Signs a Cat Is Dying and How to Comfort Them

Recognising the signs that a cat is dying isn’t always easy for caregivers as cats are hardwired to mask signs of pain and discomfort. This makes knowing when the right time to euthanise during an already traumatic period even more confusing. None of us wants our pets to suffer, but we also don’t want to make the call too soon. Understanding the dying process can help caregivers know when the time is right to say goodbye and prevent undue suffering.

The two phases of dying

While this article looks at common signs a cat is dying, it is important to remember that death is unique to each animal and there can be some variation of clinical signs depending on the illness and metabolic conditions of the cat. Some chronic conditions such as chronic kidney disease can be managed for years before the cat finally enters into the end-stage of the disease while other diseases have a much shorter timeframe (months, weeks or even days).

  • Pre-active phase: This phase lasts between two to three weeks
  • Active phase: The final phase of dying lasts approximately three days and the cat is very close to death

Pre-active dying phase

Active dying phase

  • Sleeping more
  • Restlessness, inability to stay comfortable in one position
  • Decreased appetite
  • Cats with chronic kidney disease may develop polyuria and polydipsia (increased thirst and urination)
  • Weight loss
  • Poor wound healing
  • Reduced mobility
  • Loss of interest in favourite things
  • Social withdrawal or clinginess
  • No longer responding to treatments

 

During the cat’s final days, the body is shutting down and death is close. This is the time for caregivers to discuss euthanasia with their veterinarian.
  • Loss of thirst and appetite which gradually progresses to absent thirst and appetite
  • Urinary retention or incontinence
  • Bradycardia (decreased heart rate)
  • Abnormal breathing, slow, deep panting, and gurgling or rattling sounds due to terminal respiratory secretions which build up as coughing and swallowing reflexes diminish
  • Dilated pupils
  • Blue/grey gum colour
  • Extreme weakness
  • Restlessness
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Unkempt appearance
  • Purring
  • Abnormal odour due to a breakdown of tissues and a build-up of toxins
  • Seizures
  • Social withdrawal, hiding or clingy behaviour

How to care for a dying cat

The pre-active dying phase can last several weeks. During this time, the caregiver must provide additional care to manage symptoms and ensure the cat is comfortable. A dying cat is not as effective at maintaining his or her body temperature, therefore it is important to keep the home a comfortable temperature for the cat.

Where practical, let the cat decide where to sleep. Cats are hardwired to hide when they are sick or in pain, and it is not uncommon for cats to seek solace in a quiet, dark area such as a wardrobe.

Speak to your veterinarian who can prescribe medications to ease pain (never administer human painkillers to a cat), and appetite stimulants.

  • Set up a hospice area in a warm room with a cosy and soft bed for comfort. Pay attention to clues that the cat is hot or cold and adjust room temperature and bedding as needed.
  • Keep a low-sided cat litter tray close by (but not directly next to) the bed. As mobility issues are common, it may be necessary to gently place the cat in the tray several times a day.
  • Offer strong-smelling foods such as warmed tuna or chicken breast. The veterinarian may be able to prescribe medications to stimulate the appetite or reduce nausea in the early phase of dying. Do not force a cat in the late stages of dying to eat as most are unable to swallow.
  • If the cat is incontinent, use incontinance pads underneath and replace regularly.
  • Brush the cat with a soft brush and wipe away any discharge (eyes, nose, anus, perianal area).
  • Provide easy access to food, encourage the cat to eat by hand feeding and warming food.
  • Let the cat decide if he or she wants company. Some cats prefer solitude when they are dying while others seek comfort from their human family.

How do I know when it’s time? 

This is the hardest decision any cat lover will make for their cat and I have received countless emails from people guilt-ridden. Letting a cat die a natural death may feel like the right thing to do, but in many cases, it can prolong suffering. Let your veterinarian and your cat guide you.

The quality of life scale is a guide adapted by Dr Alice Villaboos to help pet owners and veterinarians determine when the time is right.

Quality of Life Scale (HHHHHMM Scale)

Using a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = unacceptable, 10 = excellent), patients can be evaluated or their quality of life.

A total of > 35 points is an acceptable quality of life.


0-10

Hurt

Is the patient in pain, including distress from difficulty in breathing?
Can the pet’s pain be successfully managed? Is oxygen necessary?

0-10

Hunger

Is the pet eating enough? Does hand-feeding help? Does the pet
require a feeding tube?

0-10

Hydration

Is the pet dehydrated? Are subcutaneous fluids once or twice daily
enough to resolve the problem? Are they well-tolerated?

0-10

Hygiene

The pet should be kept brushed and clean, particularly after
elimination.
Does the pet have pressure sores?

0-10

Happiness

Does the pet express joy and interest? Is he responsive to things
around him (family, toys, etc)? Is the pet depressed, lonely, anxious, bored, or afraid? Can the pet’s bed be near the kitchen and moved near family activities to minimise isolation?

0-10

Mobility

Can the pet get up without assistance? Does the pet need human
or mechanical help (eg, a cart)? Does she feel like going for a walk? Is
she
having seizures or stumbling?

Note: Some caregivers feel euthanasia is prefer
able to amputation, yet an animal with limited mobility may still be
alert and
responsive, and can have a good quality of life as long as the family is
commit
ted to quality care.

0-10

More Good Days than Bad

When bad days outnumber good days, the pet’s

suffering is appreciable and quality of life might be too compromised.
When a
healthy human-animal bond is no longer possible, the caregiver must be
made
aware that the end is near.


Remember, a week too early is kinder than a day too late. The final gift we can give our cats is a pain free exit.

Frequently asked questions

Do cats purr when they are dying?

Purring is generally associated with contentment, but cats are known to purr when they are in pain or dying also. It is thought to be a form of self-comfort.

What happens when a cat dies at home?

Make sure the cat is deceased, the eyes will be fixed and dilated, there will be no pulse and most cats will defecate and urinate at the time of death.

There are several options for the caregiver to consider home burial, cremation, or pet cemetery. Always check with local authorities before burying a cat at home or in a public place. Your veterinarian can recommend a pet cremation business and many will organise this for you.

If the cat dies due to trauma or in his or her sleep, notify the veterinarian that the cat has passed away as well as local autorities (councils) and your pet insurance company.

How long does it take a cat to die?

It takes up to three days for a cat to die once they are in the active dying phase.