Dying Cat: Signs a Cat Is Dying

At a glance

Each cat’s experience of dying is unique, and symptoms can vary depending on the underlying condition. Dying occurs in two
phases, pre-active dying, which can last months or weeks and active dying (imminent death), which lasts 1-5 days.

Active dying signs:

  • Physical signs: noisy or laboured breathing, decreased or absent appetite, difficulty swallowing, confusion, lethargy, unkempt appearance, decreased or absent urination and bowel movements, odour, drop in body temperature, restlessness, urinary/fecal incontinence
  • Behavioral changes: Hiding, confusion, social withdrawal or clinginess, loss of interest in surroundings, crying

How to help:

  • Provide a warm and comfortable place for the cat to sleep, help maintain hygiene, offer foods with a strong odour, keep food, water and litter trays close by, and speak to the veterinarian about  medications to relieve pain and discomfort. If a cat is actively dying they should be taken to a veterinarian for humane euthanasia to end their suffering.

When is it time to say goodbye?

  • An owner should work closely with the cat’s veterinarian to determine when it is time to say goodbye.

Questions to ask:

  • Is the cat having more bad days than good?
  • Does the cat still find enjoyment in things they used to such as being petted?
  • How is the cat’s appetite?
  • Is the cat able to maintain adequate hygiene?
  • Are medications still effective?

Remember, when it comes to ending suffering, a week too early is better than a day too late.

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

Age-related diseases in cats

As the cat moves towards their 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 terminal illnesses and 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 treated 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.

Recognizing illness in cats is especially difficult because they hide any signs of not feeling well. This is an evolutionary survival mechanism to hide weakness.

Sudden death in cats is less common than death due to 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.

Dying cat stages

Dying occurs in two stages, pre-active dying and active dying and some symptoms will vary depending on the underlying disease.

Pre-active dying phase:

  • Decreases in a cat’s appetite can develop due to pain, nausea, and 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.
  • The cat may have difficulty standing, walking, accessing the litter tray or climbing stairs and may appear weak.
  • Cats may be lethargic and unwilling to be active.

 

Active-dying phase:

  • A cat’s urine output may markedly decrease.
  • Urinary and fecal incontinence may be seen.
  • Bradycardia (decreased heart rate) may occur. The normal heart rate of a healthy adult cat is 120 to 240 beats per minute, as the heart weakens near death, the heart rate can drop significantly.
  • A cat may have a 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.
  • Cool extremities due to decreased blood circulation may be noted.
  • Odor 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.
  • In the later stages of death, agonal breathing may be seen. This is a gasping,  slow, breathing that occurs 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 may be seen.

Related content: Physical signs a cat is dying   How to spend the last day of your cat’s life together

Dying behavior of cats

Behavioral 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.

Behavioral changes can include:

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

End of life care

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.

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 human pain medications are often toxic to cats and will cause more suffering.

Make adaptations to their environment

Place the litter box, food, and water bowl in an easy-to-access area close to the cat. It is not helpful for the terminal cat to have 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. Cooked 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 their 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 in a quiet spot elsewhere in the house. Let the cat decide where they are 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 you to help groom and keep your cat clean, especially cats who are in pain. Clean the cat if they have soiled themselves and keep their bedding clean.

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 favorite 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 euthanize 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, and it can be helpful to have an outsider’s perspective. Reaching the decision to euthanize a beloved pet is one of the hardest decisions you will ever have to make. However, euthanizing your cat and not making them suffer until death is the greatest kindness you can give them as well.

Dr. Mary Gardener, founder of Lap of Love, an in-home pet euthanasia practice, identifies four types of “budgets” 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 them out of the litter tray if they are unable to walk, managing accidents, or 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 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 euthanize 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.

6 most common signs that your cat is dying

  • Lack of appetite
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Foul Odor
  • Hiding
  • Being “clingy”
  • Staying stationary for long periods of time

If a cat is actively dying, they should be taken to a veterinarian for humane euthanasia to end their suffering.

What happens during the euthanasia process?

Euthanasia appointments should always be scheduled beforehand so that your cat does not have to wait to be seen. Once at the vet’s office, paperwork will be signed and typically the cat will be given a sedative. An intravenous catheter will be placed to allow for medication to be given into the cat’s vein.  When the owners are ready, the euthanasia drug will be administered. The euthanasia solution will cause the cat to become unconscious by inducing general anesthesia. In a matter of minutes, the drug will stop the cat’s heart. The cat will not feel any pain or distress during the euthanasia. You might want to speak to your veterinarian about what to expect so that you are prepared for what you will see.

What does the process look like after putting your cat to sleep?

After your pet has passed, you should feel free to take all the time you need in saying goodbye. Following the euthanasia procedure and when you are ready, your cat’s body will be prepared according to your wishes for either home burial, pet cemetery burial, or cremation. Decisions and arrangements for after-life care should be decided upon and arranged prior to euthanasia to avoid having to make decisions following your pet’s passing.

Frequently asked questions about cats dying

Is my dying cat in pain?

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 or 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?

No cat should be left to die on their own. Suffering has no place in the human-animal bond. As guardians and caretakers of pets, it is our responsibility to do all we can to ease suffering. Humane euthanasia is a wonderful gift that we are able to give animals when they are near death.

Do cats know when another cat is dying?

There is no way to be certain about how a cat feels or what they think. However, in my over 20 years in the veterinary field, I would assert that cats often know something is amiss with a housemate. Cats don’t understand the concept of death, but they are very attuned to changes. A dying housemate may be perceived as a threat and it is common for healthy cats to attack sick ones.

Do cats know they are dying?

Again, it is impossible to know what cats perceive and what they understand. Many pet owners assume cats must know they are dying because many hide in the days or hours before death. Cats likely do not have any concept of death or dying and likely do not identify their illness as such. However, cats are masters of hiding how they feel and as a defense mechanism will fail to show signs of illness for as long as possible. Hiding is typical behavior of all sick animals who need to make themselves as inconspicuous as they can to avoid becoming a target of predation.

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 euthanized? 

This is an extremely personal decision that each owner must make on their own. I do recommend staying with your pet until they are sedated at the veterinarian’s office. This way, they are peaceful and calm and will not know if you are there or not. Deciding to stay for the actual euthanasia may bring closure to some but may also be upsetting to others.

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.

Do some cats purr when dying? Why do cats purr when dying?

Cats purr when they are happy and content. However, cats also often purr when they are stressed. A purring cat that is very ill or near death is not an indication of a pain-free or happy cat.

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 this case, a pet cemetery is a better option. Burial gives pet owners a place to visit in the future. The veterinarian can organize cremation or you can choose to do so yourself. Options for cremation are individual, in which the cat’s body is 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 and 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.

Authors

  • Dr. Jamie Whittenburg (DVM) is the director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital, a full service veterinary hospital in Lubbock, TX. She has a special interest in feline medicine and surgery.

  • Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio