Signs Your Cat is Dying: Our Vet Explains the Final Moments

At a Glance: Signs That a Cat is Dying

  • 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

“Early active dying” vs “Late active dying”

The physical process of dying can take months depending on the diagnosis and is divided into two main phases:

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

Each cat experiences the process of dying in their own unique way. Below is a guideline of commonly seen signs 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 itself 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 warmed-up chicken or tuna.
  • The appetite center 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.
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
  • Decreases in urination and bowel movements. The cat may be incontinent and unable to hold urine and feces. The carer needs to 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 color of tea.

Other physical symptoms of a dying cat

Every cat’s death is unique.  Some may experience all of the signs, and others may not, particularly those who are humanely euthanized.

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 color:

As blood flow decreases, the tissues don’t receive enough oxygen, which in turn causes the color 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 odor.

How long does it take for a cat to die naturally?

As a veterinarian, I strongly discourage allowing a cat to die naturally. It is our responsibility as pet owners to protect our animals from suffering. If your cat is dying it should be humanely euthanized to end its suffering. It can take anywhere between 3 days and 3 weeks, depending on the stage that your cat is in (Pre-active dying or active dying). Learn more with our article: How long does it take for a cat to die?

What are the signs that a cat is dying of old age?

Old age is not a disease. Though all organisms have a life span and eventually die, there is no such thing as “dying from old age.” Because some processes in the body must go awry to cause death, the signs typically relate to the disease process that the cat is suffering from. This may include weakness, lethargy, not eating, incontinence, difficulty breathing, and seizures.

How to comfort and care for a dying cat

The goal of end-of-life care (EOL care) is to maximize comfort, minimize 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.

  • If your cat is nearing the end of its life you have a responsibility to not allow it to suffer. Any ill cat should be seen by their veterinarian in a timely fashion and if death is imminent, should be humanely euthanized to end its suffering.
  • Provide the cat with a peaceful environment.
  • 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.
  • 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 or use a syringe. 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.
  • Maintain the same routine every day as cats don’t like change. This is especially important in the final days of a cat’s life.

Learn more about end-of-life care for dying cats.

Frequently asked questions

My cat is dying but I have no money to see the vet. What can I do?

As a pet parent, it is your duty and responsibility to care for your cat, even in death. If finances are tight, you may be able to borrow from a friend or family member or even get a small loan. Additionally, you should call around and check the prices for euthanasia in your area. There may also be services offered less expensively at shelters and humane societies. 

Do cats know when another cat is dying?

Yes, cats are very perceptive and know when a housemate is feeling unwell.

Should I leave my dying cat alone?

If your cat is exhibiting signs of death you should take them to their veterinarian for humane euthanasia. Leaving them alone to suffer and die is unnecessary and cruel.

Do cats know they are dying?

We have no way to know what a cat is thinking and death is likely not a known concept to a cat. What a cat does know is that they are in pain or not feeling well. This may lead to the cat withdrawing and trying to hide.

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. Humane euthanasia should be performed if the cat is suffering.

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, and that is okay too. Respect your cat’s wishes. Watch your cat from a distance.
  • Gently stroke the cat.
  • Try to keep the cat in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
  • Always contact your veterinarian for guidance.

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?

No, a cat will likely have open eyelids after death.

Do cats purr when they are dying?

Yes, some cats will purr when they are dying. This is a stress response and does not indicate contentment.

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.


  • Dr Whittenburg, Hospital Director

    Dr. Jamie Whittenburg (DVM) is the director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital, a full service veterinary hospital in Lubbock, TX, and a medical director at Cat World. She graduated from Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. Dr. Whittenburg then went on to pursue post-graduate training at Texas A&M University. She worked as an associate veterinarian in Fort Worth before the Hub City called her home. In Lubbock, Dr. Whittenburg continued her work as an associate veterinarian and in academia. On May 1st, 2013, she opened her own hospital, Kingsgate Animal Hospital, in her hometown of Lubbock, TX. She has a special interest in feline medicine and surgery.

  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    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