Physical Signs a Cat is Dying: The Final Stages

At a glance

  • Abnormal breathing
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Drop in body temperature
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleeping more and ultimately loss of consciousness
  • Odours
  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence
  • Extreme weakness

Stages of a dying cat

The physical process of dying can take months depending on the diagnosis and is divided into two stages.

  • Early or pre-active dying – The weeks leading up to death, this is associated with a terminal illness such as cancer or kidney disease.
  • Active dying – This process lasts from 3 days to a few hours when the cat’s body begins the physical process of shutting down.

Each cat experiences the process of dying in his or her unique way, below is a guideline of common symptoms which develop when a cat is dying, but not all cats will display all symptoms.

How do you know if your cat is dying? Signs of a dying cat

We have listed below the signs that your cat is dying, from the “early active dying” stages to the “late active dying” stages.

Early active dying

Late active dying
Abnormal breathing
  • Breathing can become rapid, slow, shallow or noisy.
  • Apnea can occur where breathing stops for several seconds before resuming.
  • Panting can also occur in cats who are experiencing pain.
  • Death rattle, which is caused by an increase in respiratory secretions as the respiratory system shuts down.
  • Regular breathing becomes shallow and stops, followed by the resumption of normal breathing.


  • The cat is too unwell to groom him or herself well, and the coat will take on a messy appearance, long-haired cats can develop mats in the coat, which is painful.
  • The cat completely stops grooming; the tail end may become soiled with urine and feces if not cleaned by the carer.
Appetite and thirst
  • The cat’s appetite wanes, it may be stimulated by offering extra tasty food such as warm-up chicken or tuna.
  • The appetite centre in the brain is affected during active dying and most cats have stopped eating and drinking completely. As the body is shutting down, it has no need for calories to maintain normal metabolism. Feeding a cat during the active dying phase can be counter-productive.
Increased sleep and
  • Increased sleep which may be restless due to discomfort.
  • The cat sleeps more in the final days but can become restless due to decreased oxygen in the blood.
  • At the very end, the cat may slip into a coma.
Change in toilet habits
  • Decrease in urination and bowel movements, the cat may be incontinent and unable to hold onto urine and feces. Clean up after the cat as quickly as possible to maintain comfort.
  • Decreased blood flow through the kidneys leads to reduced urination; any urine produced may be the colour of tea.

Other physical symptoms of a dying cat

Every cat’s death is unique, some may experience all of the symptoms, others may not, particularly those who are humanely euthanised.

Drop in body temperature:

As circulation decreases, the extremities become cold. This is more difficult to detect in cats due to their fur, but the paws may feel cool to the touch.

Extreme weakness:

The cat is no longer able to stand or move on its own.

Gum colour:

As blood flow decreases, the tissues don’t receive enough oxygen, which in turn causes the colour to change from pink to bluish-grey. The cat may try to compensate with open-mouthed breathing.

Decreased heart rate:

A normal adult cat’s heart rate is between 130-240 beats per minute. As the body prepares to shut down, the heart slows.


Toxins building up in the body can cause the cat to take on an unpleasant odour.

How to comfort and care for a dying cat

The goal of end of life care (EOL care) is to maximise comfort, minimise pain, manage clinical symptoms and provide emotional support to the cat. It will be necessary to have a close relationship with the cat’s veterinarian at this time. The vet can’t be with the cat at all times; you are their eyes and ears for any changes that may necessitate a change in the treatment plan.

  • Provide the cat with a peaceful environment.
  • Keep the cat’s litter tray and food bowl close to the cat. The litter tray should be accessible, if necessary, carry the cat to the litter tray.
  • Loss of appetite is common in cats who are actively dying. During this time, the goal is to maintain comfort and not nutrition. If the cat is not drinking, offer drops from your finger. Once the cat is in the final active stage of dying, do not force him to eat or drink.
  • Immobile cats can develop pressure sores. Provide a soft and comfortable bed and turn the cat every few hours.
  • Keep the cat clean, especially if it has developed fecal and/or urinary incontinence. Place puppy training pads under the cat and carefully wipe urine or feces off the cat.
  • Keep stress to a minimum. Avoid loud noises, boisterous pets or young children and strangers. Now is not the time to renovate the house or introduce a new pet.
  • Maintain the same routine every day; cats don’t like change; this is especially important in the final days of a cat’s life.

Frequently asked questions

Do cats know they are dying?

No, cats aren’t aware they are dying.

Why do cats run away to die?

A dying cat does not feel well, and cats are hardwired to hide when they are sick to avoid predators.

What is a safe pain relief for a dying cat?

There are no safe over-the-counter medications for cats to take. If necessary, your cat’s veterinarian will be able to provide you with analgesics (pain killers) to ensure the cat remains comfortable.

How do you comfort a dying cat?

  • Follow the cat’s lead. Stay close by and talk in a quiet but soothing voice. Some cats will withdraw and would prefer to be alone, that is okay too. Respect your cat’s wishes. Watch your cat from a distance. Hearing is one of the last senses to go, so keep talking to the cat; he can still hear you.
  • Gently stroke the cat.
  • Try to keep the cat in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
  • If the cat is dying during the day, close the blinds.

A dying cat is unable to effectively regulate its body temperature, so make sure the room temperature is comfortable for your cat.

Do cats close their eyes when they die?

The eyes are open, and the pupils remain dilated/large (see image above) and fixed even in response to light.

Do cats purr when they are dying?

Yes, some cats will purr when they are dying.

How do I know that the cat has passed away?

There are several indicators a cat has died that have been covered in this article.

When is the right time to say goodbye?

It is never easy to make that final call. Was it too early or too late? Did you do enough, fight hard enough? Are you letting your cat down? All of these emotions are completely normal. It is counter-intuitive to choose to end the life of a beloved pet and family member but to put our feelings aside, this is the final gift we can give to our cat.

Grieving starts before your cat has passed away, not after, unless it was a sudden death. Many carers have been responsible for the palliative care of their cat for weeks or months, which is physically and emotionally hard.

We sign a pact when we adopt our pets to stay with them until the end, and where possible, enable them to have a peaceful passing. You are not letting them down by choosing euthanasia; you are giving them a peaceful death. Remember, the word euthanasia comes from the Greek — eu which means goodly or well and thanatos which means death.

One week too early is better than one day too late.


  • 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