Why is My Cactus Shrinking? Expert Advice

There are many reasons why your cactus may shrink. It may be from root rot, the plant is getting older and its size is natural, or it might be hungry.

Most cacti are relatively hardy and can survive neglect to some extent. However, these succulents still require specialized care to thrive and live for many years. One of the most common issues you may encounter with your cactus is the shrinking of leaves and stems. It is important to act as quickly as possible when you notice signs of shrinking on your cactus. Failure to do so can be catastrophic.

So, why is my cactus shrinking? A cactus plant can shrink for many reasons. Common causes include overwatering during winter, rotting, too much light, aging, underwatering, and lack of air circulation. In some cases, the cactus may also be attacked by pests or suffer from fungal infections, which can cause it to shrink. Typically, you need to look for multiple signs to establish the true cause of shrinking. Just keep in mind that a cactus shrinking is not normal.

This blog post discusses everything you need to know about cactus shrinking, including reasons, signs, and tips to prevent it. Read on to learn more.

How Does Shrinking Occur?

Before diving into the reasons for cactus shrinking, let’s learn more about how it occurs.

Typically, cacti plants shrink as they lose water. The shrinking is a survival mechanism meant to help the succulent conserve its water reservoirs.

During this time, the plant feels relatively hollow or squishy. This is a major sign that your plant has begun to lose its water reserves, and something needs to be done urgently to save it.

The first signs of shrinking will appear on the oldest stems and leaves of the plant. Shrinking is a gradual process, which may be difficult to spot at first.

A golden barrel cactus in a white pot.
The shrinking is a survival mechanism meant to help the succulent conserve its water reservoirs.

In severe cases, you may also notice that some parts of the plant have already died. This is especially true of cacti plants that have been overwatered continuously for too long.

Why Is My Cactus Shrinking?

Now that we have an idea of how shrinking occurs, let us dive into the common causes:

Reason #1: Too Much Light

Most cacti species naturally love sunlight and being exposed to bright direct light or slightly shaded light shouldn’t harm your plant in any way. In their natural habitat, most cacti species are exposed to a lot of direct sunlight throughout the year.

However, you must remember that these succulents can adapt to a new environment relatively fast. So, if you live in an area that experiences cold winters, your cacti will most likely not appreciate the direct sunlight.

It means that if your cactus plant wasn’t getting too much light during the winter season and you suddenly exposed it to bright direct sunlight during summer, it will resist the sudden change in environmental conditions.

Signs of too much light on your cactus include burning and curling of leaves, discoloration, and shrinking. To prevent this, consider using indoor blinds or curtains to protect your cactus from direct sunlight during the hot months.

Once winter is gone, re-introduce your cactus to direct/indirect light gradually. To do this, start by placing it near a bright window and gradually moving it closer to direct sunlight as the season progresses.

Take extra precautions if you live in an area that experiences extreme seasons with very hot or cold temperatures.

Reason #2: Overwatering During Winter

This is one of the most common causes of cactus shrinking. Cacti plants store water in their stems and leaves, which helps them survive periods of drought and cold temperatures during winter. When overwatered, the plant’s roots become clogged, leading to rotting and eventual death.

Common signs of overwatering include wilting, wrinkling, discoloration, and shrinking. You can avoid overwatering your cactus during winter by ensuring the potting mix is completely dry between watering sessions.

Water droplets on the cactus.
When overwatered, the plant’s roots become clogged, leading to rotting and eventual death.

During winter months, water your cactus sparingly. Generally, you only need to water your plant once a month. However, if you live in an area where temperatures drop drastically during winter, consider reducing the watering frequency even further.

Some cacti species can even survive the entire winter season without being watered. This is especially true of cacti species native to drier climates.

Reason #3: Underwatering

Unfortunately, it is not just overwatering that can cause your cactus to shrink. Sometimes, underwatering can also leave your succulent in a dehydrated and stressed state.

This occurs when you forget to water your cactus for a long time or when it is exposed to high temperatures for an extended period.

As mentioned earlier, cacti plants usually store water in their stems and leaves, giving them a plump, thick appearance.

Therefore, if you fail to water your plant for a relatively long time, there will be no water for the stems and leaves to store. Naturally, this will cause shrinking, causing your cactus plant to appear smaller.

The best way to determine if your cactus requires watering is by checking the soil for dryness. Carefully push your fingers into the potting mix and feel it. If your soil feels dry, it is time to water your plant.

A water can besidethe cactus plants in a pot.
The best thing to do is monitor your cactus closely and only water it when the soil is completely dry.

Give your plant a thorough soaking and allow the excess water to drain away. Once you have watered, the leaves and stems will absorb water allowing your plant to return to its normal size in a couple of days.

Some cacti species still require watering, even during the dormant winter period. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you don’t stick to a strict watering schedule because it can easily lead to overwatering or underwatering.

Remember that many factors affect how often your cactus needs to be watered and how it should be watered. The best thing to do is monitor your cactus closely and only water it when the soil is completely dry.

Reason #4: Pests & Fungal Infections

Pests and fungal infections can also lead to your cactus shrinking. Common pests like mealybugs and scale feed on the sap from succulent plants, leading to shriveling of leaves over time.

This is why it’s important to regularly inspect your cactus for signs of infestation or disease.

Take immediate action if you spot any signs of pest infestation. A mild insecticidal soap or alcohol-water solution can help get rid of pests. Fungal infections can be treated using anti-fungal sprays and soil treatments.

In some cases, even after treating the infestation, you may find that your cactus still isn’t growing back to its full size.

This can be due to the damage caused by pests and fungi, which has affected the roots of your cactus plant, eventually leading to shrinking.

Unfortunately, in cases like this, you may have to discard your cactus and get a new one.

Reason #5: Rotting

The other common reason you may be staring at a shrinking cactus is rotting. If your cactus is getting too much water, too little light, or a combination of both, it can lead to the succulent rotting from the inside.

Black or brown spots on the leaves and stems of the cactus usually signal rotting. Sometimes, you may also notice a bad smell coming from the potting mix.

A dying cactus.
If the rot has spread to other parts of your cactus, you may be forced to discard it and get a new one.

The best thing to do in such cases is to remove the affected area or parts of your cactus. You can then discard the rotting material and ensure that the area around it is clean and dry.

If the rot has spread to other parts of your cactus, you may be forced to discard it and get a new one.

Reason #6: Not Enough Light

Your cactus cannot thrive without exposure to sufficient sunlight. If your plant has not been getting enough light over a long time, it will start thinning, leaning, and showing signs of elongated growth.

Without sufficient light, it cannot photosynthesize, which is the process that helps it produce energy and nutrients. As a result, your cactus will start to shrink as it slowly loses its ability to sustain itself.

To prevent this from happening, give your cactus plenty of direct sunlight (at least 4-6 hours per day). If you’re growing cacti indoors, consider installing an artificial light source such as grow lights.

Reason #7: Aging

Lastly, your cactus plant can also start shrinking as it ages. As cacti get older, they tend to lose some of their water storage capacity. It means that they struggle to store enough water to keep them hydrated.

Also, with age, the growth of your cactus may start slowing down or even stop entirely. Over time, this can lead to shrinking. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about it.

A flowering old man cactus exposed to sunlight.
As cacti get older, they tend to lose some of their water storage capacity.

At this point, the best thing to do is to ensure your plant gets enough light, water, and nutrients to help it stay healthy for as long as possible. Avoid overwatering or underwatering since it can accelerate its decline.


Although cacti are low-maintenance plants that can tolerate neglect, they still require some level of care to stay healthy and flourish.

If your cactus is shrinking, it could be due to different reasons, from too much or too little water to insufficient lighting.

By troubleshooting the issue and making changes to your cacti’s care routine, you can help it return to a healthy state.

Last update on 2023-02-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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