Is It Normal To Feel Your Cat’s Spine When Petting Him?

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  • Post last modified:August 12, 2022
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Cats come in various shapes, sizes, and degrees of cuddliness, but it can be alarming when you can feel their spine during a petting session. 

Don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal to feel their spine, but if you can feel the vertebrae, it’s time to seek help. 

A cat this skinny may be underweight, ill, or naturally thin; it’s best to speak with the vet if you’re concerned. However, helping a cat gain weight is easier than you think.

Keep reading to find out the implications and what you can do to help your fluffy friend!


Is your cat underweight?  

Cats have a unique body structure, and knowing what to expect is important when assessing your cat’s overall health.

Between the spine’s bone and furry skin, there’s a layer of muscle. If a cat is healthy, you should be able to feel its spine through that muscle.

However, if there isn’t enough muscle, you may be able to feel the individual vertebrae, which is a surefire sign that your cat is underweight.  

Conduct the same examination of their ribs. Again, there is a layer of muscle between the fat and skin. 

It is normal to be able to feel their ribs. But feeling individual rib bones is another sign of weight imbalance in your cat. 

Use the Body Condition Score chart offered by the American Animal Hospital Association to double-check.  


Why is your cat underweight? (4 reasons!)

If you’ve determined that your cat is underweight, you may wonder what caused the sudden decline. There are several things that cause rapid weight loss in cats, but these are the most common:

#1: Anxiety & Depression 

Like their owners, cats’ eating habits vary based on their mood and stress levels

If your cat has been subjected to significant changes that may impact their mood or anxiety, they may be undereating. 

Try reducing the stress in their environment and engaging them with enrichment toys to improve their emotional state.  

#2: Dental Issues  

Dental issues, including infections and broken teeth, can turn eating into a painful experience for your fur friends, which leads to undereating and subsequent weight loss.  

Swapping out kibble with wet food, or getting rid of the kibble altogether, may be your best option. 

Before you make any changes to their diet, conduct a visual assessment of your cat’s dental health. If any of their teeth appear to be unhealthy, contact a vet immediately.  

#3: Malnutrition 

Your cat’s diet should contain six essential nutrients: protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamin, mineral, and water. If their diet lacks these nutrients, they may suffer from malnutrition.

When evaluating your cat’s food, ensure that the first ingredient is animal protein and contains whole ingredients.  

#4: Illness 

If your cat has developed an infection or become ill in any way, it may affect its willingness or ability to eat

Some ailments that result in weight loss are minor and quickly resolved, but others may require immediate treatment or have the potential to be lethal without it. 

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If you have any concerns about your cat’s weight being related to illness, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.  


Is your cat ill? 

When cats develop illnesses, it can impact their weight in two different ways. 

Your cat may be so bothered by their illness that they’re too upset to eat, or they may be rapidly losing weight due to their illness’s effect on their body.

Many of the ailments that can result in weight issues are relatively minor. It could be anything from an infected tooth to a food allergy. 

However, the most common illnesses that result in cats being underweight are serious ailments like: 

Cancer 

20% of all cats get cancer at some point in their lives. While lumps and skin abnormalities are the most common symptoms, weight loss is also a potential indicator early on. 

Cancer cannot be diagnosed visually and requires veterinary assessment, including several tests to diagnose, and will require ongoing treatment to manage.  

If you have found lumps or bumps or think your cat may have cancer, you should consult a vet immediately.  

Diabetes 

Diabetes is particularly common in older cats and will require immediate and long-term veterinary care. Along with dietary adjustments, diabetic cats require regular exercise and a medication regime. 

With treatment, diabetes can be very manageable and allow a high quality of life; without treatment, diabetes can be fatal. 

Your vet will have plenty of resources to equip you to manage the accommodations your cat needs.    

Parasites  

Parasites are prevalent in cats and, if left without treatment, can cause significant weight loss. 

Cats get worms and other parasites by eating infected rodents or contaminated feces of other animals. The best way to avoid this is to ensure neither contaminant is available for your cat to eat, but that isn’t always possible. 

Fortunately, parasites are easy to diagnose and easy to treat. A fecal test is done, and if parasites are confirmed, they’re treated with a quick, affordable dewormer.  

Unfortunately, unexpected weight loss isn’t a clear symptom of any one illness, and getting a professional opinion is essential.

A veterinary assessment can be lifesaving if your cat’s weight loss is sudden or unprompted. When in doubt, it’s time to make an appointment!  


Is your cat naturally thin? 

While most cats lean to the heavier side of the spectrum, some are naturally thinner. 

A healthy cat’s ribs and spine should be easily felt but not knobby or visible. In a naturally slender cat, the spine may be more prominent.

If this is the case with your cat, their weight should still remain consistent. Only a few breeds meet this criterion, with the phenomenon occurring most frequently in Siamese cats.  

Older cats tend to be slender. 

Similarly, older cats may be naturally thinner. This results from age and deteriorating muscle and fat, which can cause their shoulders and spines to be more visible than average cats.

This is not always a sign of declining health. It tends to be indicative of where they are in their lifespan, and their weight will likely remain low through their elder years. 

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If their slender appearance is not caused by rapid weight loss, you have no cause for concern here.  

Most cats are not naturally thin.   

In the above rare cases, a cat’s slenderness is a natural occurrence that you don’t have to worry about. However, the majority of cats are not naturally that thin. 

Any sudden weight loss should be treated as a potential symptom and regarded seriously. 

If your cat is prominently underweight, their bones are visible; or you can feel their individual ribs and spinal vertebrae, you should seek an evaluation by a veterinarian as soon as possible.  


How can you help your cat gain weight? 

So, your cat is underweight, and you’re concerned. Don’t worry! Fattening them back up with just a few minor dietary adjustments is easier than you might think.

The first step in helping your cat gain weight is evaluating its current diet.  

Start from what they’re already eating.  

Take a look at the nutrition facts on their kibble. Make sure it contains the six essential nutrients we discussed above. 

Cats are carnivorous creatures, so the first ingredient should be an animal-based protein like meat or fish. If that’s not the case with their current kibble, swap it out with a high protein alternative.  

Change up their feeding schedule. 

Some cats are grazers, while others prefer to eat all their food at once on a consistent schedule. 

If your cat isn’t a binge eater, you may want to leave their food out throughout the day to allow them to eat whenever they feel like it. 

You can also incentivize eating between meals by intermittently setting out small portions of snacks if your cat cannot free-feed.

Introduce new food and treats. 

Switch up what’s available to them by mixing high-quality wet food with their kibble, enticing your cat to eat a greater volume and interest them in their food bowl more regularly.

You can also create a happier relationship with food by picking up a variety of treats and offering them to your cat frequently throughout the day. 

Cats love variety and attention, and they’re not likely to say no to something tasty and new!  

If they’re still struggling to gain weight, contact your vet. 

Helping your cat gain weight is all in the food you choose and how you convince them to eat it. Like humans, they must consume more calories than they burn throughout their day.

If you’re struggling to help your cat gain weight, or they’re disinterested in everything you try, speak to your vet about potential solutions, including supplements and other treatments.  


Conclusion 

Ultimately, every cat is different, and so are their bodies. 

Whether your cat is a chunk or a bit on the scrawny side, you must pay attention to the differences in their eating habits, weight, and muscle development.

Significant changes in any of those areas could be symptomatic of a larger issue, and when it comes to your cat’s health, it’s always better to be overly cautious.  

If you’ve recently noticed you’re able to feel their spine where you previously weren’t before, an extra visit to the vet has the potential to be lifesaving.