Caterpillars and spider mites are herbivores with different feeding mechanisms. Spider mites feed on the cell content via stylets, while caterpillars, as chewing herbivores, remove larger amounts of photosynthetically active tissue. We investigated local and systemic effects of short-term caterpillar and spider mite herbivory on cotton in terms of primary metabolism and growth processes. After short-term caterpillar feeding, leaf growth and water content were decreased in damaged leaves. The glutamate/glutamine ratio increased and other free amino acids were also affected. In contrast, mild spider mite infestation did not affect leaf growth or amino acid composition, but led to an increase in total nitrogen and sucrose concentrations. Both herbivores induced locally increased dark respiration, suggesting an increased mobilization of storage compounds potentially available for synthesis of defensive substances, but did not affect assimilation and transpiration. Systemically induced leaves were not significantly affected by the treatments performed in this study. The results show that cotton plants do not compensate the loss of photosynthetic tissue with higher photosynthetic efficiency of the remaining tissue. However, early plant responses to different herbivores leave their signature in primary metabolism, affecting leaf growth. Changes in amino acid concentrations, total nitrogen and sucrose content may affect subsequent herbivore performance.