As a cat approaches old age, 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 its final 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).
Physical signs a cat is nearing death
Death is a unique experience for each cat, and symptoms can vary depending on the underlying health problem for a sick cat.
The active phase of dying may begin weeks or months before death. Physical signs of this period may include:
- Decreases in a cat’s appetite, including no longer eating or drinking
- Weakness and/or extreme lethargy
- Decreased urination and defecation and/or urinary and fecal incontinence
- Urinary and fecal incontinence
- Slowed 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 may drop significantly)
- Coughing and swallowing
- Drop in body temperature. The normal temperature for healthy cats is 100 – 102.5°F or 37.7 – 39.1°C. In the active phase of dying your cat’s ears and paws may feel cool. (An ear thermometer is an invaluable tool for the pet owner to monitor the cat’s temperature.)
- Weight loss
- Agonal breathing, which is a slow, deep panting that occurs when the cat is near death
- Dilated (enlarged) pupils in both of the feline’s eyes
Read our article on the physical symptoms of a cat dying for a more detailed description of these signs.
Behavioural signs of cats who are dying
This can vary greatly, every cat is unique. Some are stoic and will withdraw from their human family, others can become more clingy.
Some behavioural signs of cats who are dying include:
- Loss of interest/social withdrawal
- Sleeping more
- Changes in cognitive function
End-of-life care for felines
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.
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
Some end-of-life diseases can be painful, and your veterinarian will be able to prescribe medication to ease pain and discomfort. Cats cannot tell their caregiver that they are in pain. 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 give pain medication that has been prescribed by a veterinarian. Cats are not small humans and cannot metabolise many common pain medications.
Make adaptations to their environment
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. A senior cat 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.
Maintain warmth and provide a comfortable place to rest
Very sick cats, especially older 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.
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 the cat 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?
A common theme among pet owners 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, choosing when to euthenise can a very complex and difficult decision.
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 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 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 euthenise 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 cat in pain?
Cats are hardwired to mask signs of pain, making it hard for pet owners to gauge, but subtle clues can indicate that a cat is in pain.
The signs that a cat is in pain include:
- 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 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.
Do cats know they are dying?
Many any pet owners assume cats must know they are dying because many hide in the days or hours before death.
In Cat World, Desmond Morris explains that cats don’t understand death or know they are dying, because
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.
Hiding is typical behaviour in sick animals. A sick animal wants to make himself 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 appropriate to let your cat die a natural death. 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.
How do I deal with the emotional burden of my cat dying?
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. You do not need to grieve alone, supports are available.
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 that cats 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.
 Morris, D. (1999). Cat World: A Feline Encyclopedia by Desmond Morris (1999-05-04) (First ed.). Penguin.