|Do cats know they are dying? Physical signs Behavioural signs Palliative care When is the right time to have my cat euthanised?|
At a glance:
Each cat’s experience of dying is unique, it can be long and drawn out or the cat may go into sudden decline. Your role is to provide comfort and care while your cat is in the process of dying.
It is hard for pet owners to know when it is the right time to euthanise a cat and guilt is an extremely common emotion afterward.
In this article, we take a look at the physical and behavioural signs that a cat is dying and provide a platform to talk about your own experience.
Final signs of death:
Cats with a terminal disease can live for months or even in some cases years. But there comes a time when death approaches.
According to Desmond Morris, in his book, Cat World, cats don’t understand death or know they are dying. Pet owners assume cats must know they are dying because many hide in the days or hours before death. But hiding is 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. Predatory animals pick out the young, the old and the weak. So from a self-preservation angle, it makes 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 and cats do this also.
Why do cats go away to die?
Not all dying cats hide, none of my cats have. They have all slept more in the last day or so, but always in their usual spots. All of them retreated within themselves with almost no interaction in their final day. The fact my cats didn’t vanish or hide may be because they also indoors, so didn’t have the opportunity to go and hide in a shed or wander into the bush. 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 of 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. By this time dehydration is usually severe. The day before my cat died from chronic kidney disease would hang over his water bowl, but he was too sick to drink.
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)
Normal respiration is 20-30 breaths per minute, in the dying cat, 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
Normal body temperature is 100 – 102.5°F (37.7 – 39.1°C). As death draws closer, your cat’s body temperature will drop. You may notice the ears and the paw pads feel cooler to the touch. The temperature may drop below 100°C (37.7°F).
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, their physical appearance can also 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.
Do cats purr before they are about to die?
I have not personally experienced a cat do this, but we know that cats can and do purr when they are in pain, so it is quite possible a cat could purr when they are dying.
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 terminal cats can be restless due to pain and discomfort.
Changes in cognitive function
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 which impair normal brain function. Seizures can also develop, particularly if the liver or kidneys are failing.
As your cat reaches the terminal stage of a disease you will need to give him extra love, care, and attention. Treatment depends on the condition, many cats remain somewhat independent right up until the end. But the pet owner must make allowances where possible.
The goal of palliative care is to provide end of life care and comfort for the cat. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss an end of life plan, at which time you can discuss how to manage your cat’s symptoms such as pain and hydration. Cats with advanced kidney disease are chronically dehydrated, and it can be a great help if the caregiver is able to administer subcutaneous fluids to help.
Cats are extremely good at hiding pain, which makes it hard for their human caregiver to determine how much the cat is suffering. Many end of life diseases can be painful and your veterinarian will be able to prescribe medication to ease pain and discomfort.
Cats can’t tell their caregiver they are in pain. Subtle signs of pain include hiding, loss of appetite, drooling, neglecting to groom, sitting hunched over, restlessness, and loss of interest in surroundings.
Only give painkillers which have been prescribed by your veterinarian, cats aren’t small humans are unable to metabolise many common painkillers.
Place the litter trays and food bowls in an easy to access area close to the cat. It is not helpful for the terminal cat to climb a flight of stairs to reach the litter tray or food bowls. Raise food and water bowls so that your cat doesn’t have to bend over. Senior cats and cats in pain can find it difficult stepping into a litter tray, it can help to provide one with low sides.
Hand feed your cat:
In late-stage disease, cats can lose their appetite. 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.
Very sick 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. The area should be easy to clean as very sick animals often have elimination problems.
Give your cat 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.
Groom and clean your cat:
It may be necessary for the caregiver to help groom and keep your cat clean, especially cats who are in pain. Clean your cat if he has soiled himself and change his bedding.
How to comfort a dying cat:
Meet your cat’s basic needs such as hydration, nutrition, pain management, warmth and comfort. If these basic needs cannot be met, it is time to speak to your veterinarian about euthanasia. Ending a cat’s suffering by euthanasia is far kinder than letting nature take its course and waiting for the cat to die naturally.
Ensure the cat is in a comfortable place, and meet his emotional needs.
Some cats prefer relative isolation when they are dying, which means they choose to hide in a quiet spot. Where practical, respect that. Other cats want the comfort of their human or pet family, and that is okay too. Follow your cat’s lead.
- A dying cat needs quiet and calm. Keep household noise to a minimum and if practical move the cat to a quieter part of the house away from the everyday hustle and bustle such as their favourite human’s bedroom.
- Stay with him as he dies, your presence will calm and sooth him.
- Talk quietly and calmly to the cat.
- Dim the lights, and turn televisions or radios down.
- If the cat has a canine or feline companion, allow them to be with the cat, if that is what the dying cat wants, unless the cat has a highly infectious disease.
- An immobile cat can develop pressure sores, ensure they have a cosy and well cushioned bed to rest in.
- Keep fresh water available and close to the cat’s bed. Offer food on your finger.
- If a euthanasia has been scheduled at the veterinary surgery, bring along the cat’s favourite blankets. Where possible, book the first or last appointment when it will be quieter. Stay with the cat before and during the process. Talk calmly, quietly and gently stroke him. Tell him you love him.
It is such a hard and gut-wrenching decision to make. 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.
A common theme among the comments is guilt over waiting too long. None of us have a crystal ball and our cats can’t tell us when they’ve had enough. We have to make the best decision we can, but with the added complication of wanting to fight for our cats, clinging to hope and not wanting to let go, it becomes a very complex and difficult decision. Two weeks prior to the euthanasia of my cat Eliot, the veterinarian said her time wasn’t up yet (note: I don’t blame the veterinarian for this), but in hindsight I think it would have been better to let her go then than wait those extra two weeks until she truly was at the end and was was uncomfortable. I believe that a week too early is better than a day too late. Do I feel bad about it? Yes, but I can’t turn back the clock. With cats who have followed in Eliot’s footsteps, I’ve been much quicker to make a decision, it’s hard, but I’d rather let them too a little too early than too late. One question I ask myself is ‘am I keeping them alive for me, or for them’? It can help to give clarity during such a difficult and emotional time when we are dealing with denial, bargaining, grief, fear and uncertainty.
Dr. Alice Villalobos, a veterinary oncologist created a quality of life scale which can help caregivers and veterinarians determine when the cat’s quality of life is such that euthanasia must be considered.
If possible, schedule the appointment ahead of time so that the euthanasia can be performed during a quiet 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. I recommend this if it is possible.
Many veterinarians will recommend sedation prior to euthanasia, which helps to relax the cat, here is a compelling argument for sedation written from a veterinarian’s perspective. I also highly recommend another great article ‘Five Things I Wish You Knew Before‘, written by a veterinary technician, who has made a list of five things she would like pet owners to know prior to/during a euthanasia. If you can, please try to read it before you say goodbye.
Footnote (7th March 2017):
We lost our beautiful Singapura cat, Levi, on the weekend. It is the first time I’ve been strong enough to be there for the euthanasia. We owed it to him to all be there with him, he had given our family so much joy and happiness. We stroked him, we talked to him and we kissed him.
Levi was already hospitalised, he had gone downhill very quickly. We were able to spend 30 minutes alone with him saying goodbye.
It was the most painful experience of my life, but I am so glad I was there for him. Hug your cats, love your cats, and if you feel strong enough, be with them at the end. It is sad, it is painful, but it is comforting to know that he died surrounded by his family who loved him so much.
We decided not to rush into getting another cat after Levi’s passing. I told the children that we would know when the time was right. A few weeks after we lost Levi, two Tonkinese cats were in need of a home having been surrendered at a local shelter. We knew the time was right and adopted them the following day. It was the first time our family had smiled since we lost Levi. Both cats have a completely different personality to Levi, Calvin is a quiet and shy cat who loves my daughter, Norman, well he’s just Norman, an independent boy who lives by his own rules. We still love and miss Levi, but the two boys helped to heal our broken hearts.
The loss of a pet is devastating, I still cry when I think about Levi. But, we had 11 wonderful years with him and I don’t want his death to overshadow his life. Remember the good times you shared.
I have enabled comments on this article, I cannot give medical advice but if you ever want to talk about your cats, or how you are feeling, please feel free to comment. Sometimes it may take me a few days to respond, but I will always try to get back to you.
Update 24th April 2018.
Also see our article on cat loss and grief.