. Cats are lean by nature, they are predators who – in the wild, anyway – need to hunt their food. Obesity makes it harder for them to hunt, both from aches and pains and the sheer effort it takes to move those extra pounds.

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That's not to say cats can't get too skinny. Underweight cats may have health issues too, so it's worth your time to pay attention to their weight and know when skinny becomes too skinny.

The Informal Method to Test If Your Cat is Skinny

There are two different ways to test how skinny your cat is and whether you should be concerned. I'm referring to them as the informal and the formal methods. The informal method is sometimes called the bone test or the hand test.

Checking a Skinny Cat Image by Toe Beans

For this test, you use your own hand as a reference. All you need to do is pet your cat and feel for their ribs and spine.

  • Can you feel their ribs through their flesh? If you can't, may be obese.
  • If you can feel their ribs, compare it to your hand. Does it feel more like the back of your hand, where your metacarpals are? That is, you can feel the bones, but they're still padded and covered with a bit of subcutaneous fat? If so, your cat is probably a healthy weight.
  • If you can feel their ribs and, compared to your hand, they feel a lot closer to your knuckles, your cat may be too skinny. You don't want them to be just skin and bones; they need a bit of healthy weight.
  • Now run your hand down their back, along their spine. You should be able to very slightly feel their individual backbones, but they shouldn't be knobby and ribbed; there should be muscle there.
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    Additionally, you can look at their waist, below the ribcage; is it very thin and narrow? Do they have an overt hourglass shape? If so, they're probably too skinny. The same goes if you can see their shoulder blades visible through their fur. Usually, those should be at least a little padded.

    Now, obviously, this is not a very scientific examination; it kind of depends on your own hands and the impression you have of their skeleton. It can also vary somewhat from cat to cat and from breed to breed. A burly, muscular Maine Coon is likely to have more muscle around their bones than a smaller domestic shorthair, and we all know the various hairless cats already look kind of like skinny goblins no matter how much weight they have on their bones.

    We still love them either way, though.

    If you need a little help doing an at home body shape assessment, check out this short 2 min video as a guide:

    The Body Condition Scoring System for Skinny Cats

    The second method for determining the weight class of your feline child is the BCS, or Body Condition Scoring system. This is the one I referred to above as the formal method. This system is a more scientific method used by trained vets. There are two different scales, one that uses whole numbers from 1 to 9 and one that uses half-steps from 1 to 5 (1, 1.5, 2, etc.). Both are the same; it just depends on which numerical scale your vet uses.

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    For a better understanding, we created the illustration below. The chart gives you a visual guide for body type showing both scales (1/5 or body type 1 out of 5 possible types).  You’ll notice the ideal body condition is right in the middle of the scale.

    Cat Body Condition Scoring System Image by Toe Beans

    Additionally, the Journal of American Animal Hospital Association has a great PDF reference of both body condition scales, along with descriptions for each. Don't worry, though, I'll summarize it here for you too:

    • (1/5) or (1/9): Visible ribs, no palpable fat, severe tucked abdomen, vertebra and shoulder blades easily discernable. Verdict: Dangerously Underweight.
    • (2/5) or (3/9): Palpable ribs with minimal subcutaneous fat, obvious lower-back vertebrae, visible waist, and minimal abdominal fat. Verdict: Underweight.
    • (3/5) or (5/9): Well-proportioned with a visible waist, palpable ribs but a non-visible spine, and slight abdominal fat pad. Verdict: Ideal Weight.
    • (4/5) or (7/9): Ribs hard to find, distended waist, rounded abdomen, moderate abdominal fat. Verdict: Somewhat Overweight.
    • (5/5) or (9/9): Ribs not palpable, heavy fat around the spine, chubby face and limbs, extensive abdominal fat. Verdict: Dangerously Obese.

    Half-steps like 1.5 or 3.5 are more defined for dogs but are simply middle ground or shared characteristics between the steps for cats. Again, you can read more specifics in the PDF I linked above.

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    If your cat ranks as a 2/5 or 3/9, they're too thin, and you should consult with your vet to check if an underlying health issue might be the cause. Alternatively, if your cat is slightly underweight, you may need to adjust their diet or look for health issues, especially if it's sudden or a new development. Obviously, obesity is a whole other issue, but today I'm writing about skinny cats, not fat cats, so I'll get into that another time.

    Healthy Weight Ranges for Your Cat

    One thing you may have noticed is that I haven't mentioned specific weight at all yet. That's because weight varies a lot depending on the size of your cat. A large male and a small female can both be healthy with very different weights. Likewise, a Munchkin, Rex, or Siamese is going to be much lighter than a Maine Coon, Savannah, or Norwegian Forest Cat.

    Healthy Weight Cat Image by Toe Beans

    When you talk to your vet, they’ll give you an idea of what a healthy weight range should be for your cat. Generally, though, appearance and the feeling of their bones through their skin is a great indicator.

    Cats can range anywhere from around 8-10 lbs. on average to as much as 25 lbs. and still be healthy, depending on their breed and gender. That's why it's so challenging to determine by weight alone.

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    Why Do Skinny Cats Lose Weight?

    If your cat is skinny, there are a lot of different possible causes, some much more dangerous than others. Any cat that is severely underweight is at risk, though, and should be examined by a vet.

    Petting a Skinny Cat Image by Toe Beans

    Here are the most common causes of cat weight loss, particularly when it's unexplained or sudden:

    • Kidney disease. Kidneys are sensitive organs and are prone to failure in small animals. As many as 35% of cats will suffer from kidney disease at some point in their lives. If your cat is drinking a lot more, that’s another sign that this might be the cause.
    • Diabetes. Diabetic cats are becoming increasingly common, largely due to diet. If your cat is losing weight but has a larger appetite and drinks a lot more, this may be the issue.
    • Cancer. Unfortunately, cats are not immune to this heart-wrenching disease. There are as many different kinds of cancer as there are organs in your fur baby's body, and they can range from easily treatable to terminal.
    • Digestive diseases. Anything going wrong with your cat's digestive system – whether it's IBD, pancreatitis, gastritis, or even allergies – can make their ability to digest and process food less effective. If they can't get the nutrients from their food, they can't sustain their weight.
    • Hyperthyroidism. The thyroid is a sensitive organ and controls hormones throughout the body. Cats can be prone to hyperthyroidism, which can cause excess energy, a high metabolism, and hyperactivity.
    • Parasites. Tapeworms, for example, are a common infection (particularly for outdoor cats), and since they live in the digestive tract, they steal nutrients from your cat. This usually won't cause severe weight loss in adult cats, but it's still possible. It's also a leading cause of weight loss in kittens.
    • Tooth issues. If your fur baby has a toothache, they're not going to want to eat food because it hurts to do so. If you notice that they aren't eating much, check their teeth for red inflamed gums – it’s a telltale sign of dental disease.
    • Stress. Just like people, when your fur baby is in a stressful situation (which can include anything from moving to introducing a new pet or family member), they're likely to lose their appetite and lose weight.
    • Age. Elderly cats often have health issues that accompany their old age and some – some of which we’ve noted above.  Another thing to keep in mind is that cats will start to lose muscle mass as they get older. This process is not something you can control, so getting your kitty to eat more isn’t going to solve the problem. Your vet will guide you as to what you can expect for body condition as your kitty ages.
    • Bullying. If you have more than one cat, a bully might be preventing the other from eating. Even if they aren’t a bully, some kitties are really piggies in disguise and just want to eat ALL the food.  For this reason, it's usually a good idea to feed each cat separately.

    Case in Point: At a regular annual check-up, I told my vet that Bradley seemed to be eating less and that was unusual. His weight was steady with his last check-up and with no other symptoms or concerns found during the exam he received a clean bill of health. Just a month or so later I could tell a big difference in his weight.  We went back to the vet and x-rays revealed likely cancer - which was later confirmed by a biopsy.

    All of this is to say two things - you know your cat best, if you have concerns ask your vet for additional testing and second weight monitoring is important for all adult cats, especially seniors. My little man had aggressive large cell lymphoma and was gone within a couple of months - but had it been some other diagnosis, we would have caught it way before the next annual appointment and could have started treatment. Unexplained weight changes matter.

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    Depending on the issue, catching it early can give you a great prognosis. Many of these issues can either be treated and moved past or can be controlled through management and medication. You may need to adjust your feline's diet, give them medication to cure an acute problem, or just give them medication regularly. In some cases, surgery of some sort may be required.  

    Of course, sometimes, all you need to do is make sure they have access to food. Some cats don't like eating full meals at meal time and like to "graze" by snacking throughout the day.

    Not to mention the fact that in many cases your cat’s eating habits will change as they get older.

    For example, the eating habits of our 18-year-old Sosa have changed drastically as she has gotten older. She would eat wet food twice a day like clockwork. 

    With age – and illness, she has gotten extremely picky with all kinds of food. And when I say all, I mean all. All brands, all flavors, all textures dry or wet, it doesn’t really matter. The only food she’ll even consider today are treats.

    After a very scary bout of pancreatitis getting weight back onto her boney body was essential. So, to pack it on and to ensure she sustains a healthy weight, we feed her complete nutritional treats. She grazes on 3-5 of her favorites throughout the entire day, so we no longer have a mealtime.   

    The bottom line is there is nothing wrong with habit changes when it comes to eating as long as the food they get is healthy and nutritionally complete. Just don’t forget to make it available for when they want it.

    What to Do if Your Cat is Too Skinny

    If your cat is skinny and underweight, it's a good idea to talk to your vet and check to see if there's something wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of different medical conditions and other issues can lead to weight loss. Since cats hide their problems to avoid showing weakness, weight loss is commonly one of the first symptoms you notice.

    What makes matters worse is that identifying a weight loss visually is very difficult. Unfortunately, in most cases you’ll usually only notice it once your cat has lost a substantial amount of weight, and by that time, it may be too late to address any issues.

    Examining a Skinny Cat Image by Toe Beans

    The first thing to do is characterize the weight loss. Here are a few important considerations.

    • Is your cat eating at all?
    • Is the weight loss sudden, or has your cat been losing weight over time even when eating
    • Is it accompanied by changes, either in your home or life or in their feeding habits or the food you give them?
    • Are they less active, in pain, or more irritated or anxious than normal?

    Note down any of these so you can talk to your vet about them.

    Then give your vet a call, and ask them if you should bring your fur baby in for an examination. Depending on the scale of the weight loss and how underweight they are, it may be a "wait and see," or it may be a "come in ASAP" situation. From there, your vet can run tests to help determine what, if anything, is wrong, and you can take action to solve the problem.

    I think it’s worth noting here that tracking weight is important as it’s an indicator of the overall health of your kitty.  Since most pet parents don’t weigh their cats at home, it’s important to see your vet regularly to track any changes. 

    Check out my post about how often you should bring your cat to the vet, if you’re not sure about the frequency.

    If, after reading today's article, you're having any concerns regarding the health of your feline companion, please be sure to seek professional medical assistance from a vet. It is always better to be safe rather than sorry. But, if you have any non-urgent questions regarding your cat, I'd be more than happy to help at any time! Just leave a comment down below, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible!

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    As always, if you found this content useful, all our blog content on toe beans is social media shareable. So, what are you waiting for to spread the love 😻? Go ahead and hit any social media icon of your preference around the post for instant sharing with friends and family. Sharing is caring!

    One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China) , 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans  online pet supplies store!

    K Marie Alto
    K Marie Alto

    K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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