Dying Cat: Signs a Cat Is Dying

Last Updated on September 13, 2021 by Julia Wilson

As cats move into their senior years, age-related diseases become commonplace. While some cats may die very suddenly, many age-related diseases are slow and progressive and can be managed with veterinary care over a long period of time. Eventually, the cat will move into the late stages of the disease and pass into the dying phase.

Helping a cat in his or her final days, weeks or months is a joint effort between you and the cat’s primary veterinarian and, in some cases, a specialised veterinarian (such as an oncologist).

Age-related diseases in cats

As the cat moves towards his or her senior years, the risk of age-related diseases increases. Common diseases of older cats include diabetes, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, liver failure and cancer. Most of these are classified as a terminal illness as unfortunately, they will eventually lead to death. 

An elderly cat should see a veterinarian twice a year for a check-up. Some medical conditions such as kidney failure and diabetes can be treatable with an early diagnosis, while the progression of others can be slowed down with early intervention. Your veterinarian can also give information on common health conditions in senior cats and symptoms to look out for. 

Chronic conditions are slow and progressive and can be treated for months or even years with dietary changes and/or medications. Other diseases can develop quickly and with little warning. 

Sudden death in cats is less common than chronic conditions but can occur due to trauma or an acute medical condition. While old age isn’t a disease in itself, some cats will pass from old age without the diagnosis of age-related disease. 

Physical signs a cat dying

Death is a unique experience for each cat, and symptoms will vary depending on the underlying disease.

The active phase of dying may begin weeks or months before death and may include:

  • Decreases in a cat’s appetite can develop due to pain, nausea, difficulty swallowing, as death approaches, the body loses its ability to process solids and fluids.
  • Many cats experience weight loss in the final weeks or months due to loss of appetite.
  • Weakness, the cat may have difficulty standing, walking, accessing the litter tray or climbing stairs.
  • Extreme lethargy, the cat spends most of his or her day sleeping and doesn’t have much energy.
  • Decreased urination and defecation.
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence.
  • Bradycardia (decreased heart rate). The normal heart rate of a healthy adult cat is 130 to 240 beats per minute; as the heart weakens near death, the heart rate can drop significantly).
  • Decreased body temperature. The normal temperature for healthy cats is 100 – 102.5°F or 37.7 – 39.1°C but as the cat nears death, a lower body temperature is common as the body becomes less efficient at regulating core temperature. An ear thermometer is an invaluable tool for the pet owner.
  • Cool extremities. In the active phase of dying your cat’s ears and paws may feel cool due to decreased blood circulation.
  • Odour can develop due to reduced or cessation of grooming, fecal or urinary incontinence and a build-up of toxins in the body due to organ failure.
  • Agonal breathing, which is a slow, deep panting that occurs when the cat is near death.
  • Terminal respiratory secretions (saliva and bronchial secretions) can build up in the back of the cat’s throat as the coughing and swallowing reflexes decline, which can cause a gurgling  or rattling sound, known as the death rattle.
  • Dilated (enlarged) pupils.

Related content: Physical signs a cat is dying

Dying behaviour of cats

Behavioural changes during the dying phase are unique to each cat and the disease. Some are stoic and withdraw from their human family, others can become more clingy.

Behavioural changes can include:

  • Hiding
  • Loss of interest in surroundings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sleeping more
  • Changes in cognitive function (crying, confusion)
  • Clingy behaviour

End of life care for the dying cat

Palliative care is a multifaceted approach to caring for cats with a life-limiting illness. The goal is to provide a good quality of life by making your pet as comfortable as possible during the last days, weeks or months of life. At this time, treatment focuses on providing comfort, relieving pain, and controlling clinical signs, but not curing the disease.

It is a good idea to make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss an end-of-life plan. At this appointment, you can discuss how to control your cat’s symptoms, such as pain and hydration. Cats with advanced kidney disease are chronically dehydrated, and it can be a great help if the caregiver can administer subcutaneous fluids to help.

Consult with a vet for pain relief medication

End-of-life diseases can be painful, but your cat’s veterinarian can prescribe pain relief. Subtle signs of pain include hiding, loss of appetite, drooling, neglect of grooming, sitting huddled together, restlessness, and loss of interest in their surroundings.

Only administer pain medication prescribed by a veterinarian as cats cannot metabolise many common pain medications used to treat pain in people.

Make adaptations to their environment

Place the litter box, and the food and water bowl in an easy to access area close to the cat. It is not helpful for the terminal cat to climb a flight of stairs to reach the litter tray or food bowls. Raise food and water bowls so that your cat doesn’t have to bend over. Senior cats or a cat in pain can find it difficult to step into a litter tray; it can help to provide one with low sides.

Offer food by hand

In late-stage disease, cats will lose their appetite. At this stage, hand-feeding will often be necessary. BBQ chicken slightly warmed up, baby food or some canned tuna may tempt the cat to eat, but at the very end, even this will often be refused as the body shuts down.

Maintain warmth and provide a comfortable place to rest

Very sick cats and geriatric cats are often not as good at maintaining their body temperature. Make sure the cat has a warm and comfortable place to rest. The area should be easy to clean, as very sick animals often have elimination problems. Many pet parents set up a hospice area in a quiet part of the living room so that the cat can still be with his or her human family. 

Let your cat choose where to sleep

Give your cat the option of where to sleep. The cat may prefer to sleep in the lounge room close to their human companions, or a quiet spot elsewhere in the house. Let the cat decide where he or she is most comfortable.

Maintain a familiar routine

Keep your cat’s home life as simple and familiar as possible. Avoid any major changes and keep visitors to a minimum.

Groom and clean as necessary

It may be necessary for the caregiver to help groom and keep your cat clean, especially cats who are in pain. Clean the cat if he has soiled himself and change his bedding.

How to comfort a dying cat

Some cats prefer relative isolation when they are dying, meaning they prefer to hide in a quiet place. Respect this whenever possible. Other cats want the comfort of their human or animal family, and that’s fine, too. Follow your cat’s lead.

  • A dying cat needs quiet and calm. Keep household noise to a minimum and if practical, move the cat to a quieter part of the house away from the everyday hustle and bustle such as their favourite human’s bedroom. Dim the lights, and turn televisions and radios down.
  • Stay with your feline friend and talk quietly and calmly as they are dying, your presence will calm them.
  • If the cat has a canine or feline companion, allow them to be with the cat if that is what the dying cat wants, unless the cat has a highly infectious disease.
  • An immobile cat can develop pressure sores, ensure they have a cozy and well-cushioned bed.
  • Keep fresh water available and close to the cat’s bed. Offer food on your finger.

When is the right time to euthanise a pet?

None of us has a crystal ball, and our cats can’t tell us when they’ve had enough. We have to make the best decision we can, but with the added complication of wanting to fight for our cats, clinging to hope and not wanting to let go. Reaching the decision to euthanise a beloved pet is one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make. 

Dr. Mary Gardener, founder of Lap of Love, an in-home pet euthanasia practice, identifies four types of “budget” that families should consider.

  • Financial budget: End-of-life veterinary care often be expensive and put a strain on the household budget.
  • Time budget: A terminal pet often requires intensive home care, which can take up a considerable amount of time. If you work full-time out of the house or travel a lot, this can impact your ability to provide optimal care.
  • Physical budget: Are you physically able to care for a terminal cat? Are you capable of lifting him or her out of the litter tray if they are unable to walk, managing accidents, taking the cat for vet check-ups?
  • Emotional budget: Caring for a terminal cat carries a huge emotional toll. For me, caring for my beloved cat for over 6 months during her cancer treatment was emotionally hard. Some of our pets are a link or a bridge to the past. They might represent our childhood, a marriage, a difficult period in our lives, or a family member who is no longer with us—all of which can make it even harder to let go.

Dr. Gardener’s says that she supports a pet owner’s decision to say goodbye if any of these “budgets” are depleted.

Questions to consider when deciding when to euthanise your cat

  • Am I keeping them alive for me, or them?
  • Think of two or three things your healthy cat enjoyed, maybe that was chasing flies, playing with scrunched up paper balls, lazing in the sun, jumping on the dog’s tail, or greeting you at the door after work. Are they still getting pleasure from these activities?
  • Do you want to keep your cat alive because they are still enjoying life or because you can’t bear the thought of them not being around anymore?
  • What will your pet miss if he or she is not here tomorrow?
  • Do the bad days outnumber the good days?

These questions can help to give clarity during such a difficult and emotional time when we are dealing with denial, bargaining, grief, fear, and uncertainty.

Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinary oncologist, created a quality of life scale caregivers and veterinarians can consult to determine when the cat’s quality of life is such that euthanasia should be considered.

Frequently asked questions

Is my dying cat in pain?

Cats are hardwired to mask signs of pain, but there are subtle clues that a cat is in pain.

  • Crouching
  • Lying on the side
  • Tense body
  • Crying and meowing
  • Half blink
  • Downward, flattened ears and whiskers pulled back
  • Tucked up belly
  • Panting
  • Trembling of shivering
  • House soiling

Not all life-ending diseases cause severe pain but they can make your pet feel extremely unwell, which affects their quality of life. If in any doubt, speak to your vet who can evaluate the cat to establish if he or she is in pain or discomfort.

My cat is dying, how long will it take?

Once the cat is in the active phase of dying it can take between one to five days to die. It is strongly recommended that a veterinarian assess the cat at this time.

Do cats know they are dying?

Many pet owners assume cats must know they are dying because many hide in the days or hours before death.

Desmond Morris, author of Cat World (unrelated to this website) explains that cats don’t understand death or know they are dying.

A cat has no concept of its own death and so it cannot anticipate it, no matter how ill it feels. What falling ill means to a cat, or any other nonhuman animal, is that something unpleasant is threatening it. If it feels pain, it considers itself to be under attack.[1]

Hiding is typical behaviour in sick animals who need to make themselves as inconspicuous as he or she can to avoid becoming a target of predation. Predatory animals pick out the young, the old and the weak. It is this hardwired self-preservation that causes the cat to hide.

Is it okay to let my cat die naturally?

No, it is not. Towards the end of a cat’s life, he or she will experience pain and discomfort. As organ failure develops, toxins build up in the blood and the cat can experience difficulty breathing and cognitive dysfunction. Human hospice care involves around the clock analgesics which are typically administered intravenously. While a veterinarian can prescribe analgesics for a cat in the end stages of a disease, there is only so much a vet can do. The kindest thing you can do for your cat as they near death is to give them a peaceful exit.

Should I stay with my cat when he or she is euthanised? 

Where possible, stay with your cat when you say your final goodbyes. It not only gives the cat comfort having you with them at the end of their life, but it can also provide closure too but it is also going to be one of the hardest things you do. Ask family members if they want to be with the cat for his or her final moments. 

How do I deal with the emotional burden of the death of a cat?

The anguish of watching a beloved pet die is all-consuming, but it is the cost of admission when we choose to bring a pet into our lives. Losing a pet can be as hard on cat owners as losing a loved one. The New England Journal of Medicine reported a woman died of broken heart syndrome (medically known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy) after the loss of her beloved dog. This is an extreme response to grief, but it underlines just how painful it is to lose a pet.

Not everybody can relate to the close bond we form with our pets which can leave pet owners isolated and alone. Find a supportive friend, family member or group to offer a sympathetic ear and emotional support. Pet grief counsellors can also be an enormous help at this time.

Why do cats go away to die?

Not all dying cats go away to die, a cat who is outside and becomes seriously ill (through trauma or disease) may not always have the strength to return home and will seek out a hiding spot such as a shed or under a house or bush.

There’s a difference between a cat slowly losing his health to progressive diseases such as kidney disease and cancer, which can take months to reach end-stage, to a sudden trauma such as being hit by a vehicle or dog attack where the cat may die at the scene or crawl away and die shortly afterwards.

Do cats purr before they are about to die?

Cats can and do purr when they are in pain, and cats may purr when they are dying.

What to do after euthanasia? 

Deciding what to do with the cat’s body should be discussed in advance. Home burial, burial in a pet cemetery or cremation are the most common options for pet owners. Burial can offer closure, but if you are renting it may not be practical. In which case a pet cemetery is a better option, which gives pet owners a place to visit in the future. The veterinarian can organise cremation or you can choose to do so yourself. Options for cremation are individual, in which the cat has cremated alone, or mass cremation where several animals are cremated at once. Obviously, if you would like to have your cat’s ashes returned to you then individual cremation is necessary. 

When is the right time to get a new cat? 

It is definitely not recommended that pet parents bring a new cat to the home with a cat who is dying, but once he or she has passed away, at some stage, you may want to adopt a new cat. Everyone is different in how long it takes to feel ready after the loss of a cat. After the death of our last cat, Levi, I felt so bereft that I couldn’t imagine bringing a new cat into the home. But three weeks after his passing, two Tonkinese cats found themselves needing a new home through no fault of their own and we adopted them. They proved to be an enormous comfort to us after our recent loss. You will know when the time is right. 

There is a cycle of love & death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals. It is a cycle unlike any other. To those who have never lived through or walked its rocky path, our willingness to give our hearts with full knowledge that they will be broken seems incomprehensible. Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given.

Suzanne Clothier


References

[1] Morris, D. (1999). Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia by Desmond Morris (1999-05-04) (First ed.). Penguin.