How Do Cats Act When They are Dying?

All things must come to an end, including the lives of our beloved pets. A cat reaching the end of its life will display certain behaviors. Recognizing the signs of a dying cat will enable you to prepare for the inevitable.

Dying cats will become withdrawn and irritable, unprovoked aggression may become more common, the cat’s appetite will change, and it’ll spend more time hiding or become clingy as it feels afraid. Heavy breathing, seizures, lower body temperatures, and an unkempt appearance are other signs.

We don’t like to think about it, but cats live comparatively short lives compared to humans. A cat aged 15 or over is considered geriatric. Inevitably, illness and the ravages of age will start to take their toll. Understanding a dying cat’s behavior means that you can provide love and support, enabling your cat to pass away with dignity.

How Long Do Cats Live?

The average lifespan of a domesticated cat is 13 to 17 years. This is not an exact science, as cats can live for 20+ years. Others will succumb to illness or accidents earlier in life. A cat’s life span is divided into six stages:

Age of CatHuman Age Equivalent
KittenBirth to 6 monthsPre-teen childhood
Junior6 months to 2 yearsTeenage years to mid-20s
Adult2 to 6 yearsMid 20s to early 40s
Mature6 to 10 yearsMid 40s to late 50s
Senior10 to 15 yearsEarly 60s to mid 70s
Geriatric15 years to end of lifeLate 70s to end of life

When a cat reaches senior status, its body will start to slow down. The cat will no longer be as energetic as it once was. Your cat may develop arthritis/joint problems, and sickness will be tougher to recover from as quickly. A geriatric cat may start to display signs of cognitive dysfunction as the end of its life approaches.

Is My Senior Cat Dying?

As cats grow older, illnesses become increasingly likely. Heart disease, cancer, and kidney failure become a greater risk in older cats. Senior cats also have weaker immunity, so respiratory infections and other illnesses take a greater toll.

Your cat’s health may appear to take a sudden turn to the worse. This is not as abrupt as it seems, as cats are adept at hiding pain and illness. However, your cat could have been sick for some time but hidden it from you. If your cat is reaching the end of its life, it will be more likely to display the following behaviors:

  • Hiding or clinginess
  • Changes in personality
  • Changes to eating and drinking routines
  • Failing to groom
  • Low body temperature
  • Muscular weakness
  • Heavy, labored breathing
  • Seizures

If you notice these signs, your cat is not dying. However, if your cat is geriatric, it will be far closer to goodbye than hello. Prepare yourself for this in order to manage the psychological impact of the loss of your cat. You may also need to make a difficult decision. A dying cat may be in pain, so it could be more humane to consider euthanasia.

Hiding

Cats often have an innate sense that the end is coming as they will feel increasingly weak and feeble. This is abhorrent for cats, who hate revealing any sign of weakness. As a result, a dying cat will often hide away in the dark.

For this reason, keep a geriatric cat indoors. Left to roam, a dying cat may never return. It will find somewhere isolated to pass away quietly. This sense of uncertainty can add to the heartache of losing a cat as you may not know what happened for days, if at all.

If your older cat has disappeared from the house, look around your neighborhood. Focus your search on warm, dry, and shielded territory. This could be under vehicles, bushes, or in sheds or garages.

Even an indoor cat may hide when dying. Your cat will spend much of its day in closets or under the bed. At least you will know where your cat is this way, as well as being able to monitor the cat’s physical condition.

Clinginess

Some dying cats become clingy. Your cat may follow you around the house, growing distressed when you leave. The cat will also be more vocal than usual. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice stated that increased anxiety and clinginess is a clear warning sign.

Your cat knows that something is wrong and is feeling afraid. The cat is seeking reassurance. Help the cat understand that you will help it through this difficult time.

This behavior could also be a sign of feline cognitive dysfunction. Geriatric cats show a range of symptoms of senility. Other symptoms include disorientation, reversed sleep-waking cycles, and eliminating outside the litter box.

Feline dementia alone is not a symptom of dying. It acts as a reminder that your cat is geriatric, though. A senile cat could live years after diagnosis, or it could be reaching a natural end.

Feline dementia will also seriously affect a cat’s quality of life. The condition can be slowed down, but not cured. Cats that live with this condition require special care and lifestyle changes.

Personality Changes

A sign that a cat is dying is significant personality changes. A previously friendly and personable cat will become antagonistic and belligerent. The cat will stop seeking out petting and reject any physical affection.

This is usually because the cat is in pain. This may be due to muscular conditions, such as arthritis. Your cat may also have a tumor or be experiencing internal pain. Internal pain is usually caused by organ failure.

Pain doesn’t always mean that a cat has reached the end-of-life stage. It’s possible that it can be helped through a medical problem with medication or surgery. However, in senior cats, these health issues are harder to treat.

signs a cat is dying of old age

Changes To Appetite

Dying cats may lose their appetite. No cat will willingly starve to death so, taken in conjunction with other symptoms, not eating can point to a significant health issue.

Missing a meal, or declining a treat, is not a reason for immediate concern. Cats can be fussy eaters and could have any number of reasons to refuse food. The cat may also have a teeth issue that affects its appetite.

A cat not eating for 24 hours is a cause for concern, especially if it is older. 48 hours or more leaves the cat in danger. Dying cats refuse food for many reasons. Most often, it is due to failing organs. If the cat’s body is not working as it should, it will struggle to digest food. Consequently, eating will become increasingly painful.

Drinking Habits

A changed relationship with water can also suggest that a cat is dying. Cats nearing the end of their life will spend more time close to the water bowl. The cat may hang its head over the bowl but not want to drink.

On the other hand, the cat may drink water to excess. A cat with an unquenchable thirst points to kidney failure (polydipsia). Veterinary Medicine International said that polydipsia is a common side effect of renal failure in cats.

Renal failure ends the life of many senior and geriatric cats. A cat’s kidneys often start to struggle from the age of 7. Almost 50% of cats aged 15 or older have advanced renal failure.

Unkempt Appearance

A healthy feline will take great care to groom itself regularly. Greasy or oily fur is always a sign that something is amiss with your pet. Many illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes, are linked to unkempt fur. Cats lack the vigor to groom as they have limited energy. They may not consider grooming to be a worthy use of their remaining energy.

Cats groom to protect themselves from attack. By grooming the fur, a cat reduces its scent and can avoid detection by predators. If your cat is no longer concerned about grooming, it may have given up on survival.

Low Body Temperature

A cat’s body temperature should be between 100.5-102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. A dying cat will seek warm locations to increasing its falling body temperature. Cats rarely shiver, so a temperature drop may not be immediately obvious.

Check the cat’s ears, paws, and tail. These should be hot to the touch, at least some of the time. The exception to the rule is if they’ve been resting or walking on a cold surface, such as a tiled floor. Cats lose body heat through their extremities, so a dying cat will not retain warmth.

Low body temperature is usually caused by a weak heart. As cats age, the heart ceases to function as well. If the heart cannot pump blood fast enough, the cat will not stay warm. Attempt to compensate for this with blankets and hot water bottles. This will not prolong the cat’s life for long, but it will increase its comfort level.

Muscular Weakness

A dying cat will become increasingly lame. Ordinarily, the hind legs of a cat will be the first to struggle. The cat will be unable to support its own body weight. To hide this symptom, it will likely become lethargic and stop moving.

Blood and oxygen are not reaching the legs, which is a symptom of heart failure. As a result, the cat’s limbs are not functioning as they should. Your cat may have a blood clot that is preventing blood from reaching the legs.

do cats wander off to die?

Breathing Difficulty

A dying cat will struggle to catch its breath, even when it’s resting. As cats are obligate nasal breathers, any mouth-breathing is cause for concern. Panting or gasping air through the mouth suggests that the cat cannot breathe well.

The inability to breathe usually means that the cat’s heart is faltering. The heart is not pumping oxygen around the body at an appropriate speed, so the cat will breathe heavily to compensate.

If your cat is struggling to breathe, check its pulse. You will find this on a cat’s upper hind leg. Count the number of pulses within a 10-second period and multiply this by 10 to determine the cat’s pulses per minute. A healthy cat will experience 160-220 pulses per minute. A dying cat will have a much slower, weaker pulse.

Seizures

Cats may have seizures in the immediate hours before death. These will result in short periods of unconsciousness. As the cat’s life draws to an end, it will spend much more of its time sleeping than awake. The seizures will become longer, and the breaks between each seizure significantly shorter.

Eventually, a cat will stop reacting between seizures. It will cease movement and may fail to recognize you or its surroundings. When this happens, your cat will likely have just hours left to live.

Should I Euthanize My Sick Cat?

Euthanizing a cat will have a significant emotional impact on the owner and should only be considered if the cat’s quality of life is significantly compromised.

Discuss the topic of euthanasia with a vet and seek their professional opinion. Of 167 vets surveyed by Anthrozoös, 74% confirmed they would euthanize a cat at the owner’s request.

Sometimes, euthanasia is the kindest action. Cats are proud animals, and chronic pain or restricted mobility can cause distress. If your cat’s health is in a downward spiral, it may prefer to die with dignity.

As much as we wish they could, cats do not live forever. If your cat is dying, it will display certain behaviors. The end of your cat’s life should be as comfortable as the years that precede them.

Photo of author

Richard Parker

I'm Richard, the lead writer for Senior Cat Wellness. I'm experienced in all cat health-related matters, behavioral issues, grooming techniques, and general pet care. I'm a proud owner of 5 adult cats (all adopted strays), including a senior cat who is now 20.

10 thoughts on “How Do Cats Act When They are Dying?”

  1. Believe I made an error when I okayed anesthesia and a suctioning to be certain a large hair ball had been removed after 2 enemas. Cat had eaten and been drinking regularly until we noticed symptoms she displayed when previously ridding herself of a hair ball. An x-ray confirmed a large hairball in her upper digestive tract.
    Cat is 18 and a half years old. Seems unable to recover. Has stopped eating her regular Granular food . Have substituted Fish Pate and drinking water this PM. Need your advice!!!!

    Reply
    • Hi beth, can you clarify , do you regret the anesthesia or the suctioning of the hairball? We were also told anesthesia may be risky for older cats can you please clarify?

      Reply
  2. I had to put down my beloved Cat babygirl yesterday at the age of 16 yrs. She had most of those signs of a dying cat, it’s one of the hardest things I had to do, she has been with me so long and was a wonderful companion. Me and my mom spent the last few minutes with her at the Vet as she was wrapped in a warm blanket telling her how much we loved her and it was okay to cross over that Rainbow Bridge where GOD heals all animals with a new healthy body where they can be happy to jump and play forever. We will miss her greatly but will live with some of the most fond memories this beautiful cat gave us.

    Reply
    • I feel your pain me and my sister i live with had to do that to our sweet Emily she was bout 18 years old she had all the signs of a dying cat,so monday afternoon we took het to a vet to have her put down,he examined her first to see if they could save her but they couldnt and said we did the right thing she passed away monday night,neither one of us was in the room when they put her down or when she passed away,we couldnt handle it. i felt so awful but she wasnt alone the vet and the nurse was with her. i been deep depressed ever sense.we had her for 18 years she loved her so much and will never for get her our sweet emily

      Reply
    • I feel your pain, I had to say good by to my little girl yesterday. She was 19, but developed renal failure over the last few weeks. Nothing could really save her, I know in my heart it was the best thing to do, but it is so sad to have to make that decision and let them go. I stayed with her at the vet’s til she crossed over the rainbow bridge.

      Reply
  3. I had to put down to sleep my beautiful Persian chinchilla cat. She was 19 and half and nothing was wrong, and then she gone in one week. She couldn’t breath properly, ( looked like she head a hecups)
    I thought she inhaled a hair ball, but after seeing immediately vet she deteriorated in 6 days. They gave her strong painkillers, steroids tablets, some injections which dragged her down very quickly. After that, my beautiful girl, was just laying in upstairs bathroom, still eating from my hand, drinking water and using toilet ok. I regret I took her to vet as those all medications made her worse!
    Then I had to take to put her down on Easter Monday last year as she was struggling. Could she be saved???😢

    Reply
    • Janette, what was the diagnosis they gave her for the the issue she seem to be having this hiccup like symptom what was the diagnosis did they tell you anything? Please state the Diagnosis they stated she had.

      Reply
  4. My female cat and I have been together where as an abandoned kitten, she found her way to my front door. She pranced right in when I opened my door like it was meant to be and we’ve been together ever since going on sixteen years. During early years we’ve had veterinarian visits for everything from A-Z. During which time I was in a better place financially. However, at seventy-seven years old and living on a fixed income, I am no longer able to afford any more vet visits and the costs of such visits, etc. Our last vet visit several years ago detailed an issue with her digestive system so I am aware that she’s only gotten worst with time. Her crying out to me more than ever is making me an emotional wreck tearing at my heart. I do not want her suffering like this. Can somebody help me/us??

    Reply
  5. You didn’t pick your cat-she picked you! I’m sure you have many fond memories of times when she was young and much more healthy.
    She loves you so very much.
    It’s so hard to say “goodbye”, but it has been said that having your cat put to sleep is an extreme act of love. The finest gift you can give your precious friend is to let her go now, before her pain gets more and more severe. I can’t help but think she will be grateful that you put her needs before yours. Your needs meaning your need to have her affection in your life.
    I also can’t help but believe she wouldn’t want you to suffer, either. If you took her to the vet over and over to try and help her, only to be told that there is nothing more to be done to help her, and put yourself in debt because of it, I think she’d rather you send her over to the other side. She will be happy! She will be so grateful that you put an end to her pain. She will also be grateful for all the love you gave her over all those years and, because you know that she found you, and not the other way around, you are certain she loves you very, very much.
    It will be worth the money to go to the vet, one last time with her, because you will be putting an end to all her pain and suffering.
    When you come home you will cry for days, but after awhile it will sink in that she is supposed to be on the other side. You will never forget her, and a part of you will always miss her.
    An empath told me all those things when I had to say good-bye to my Frankie. Sixteen, going on seventeen and very sick. Cats survive on the other side. Frankie
    thanked me for putting an end to his suffering and said that he loved me very much. That was only about a week ago. I had a huge and long cry on the third day afterwards, and stopped feeling guilty for wanting him to still be here with me. I will always miss him, but I know it was the best thing I could do to show him how much I loved him.
    Peace be with you.
    Belinda

    Reply
  6. My Gumption (Gump) is 18 years old and has gone to Heaven this evening.
    I am very sad and will miss this special gift. He was on monthly arthritis meds for the last 4 months that seemed to make it worst when it came time for the next monthly shot. His white blood cells were high and the vet said he had stomach cancer because of the massive fluid in his stomach/intestine area. He got his first chemo treatment Tuesday which was very hard on him. He received twice daily morphine then off that after a few days, then a daily dose of Prednisone and every 3 days of B12. He declined rapidly, and eventually unable to function.

    Reply

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