Signs Your Cat Is Nearing the End of Their Life
Noting small changes in your cat's health and behavior can help tip you off that something is wrong and enable you to help your beloved cat through her final days.
Our cats are part of our family, and we love their imperious looks and playful bops with a paw, not to mention their deep throaty purrs. But sooner or later, the time will come for you to part, and often this time can take us by surprise since cats are good at hiding their pain.
Although it can be so difficult to see your cat suffering in any capacity, keeping an eye out for these symptoms can help you recognize when your cat needs extra care and comfort, and could help to identify an issue early enough to extend her quality of life a bit longer.
Signs Your Cat Could Be Dying
Cats are notoriously good at hiding injuries and illnesses. In the wild, this is a great survival instinct, as showing any sign of weakness makes a cat a potential target for predators and rivals. But with our pet cats, this can present a challenge for us loving caretakers who want to help our kitties through any illness or discomfort. We must watch our cats closely and pay attention to subtle changes that indicate that something is wrong.
Many of the signs that your cat is nearing the end of her life are also common symptoms of illnesses, such as chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, cancer, and diabetes mellitus. The first step when you notice that something is wrong with your cat is to have her examined by your veterinarian. Between the exam and any diagnostics that are performed, your vet can tell you if your cat has a condition that can be treated or if the prognosis is more grim.
Extreme Weight Loss
Weight loss is very common in senior cats. Some of this is due to normal muscle loss: as your cat ages, her body becomes less efficient at digesting and building protein, causing her to lose muscle mass. Your cat may be eating well but still lose weight.
Over time, the weight loss may become extreme. Some old or sick cats can become extremely thin, with their ribs, spine, and hip bones protruding under their skin. Cachexia is a particular form of extreme weight loss caused by cancer, in which the rapidly dividing cancer cells demand so much energy that the body breaks down its fat stores and muscle for fuel. Cats with hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease also often experience weight loss.
Hiding is the telltale sign of illness in cats, but can be hard to define. Many cats hide a lot normally. Things to watch for include increased hiding, hiding in new places, and not wanting to come out even for routine positive events like mealtimes.
If your cat is feeling ill, she may not want to eat. Some medications can also impair your cat's sense of taste and smell, making her less interested in food. Try warming up her food or adding a small amount of tuna juice to increase its odor and make her more interested in eating.
There are also medications that your veterinarian can prescribe to help encourage your cat to eat. An anti-emetic such as Cerenia can help to combat nausea, and appetite stimulants such as mirtazapine can increase your cat's desire to eat.
As your cat nears her time of passing, it may not be possible to get her to eat at all.
Sick cats also often aren't interested in drinking, which can quickly lead to dehydration. If your cat is still eating, you can increase her liquid intake by feeding canned food and/or adding water to her food. In some cases you may be able to give her water with an oral syringe or a squirt bottle, but this should be done carefully. Aim your cat's muzzle downward and only squirt a small amount of water into her mouth at a time. Forcing her to drink too much water at a time can cause the water to go down her trachea and into her lungs, causing choking and even aspiration pneumonia.
As your cat nears the end of her life she will probably be less active. She will sleep more and more and may be weak when she is awake. Some cats may also appear depressed and listless.
Senior cats often have decreased mobility due to muscle loss and pain from arthritis or other health challenges. Weakness is often progressive, starting with something small like no longer being able to jump up onto the kitchen counter, but progress to difficulty navigating stairs and even being unable to get in and out of a tall litter box.
You can help your cat by making sure that all of the things she needs are easily accessible. Provide ramps or stepping stones for her to safely get to favorite perches or resting places. If your cat is suffering from arthritis, your veterinarian can prescribe cat-safe pain medications to help her be more comfortable.
Cats can show a wide range of behavioral changes when they are dying. The exact changes will vary from cat-to-cat, but what matters is that her behavior has indeed changed.
Some cats will become more reclusive, and may be cranky and more irritable (this might be due to pain or cognitive dysfunction). Other cats become more friendly and clingy, wanting to always be close to you.
Some cats experience cognitive dysfunction, similar to dementia in humans. These cats may wander the house at night and be more vocal than normal. They can also appear confused or get lost in familiar environments.
Your cat may disappear for extended periods of time and skip meals or develop altered sleeping patterns.
Poor Response to Treatments
Many of the diseases that plague senior cats can be controlled with medications and other treatments for a long time. Over time, your cat may require higher doses of medications or stop responding to treatment. This can be a sign that her body is breaking down and no longer able to utilize medications normally.
Poor Temperature Regulation
Senior cats increasingly have trouble regulating their body temperature, and will be more susceptible to heat and cold than healthy adult cats. Even when provided with a warm bed and environment, cats nearing death often have a low body temperature. You may notice that your cat's limbs feel cool to the touch.
When cats don't feel well, they frequently stop grooming themselves. This leads to a greasy, scruffy-looking coat. Long-haired cats may develop mats, particularly on their hind end, underbelly, and behind the ears. Your cat may also have excessive dandruff and flaky skin.
If your cat will tolerate it, gentle grooming with a soft brush can help her feel better.
As your cat nears the end of her life she may develop an abnormal body odor. This is due to the breakdown of tissues and buildup of toxins in the body. The exact smell can vary depending on the exact underlying condition. Cats experiencing diabetic ketoacidosis can have a sickly sweet smell, and cats in kidney failure may have breath that smells like ammonia.
Your cat's lungs are controlled by muscles and nerves, and these are not immune to breakdown as your cat ages. A dying cat may have an abnormal breathing pattern, with her respiratory rate speeding up and slowing down at random. She may even stop breathing for short periods of time and then start back up again.
Signs of difficulty breathing include open-mouth breathing, stretching her head and neck out straight from her body, and strong abdominal movements as she breathes. If your cat has any of these symptoms, she is struggling to get oxygen into her body. This is an emergency.
Seizures can be caused by a variety of things, including metabolic problems caused by disease or issues with the brain itself. A seizure that lasts more than 10 minutes or seizures that come in clusters one after the other are both emergencies. Depending on the cause, your veterinarian may be able to stabilize your cat and prevent seizures with medications, but other causes may not respond to treatment.
Not Interested in Favorite Things
As your cat's health deteriorates, she will lose interest in things she once enjoyed. She may no longer want to play with her toys, may turn her nose up at favorite treats, and may even stop purring when petted. Disinterest in the world around her and a lack of joy for things she once loved are signs that your cat is ready to pass on.
Comforting Your Cat
If your veterinarian suggests that medical treatment and recovery is not an option, there are things you can do to keep your cat comfortable and make her final days as pleasant as possible.
- Keep her warm, with easy access to a cozy bed and/or a warm spot in the sun.
- Help her out with maintenance grooming by brushing her hair and cleaning up any messes.
- Offer foods with a strong odor to encourage her to eat. If your cat is supposed to be on a prescription diet but hates it, this is the time to let her have whatever she wants to eat.
- Make sure she has easy access to food, water, litter box, and sleeping spots.
- Build ramps or give her a boost so she can still access her favorite window spots or napping perches.
- Keep her environment quiet and peaceful. Don’t let other pets bother her or knock her down.
- Ask your veterinarian about medications to alleviate her symptoms. These may include pain medications, appetite stimulants, or steroids. Since you are thinking in the short term, your cat’s comfort is more important than worrying about side effects that can develop from long-term use of any particular medication.
- Spend time with your cat on her terms. If she likes to be cuddled and petted, love her up. If she prefers to be left alone, sit quietly a little bit away from her and let her initiate an interaction if she wants it.
- Make a plan for the end of your cat’s life. If you plan to consider euthanasia, talk to your veterinarian about scheduling an appointment (usually at the beginning or end of the day so you can have more privacy) or a house call. If your cat hates going to the vet or is stressed out by strangers, research at-home pet euthanasia options or ask the vet for an oral sedative that you can give at home ahead of time to make the experience less stressful for her.
- Tell your cat that it is okay to go. You love her so much, but she has done her job and can go when she is ready.
You Have Options When It Comes to Your Pet’s End-Of-Life Care
Some cats die peacefully in their sleep, but for others the final step is not so easy. Consider whether you want your cat to have a "natural" death or to opt for euthanasia. There is no right answer, and you should choose whichever option you feel is best for you and your cat. Feel free to discuss your cat's situation and prognosis with your veterinarian, and talk over your decision with your family and close friends.
If you choose to provide your cat with hospice care until she passes away on her own, follow the above steps to keep her comfortable.
Euthanasia can be a scary decision for a cat owner to make, but ending suffering is also the greatest gift we can give. Your veterinarian will give an overdose of a sedative, usually the injectable pentobarbital, and your cat will pass quickly and painlessly.
When your cat has passed, she can either be buried (according to local laws) or cremated. Your veterinarian can help you with options available in your area.
How Do I Know When It Is Time?
Most cat owners feel it in their gut when it's time for their cat to pass on, but acknowledging that feeling can be difficult. There are a few questions you can ask to help guide you in making the right decision for yourself.
- Keep track of your cat’s good days and bad days. Occasional bad days are a normal part of life, but there will come a point when your cat is experiencing more pain and discomfort than happy, comfortable days.
- Evaluate whether or not your cat still enjoys the things she always has. Does she eat her favorite treats when offered? Does she purr when you pet her? Is she able to access her favorite perches or play with her toys?
- Talk over your feelings with friends and family. Use your support system as a sounding-board to work through how you want to handle the end of your cat’s life.
- Talk to your cat. It may sound silly, but it can help. Curl up together in your favorite spot and talk it over. She just might tell you when it is time.
Grieving the Loss of Your Cat
Grieving the loss of your cat is completely normal. She has been an important part of your life and provided companionship and love. Take that personal day from work if you need to, and talk to your friends and family. If you have other pets, let the routine of caring for them provide some normalcy. No other pet will ever replace your cat, but they all bring different things to our lives and are special in their own way. And most of all, look through old photos and videos to remember your cat at her best and consider ways you can honor her memory.