Medically reviewed by Dr Sam Kovac BVSc (Merit) – Southern Cross Veterinary Clinic
Sometimes a cat will die at home either due to a long-standing medical condition or unexpected causes (trauma, toxicosis, or an acute medical event). We take look at how pet owners can evaluate a cat to determine if it has passed.
If you do think your cat has passed away, I always recommend a consultation with a veterinarian for confirmation.
How to check if a cat has died
|Loss of muscle control
|The muscles which control the bowels and bladder loosen which can cause urination and defecation. Sometimes the muscles will twitch for up to ten minutes after death.
|The eyes are open and the pupils remain dilated/large (see image above) and fixed even in response to light.The cornea (the transparent layer forming the front of the eye) begins to lose its transparency around two hours after death.
Corneal reflex refers to the involuntary blinking of the eyelids due to stimulation of the cornea. Use a q tip or cotton bud to gently make contact with the surface of the eye. If there’s no blink reflex, the cat has passed.
The eye contains a transparent jelly-like fluid known as intraocular fluid or aqueous humour, which maintains the shape of the eye and nourishes the tissues within the eye. This pressure is known as intraocular pressure (IOP). After death, intraocular pressure drops, and the eyes become sunken.
|No pulse or heartbeat
|The best place to check the cat’s pulse is the femoral artery which is located on the inside of the cat’s hind leg, close to the groin.I find it difficult to find the femoral artery to check the pulse, another which is easier is to feel the heartbeat. To do this, press against the rib cage over the heart. With the cat standing, feel the pulse just behind the elbow.
|No signs of breathing
|Watch for the rise and fall of your cat’s chest to determine if he is breathing or place a mirror in front of the cat’s nose, if it fogs up, the cat is breathing.Note: I tried this with my very much alive cat, the mirror must be extremely close to the nose, and even then, there was not much fogging due to the small size of their nostrils.
|No response to painful stimuli
|Separate the paws and pinch the skin between the toes to see if you get a response.
|No response to verbal stimuli
|Try calling the cat’s name or clap loudly and watch for a response.
|No response to strong smells
|Place an onion or another strong-smelling object under the nose to see if there is a response.
|All mammals regulate their body temperature, after death, the cat’s body temperature will drop. In humans, the rate of cooling is approximately 1 C per hour until it reaches ambient (room) temperature.
|The tissues become pale in the absence of oxygenation which can occur 15-30 minutes after death. The gums will appear pale to white.
|Rigor mortis is the stiffening of muscles after death and occurs 3-4 hours after death, lasting for 12 hours.
Frequently asked questions
What do you do if you find a dead cat?
- If the cat is on the road, move to the side of the road if it is safe to do so to prevent further trauma
- Check for a collar and name tag
- Transport to a local veterinary practice or animal shelter who will be able to scan the cat for a microchip
- If it is not possible to transport the cat, leave it in a safe place and knock on doors around the area the cat has been found
- Post on local Facebook pages or community noticeboards with a description of the cat
How long does it take a dead cat to become stiff?
Rigor mortis (stiffness of the muscles) occurs 3-4 hours after death and lasts approximately 12 hours.
Can cats sense their own death?
Cats probably can’t sense their own death but they do know that they feel extremely unwell which is why it is common for them to hide. This instinct is hardwired and serves to evade detection from opportunistic predators. Sometimes a cat will die while hiding which leads pet owners to believe the cat knew he or she was dying.
Can a cat be dead but still breathing?
No, once a cat has died, the heart and respiration stops. If the cat is still breathing, he is still alive. Shock looks remarkably like death and requires emergency care.
What to do with a dead cat at home?
Pet owners have several options, home burial, burial in a pet cemetery or cremation. If you choose to bury a cat at home, check with local councils and landlords (if renting) before you go ahead.
- Dig the hole to a depth of at least 3 feet
- Wrap your cat in the sheet, blanket or towel and place it in the cardboard box and tie the box with rope or strong string
- Place soil over the box and firm down well
- Put a large stone or paver over the area
- Many pet owners choose to decorate the grave with a plant (such as catnip, catmint), a headstone or an ornament