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It's a sad fact of life but death is inevitable for us all, including pets. Death can be slow, especially if your cat is affected by one of the common diseases to affect older cats such as cancer or organ failure (liver, kidney etc), or can happen suddenly, with little warning, such as a car accident or poisoning.
Cats can live for months or even in some cases years if the condition is detected and monitored enough. But there comes a time when death approaches.
According to Desmond Morris, cats don't understand death or know they are dying. Many people believe that cats know they are dying which is why they hide. But hiding is quite typical behavior in animals who are sick.
A sick animal wants to make himself as inconspicuous as he can to avoid becoming a target to other animals which may see him as an easy target. Hunting animals generally pick out the young, the old and the weak. So from a self preservation angle, it would make sense that a sick cat wants to hide.
As most of us know, when we feel sick we feel miserable. We are weak, tired and feel unwell, the best thing to do is bunker down somewhere dark and try to rest. It would make sense that cats do this also.
Not all dying cats will hide, none of mine have hidden. They have slept more, but always in their usual spots but all of them retreated within themselves with almost no interaction in their final day. This of course may be because my cats are also indoors. A cat who is outside and becomes seriously ill (through trauma or disease) may not always have the strength to return home, so will find a quiet hiding spot such as a shed or under a house.
There's a difference between your cat slowly losing his health to progressive diseases such as kidney failure and cancer, which can take months to the very end stage in your cat's life. Below are signs that your cat is actively dying and is very close to death.
No longer eating or drinking
A very sick cat loses his appetite. This may be due to feeling extremely unwell, being too tired to eat, less need for food due to inactivity. He may remain thirsty and some will even drink a little. Usually by this time they are quite dehydrated. The day before my cat died from chronic kidney disease would hang over his water bowl, but he was too sick to drink.
Try to offer your cat small amounts of food, at this stage hand feeding will be necessary. BBQ chicken slightly warmed up or some canned tuna may entice your cat to eat but at the very end even this will often be refused.
Urinary and/or fecal incontinence
Many gravely ill cats will urinate and defecate accidentally and it is common for them to have developed diarrhea by this stage. Please don't be upset if this happens and make sure you keep your cat's bed clean so he can remain as comfortable as possible.
Difficult or laboured breathing (dyspnea)
Breathing may be rapid, slow, noisy, or even be pauses between breaths (apnea) or your cat may experience shortness of breath. Right before death breathing may become rasping and spasmodic as the respiratory system is shutting down.
Many cats in pain will also pant.
Drop in body temperature
As death draws closer, your cat's body temperature will drop. You may notice the ears and the pawpads feel cooler to the touch. The temperature may drop below 100C.
Most cats in the final hours or days of life will move about very little, if they do try to move around, they are usually very weak, particularly in the hind legs.
Keep your cat's food bowls and litter trays close to where he sleeps so he doesn't have far to go.
As the organs begin to fail, toxins can build up in the cat's body which will cause an odour from the body as well as the breath.
Changes in appearance
As your cat's health deteriorates, his physical appearance will change. While not necessarily a sign of imminent death, it is a clue that your cat's health has declined. The most obvious changes are dramatic weight loss and an unkempt appearance as your cat spends less time grooming himself.
We have already covered this above, some cats will hide, others can become quite clingy and want to be with their human or animal companion.
Loss of interest in everything/social withdrawal
This happened to all of my cats who have been in their final day or two of life, who completely withdrew from their feline and human companions. They no longer have interest in their surroundings (or food), and spend their whole day sleeping, often restlessly. Usual behaviours such as greeting you at the door, asking you for food on a morning, watching birds in the garden have all stopped.
I have heard other people say that their cat became more clingy in the lead up to death. It is up to us to let our cat decide what they want. If they seem to prefer to be alone, we must respect that, even if we want to offer them comfort. It should be their choice how they spend their final hours. If they want companionship then we must give them that. Let your cat guide you.
This is another very common behaviour in a dying cat which goes hand in hand with the above (loss of interest). Your cat will spend his final day(s) sleeping as much as he can. Even if he is awake, he will usually not move very far from his sleeping spot.
Some cats may become confused and disoriented in their final days or hours. This is due to a build up of toxins in the body impairing normal brain function. Seizures may also occur, particularly if the liver is failing.
All senior cats, even those without a medical condition should be taken to the vet for a check-up every six months. The earlier a disease is caught the better.
If your cat has already been diagnosed with a disease then regular veterinary check-ups will be required to monitor your cat's condition. Diseases such as kidney failure can be slowed down with appropriate care.
As your cat reaches the terminal stage of a disease you will need to give him extra love, care and attention. Again, how he is treated depends on the condition, many cats remain somewhat independent right up until the end. But the pet owner must make allowances where possible.
- Placing the litter trays and food bowls in an easy to access area is a must. It is not helpful if your sick and dying cat has to traipse up two flights of stairs to have a drink or go to the toilet. Easy access is a must.
- Very unwell cats, especially senior cats are often not as good at maintaining body temperature. Make sure your cat has a warm and comfortable place to rest. It should be easy to clean as very sick animals often have elimination problems.
- Give him the option of where to sleep. He may prefer to sleep in the lounge room close to his human companions or he may prefer to sleep in a quiet spot elsewhere in the house. Let your cat be the guide. Now is not the time to be fussy about where your cat sleeps, not in his final days or weeks.
- Keep your cat's home life as simple and familiar as possible. Avoid any major changes. Keep visitors to a minimum.
It is such a hard and gut wrenching decision to make. Our cats can't tell us how they are feeling, we can only go on how they look and behave. The best thing you can do for your cat as he nears death is to offer him a peaceful exit. I strongly believe a day or even a week too early is better than a day or a week too late.
I've always just known when the time was right. In all cases, my cats would withdraw from me and spend all day sleeping, restlessly. They seem to have a blank look in their eyes.
I've always asked my vet, just in case he thinks there is a chance the cat will rally, but inevitably the choice has been made to euthanise. It is a quick and pain-free exit and the kindest thing to do once your cat nears the end. Prolonging life for a few days or weeks is not kind to your cat if he is suffering.
Phoning ahead of time is recommended so that your cat can be euthanised during a quite period. Either at the beginning or the end of the day is best. Some veterinarians offer the option to come to your home and euthanise, this option is recommended if possible.