As a cat moves towards their senior years, age-related diseases become commonplace. While some cats can die very suddenly, many of these diseases are slow and progressive, and with veterinary care, can be managed for an extended period. Eventually, the cat will progress into the late stage of a disease and move into the dying phase. It is never easy to watch a beloved pet’s health decline and to make the decision to say goodbye. Most pet owners struggle with the enormous responsibility but when we are armed with the knowlege of what to look for, and how we can comfort our cat in his or her final days or weeks, be are able to make choices with more clarity.
Physical signs a cat is dying:
- Decreased respiration rate
- Decreased heart rate
- Loss of appetite and thirst
- Drop in body temperature
Behavioural signs a cat is dying:
- Changes in cognitive function such as confusion
- Social withdrawal or clinginess
- Loss of interest in surroundings
Signs that a cat has died:
- No pulse
- No heartbeat
- Fixed eyes
- Enlarged pupils which don’t respond to light
- Eyelids slightly open
- Relaxed jaw
- Release of bladder and bowels
Related: How to determine if a cat has died
Do cats know they are dying?
In his book Cat World, Desmond Morris writes that cats don’t understand death or know they are dying. Pet owners assume cats must know they are dying because many hide in the days or hours before death. But hiding is typical behaviour in sick animals. A sick animal wants to make himself as inconspicuous as he can to avoid becoming a target to other animals which may see him as an easy target. Predatory animals pick out the young, the old and the weak. So from a self-preservation angle, it makes sense that a sick cat wants to hide.
As most of us know, when we feel sick, we feel miserable. We are weak, tired and feel unwell, the best thing to do is bunker down somewhere dark and try to rest, and cats do this also.
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.
Death is a unique experience for every cat, and symptoms can vary depending on the underlying health issue. The active phase of dying can begin weeks or months before the cat dies.
No longer eating or drinking:
A very sick cat loses his appetite due to nausea, pain, diminished sense of smell and taste, lethargy or have less need for food or due to inactivity. The cat may remain thirsty, and some will even drink a little. By this time, dehydration is usually severe. The cat may hang over the water bowl but be too exhausted to drink.
Decreased urine or bowel movements:
Because the cat is barely eating and drinking, urine and bowel movements become less frequent, urine will be much darker than usual as the kidneys concentrate the urine to prevent further water loss. Towards the end, urine and fecal output may cease altogether.
Urinary and fecal incontinence:
Many gravely ill cats will urinate and defecate accidentally, and diarrhea is common at this stage.
Difficult or laboured breathing (dyspnea):
Normal respiration is 20-30 breaths per minute.
As death nears, the cat’s breathing can be rapid, slow, noisy, or even be pauses between breaths (apnea) in the dying cat. Right before death breathing can change to rasping and jerky as the respiratory system starts to shut down. The changes are triggered by a reduction in blood flow and are not painful.
Some cats will experience a death rattle, which is caused by secretions which sit in the back of the throat, and the cat can longer shift them.
Decreased heart rate:
Circulation changes cause the cat’s heartbeat becomes slower and fainter; the skin and mucus membranes can become mottled.
Coughing and swallowing:
As the body continues to wind down, various functions will also slow. The coughing and swallowing become reflexes slower.
Drop in body temperature:
The average body temperature of a cat is between 100 – 102.5°F (37.7 – 39.1°C).
As the blood circulation slows, body temperature can fluctuate. Ears and the paw pads feel cooler to the touch. Close to death, the temperature may drop below 100°C (37.7°F).
Most cats in the final hours or days of life will move about very little, if they do try to move around, they are usually fragile, particularly in the hind legs. Simple activities such as walking to the litter tray or food bowl can become physically exhausting.
Keep the cat’s food and water bowls as well as litter trays close to where he sleeps so he doesn’t have far to go.
As the organs begin to fail, toxins can build up in the cat’s body, which will cause an odour from the body as well as the breath.
Changes in appearance:
As health deteriorates, physical appearance can also change. While not necessarily a sign of imminent death, it is a clue that your cat’s health has declined. The most apparent changes are dramatic weight loss and an unkempt appearance as the cat spends less time grooming.
Do cats purr before they are about to die?
Cats can and do purr when they are in pain, so it is possible a cat could purr when they are dying.
Some cats will hide; others can become quite clingy and want to be with their human or animal companion.
Loss of interest in everything/social withdrawal:
Close to the end, most cats no longer have an interest in their surroundings and spend most of their time asleep, often restlessly. Usual behaviours such as greeting you at the door, asking you for food on a morning or watching birds in the garden have all stopped.
Many carers say that their cat became clingy in the lead up to death. It is essential to let the cat decide what they want. If they prefer to be alone, we must respect that, even if we want to offer them comfort. If they want companionship, then we must give them that.
The cat will spend his final day(s) sleeping as much as he can, even if he is awake, he will usually not move very far. Some terminal cats will be restless due to pain and discomfort.
Changes in cognitive function:
Some cats will become confused and disoriented in their final days or hours due to a build-up of toxins in the body which impair normal brain function. Seizures can also develop, particularly if the liver or kidneys are failing, other symptoms can include vocalisation, pacing, confusion.
Is my cat in pain?
- Lying on the side
- Tense body
- Crying and meowing
- Half blink
- Downward, flattened ears and whiskers pulled back
- Tucked up belly
- Trembling of shivering
- House soiling
Not all life-ending diseases cause severe pain, but they can make the cat feel extremely unwell, which affects their quality of life.
As a cat reaches the terminal stage of a disease, you will need to give him extra love, care, and attention. Treatment depends on the condition; many cats remain somewhat independent right up until the end. Make allowances if necessary.
The goal of palliative care is to provide end of life care and comfort for the cat. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss an end of life plan, at which time you can discuss how to manage 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.
Some end of life diseases can be painful, and your veterinarian will be able to prescribe medication to ease pain and discomfort. Cats can’t tell their caregiver they are in pain, subtle signs of pain include hiding, loss of appetite, drooling, neglecting to groom, sitting hunched over, restlessness, and loss of interest in surroundings.
Only give painkillers which have been prescribed by your veterinarian, cats aren’t small humans are unable to metabolise many common painkillers.
Place litter trays and food bowls 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 and cats 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 can lose their appetite. Try to offer small amounts of food; at this stage, hand-feeding will be necessary. BBQ chicken slightly warmed up, or some canned tuna may entice your cat to eat, but at the very end, even this will often be refused.
Very sick cats, especially senior cats, are often not as good at maintaining body temperature. Make sure your cat has a warm and comfortable place to rest. The area should be easy to clean as very sick animals often have elimination problems.
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 in a quiet spot elsewhere in the house. Let the cat decide, now is not the time to be fussy about where your cat sleeps.
Keep your cat’s home life as simple and familiar as possible. Avoid any major changes.
Groom and clean the cat:
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
Meet your cat’s basic needs, hydration, nutrition, pain management, warmth, and comfort. If these basic needs cannot be met, it is time to speak to your veterinarian about euthanasia. Ending a cat’s suffering is far kinder than letting nature take its course and waiting for the cat to die naturally.
Ensure the cat is in a comfortable place, and meet their emotional needs.
Some cats prefer relative isolation when they are dying, which means they choose to hide in a quiet spot. Where practical, respect that. Other cats want the comfort of their human or pet family, and that is okay 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.
- Stay with the cat as they are dying, your presence will calm them.
- Talk quietly and calmly to the cat.
- Dim the lights, and turn televisions or radios down.
- 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.
- If euthanasia has been scheduled at the veterinary surgery, bring along the cat’s favourite blankets. Where possible, book the first or last appointment when it is quieter. Stay with the cat before and during the process. Talk calmly, gently stroke him and tell him you love him.
When is the right time to euthanise?
It is such a gut-wrenching decision to make. Cats can’t tell us how they are feeling; we can only go on how they look and behave. The best thing you can do for your cat as he nears death is to offer him a peaceful exit.
A common theme among the comments is guilt over waiting too long or euthanising too early. 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, it becomes a very complex and difficult decision.
- Financial budget: End of life veterinary care can range in costs depending on the underlying disease.
- 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 on your ability to provide optimal care.
- Physical budget: Are you physically able to care for a terminal cat? Lifting him or her out of the litter tray if they are unable to walk, managing accidents, taking the cat for veterinary check-ups?
- Emotional budget: Caring for a terminal cat has a huge emotional toll. For me, caring for my 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 represent our childhood, a marriage, a difficult period in our lives, a family member who is no longer with us, all of which can make it even harder to let go.
Dr. Gardener goes on to say that ‘if any of these budgets are up, she supports a pet owner’s decision to say goodbye‘.
Questions to ask:
- Am I keeping them alive for me, or them?
- Think of two or three things your cat enjoys (chasing flies, playing with scrunched up paper balls, lazing in the sun, jumping on the dog’s tail, greeting you at the door after work) are they still getting pleasure from them?
- Do you want to keep the cat alive because they are still enjoying life or because you can’t bear the thought of them not being around anymore?
- What will the cat miss if he or she is not here tomorrow?
- Is the cat having more bad days than good?
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 which can help caregivers and veterinarians determine when the cat’s quality of life is such that euthanasia must be considered.
If possible, schedule the appointment ahead of time so that the veterinarian can perform the euthanasia during a quiet time. Either at the beginning or the end of the day is best. Some veterinarians offer the option to come to your home and euthanise, which I recommend where possible.
Many veterinarians will recommend sedation before euthanasia, which helps to relax the cat, here is a compelling argument for sedation written from a veterinarian’s perspective.
Adoption after losing a cat
The choice to adopt another cat after a cat has passed away is a personal one and the time frame differs from person to person and family to family. Some choose to adopt right away while others prefer to wait. You can read more about adoption after pet loss on this page.
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~
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