Last Updated on January 12, 2021 by Julia Wilson
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 the disease and move into the dying phase.
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 and drinking
- Extreme lethargy
- Decreased urine or bowel movements
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Lowered heart rate (normal heart rate of an adult cat is 130 to 240 beats per minute, as the heart weakens near death, the heart rate can significantly decline)
- Coughing and swallowing
- Drop in body temperature (normal temperature in cats is 100 – 102.5°F or 37.7 – 39.1°C. The ears and paws may feel cool to the touch, an ear thermometer is an invaluable tool for the pet owner to monitor the cat’s temperature
- Weight loss
- Agonal breaths, a slow deep gasping which occur as the cat nears death
- Dilated (enlarged) pupils in both eyes
- Loss of interest/social withdrawal
- Sleeping more
- Changes in cognitive function
End of life care
Palliative care is a multifaceted approach to care for cats with a life-limiting illness. The aim is to provide a good quality of life by making the cat as comfortable as possible in the last few days, weeks or months of his or her life. At this point, the goal of treatment focuses on providing comfort, pain relief, and manage clinical signs but not curing the disease.
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 the litter box 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, baby food or some canned tuna may entice the 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 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.
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 where he or she is most comfortable.
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 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
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.
When is the right time to euthanise?
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.
Frequently asked questions
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.
Do cats know they are dying?
Author Desmond Morris writes in his book Cat World 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.
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, of 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 they can do. The kindest thing you can do for your cat as they near death is to give them a peaceful exit.
How do I deal with my dying 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. Find a supportive friend, family member or group to offer a sympathetic ear. Do not go through this alone.
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, so it is possible a cat could purr when they are dying.
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.