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 these obvious signs will help you to prepare for the inevitable.
Dying cats become withdrawn and irritable, unprovoked aggression may become more common, the cat’s appetite will change, and it will spend more time hiding or become clingy. Heavy breathing, seizures, and an unkempt appearance are also more likely to be a problem.
It isn’t something we like to think about, but cats have comparatively short lives compared to humans. A cat aged 15 or over is considered geriatric. Illness and the ravages of age will start to take their toll on felines. Learn the behavior of a dying cat to help your cat pass away with dignity.
Table of Contents:
How Long Do Cats Live?
The average lifespan of a domesticated cat is 13 to 17 years. This is not an exact science. Many cats live for 20 years, some even longer. Others may succumb to illness or accidents earlier.
A cat’s life span is divided into six stages. This table explains these life stages, and the human equivalent:
|Age of Cat||Human Age Equivalent|
|Kitten||Birth to 6 months||Pre-teen childhood|
|Junior||6 months to 2 years||Teenage years to mid-20s|
|Adult||2 to 6 years||Mid 20s to early 40s|
|Mature||6 to 10 years||Mid 40s to late 50s|
|Senior||10 to 15 years||Early 60s to mid 70s|
|Geriatric||15 years to end of life||Late 70s to end of life|
When a cat reaches senior status, it will 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 will display signs of cognitive dysfunction and start preparing for the end of its life.
Is My Cat Dying?
As cats grow older, illnesses become increasingly dangerous. Heart disease and kidney failure become an increasing risk in older cats.
Senior cats also have weaker immunity. As a result, 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. Cats are adept at hiding pain and illness. 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
If you notice these signs, your cat is not necessarily dying. These symptoms are linked to a range of illnesses. There may still be time to help your cat.
You must be realistic, though. 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.
You may also need to make a difficult decision. A dying cat may be in significant pain. It may be more humane to consider euthanasia.
Cats often have an innate sense that the end is coming. The cat 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.
For this reason, it is advisable to keep a geriatric cat indoors. Left to roam, a dying cat may never return. It will find somewhere isolated to quietly pass away. This sense of uncertainty can add to the heartache of losing a cat. 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 shielded territory. This could be under bushes or vehicles, 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. You can also monitor your cat’s condition.
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.
Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice has stated that increased anxiety and clinginess is a clear warning sign.
Your cat knows that something is wrong and is afraid. The cat is seeking reassurance. Help the cat understand that you will help it through this 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 cognitive dysfunction alone is not a symptom of dying. It acts as a reminder that your cat is geriatric, though. A senile cat could live five more years, 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.
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 kind of physical contact.
This is usually because the cat is in pain. This may be due to muscular conditions, such as arthritis. Your cat may also be living with tumors or internal pain. Internal pain is typically caused by organ failure.
Pain does not always mean that a cat is dying. It’s possible that your cat can be helped through medication or surgery. In senior cats, these health issues become increasingly hard to treat.
Changes to Appetite
Dying cats typically lose their appetite. No cat will willingly starve to death. Taken in conjunction with other symptoms though, not eating can point to a major health issue.
Missing a meal, or declining a treat, is not a reason for concern. Cats are fussy 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 serious concern, especially if the cat is older. 48 hours or more leaves the cat in serious danger.
Dying cats refuse food for a number of 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. As a result, eating will become increasingly painful.
A changed relationship with water can also suggest that a cat is dying. Cats nearing the end of their life will spend time close to the water bowl. The cat may hang its head over the bowl. Despite this, it will 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. This condition is known as polydipsia.
Veterinary Medicine International said that polydipsia is a particularly 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.
A healthy cat will take great care to groom itself. Greasy or oily fur is always a sign that something is amiss. In geriatric cats, it can point to the cat dying.
Many illnesses, most notably hyperthyroidism and diabetes, are linked to unkempt fur. It’s also possible that your cat simply lacks the vigor to groom. Dying cats have limited energy. They may not consider grooming to be a worthy use of this vitality.
Never ignore a cat failing to groom. Cats also groom to protect themselves. By grooming, a cat masks its scent from predators. If your cat is not concerned about this, 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’s temperature will drop. The cat will hunt out warm locations to make up for this. Cats rarely shiver, so a temperature drop may not be immediately obvious.
Start by touching the cat’s ears, paws, and tail. These should be hot to the touch, at least some of the time. Cats lose body heat through these extremities, though. If a cat is dying, it will not retain warmth.
Low body temperature is usually caused by a weak heart. As cats age, the heart begins to struggle. If the heart cannot pump blood fast enough, the cat will not be able to stay warm. Attempt to compensate for this with blankets and hot water bottles. This will not prolong the cat’s life for long but will increase its level of comfort.
A dying cat will become increasingly lame. Ordinarily, the hind legs will be the first to struggle. The cat will be unable to support its own body weight. To hide this symptom, the cat will likely become lethargic and unmoving.
This symptom can be linked to heart failure. Blood and oxygen are not reaching the legs. As a result, the cat’s limbs are not functioning as they should. Your cat may also be experiencing blood clots. These will block blood flow from reaching the legs.
A dying cat will struggle to catch its breath, even when resting. As cats are obligate nasal breathers, any kind of mouth-breathing is a concern. Panting, or gasping air through the mouth, suggest that the cat cannot breathe.
The inability to breathe usually means that the cat’s heart is failing. The heart is not pumping oxygen around the body at an appropriate speed. That cat will breathe heavily to compensate. This is not a sustainable lifestyle.
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 ten-second period and multiply this by ten. You now have your 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. In the event of a slow pulse, start preparing for the worst.
If a cat is undergoing physical seizures, it is unlikely to live much longer. It’s possible that your cat has epilepsy and will respond to medication. Seizures are more often a sign that your cat’s body is breaking down.
Seizures are one of the reasons that a senior cat should be kept indoors. A seizure can be dangerous. Your cat will arch its back and throw its neck back. This can result in spinal damage or an impact injury.
Cats will often undertake a range of 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 more time unconscious than awake. The seizures will become longer, and the breaks between them shorter.
Eventually, a cat will stop reacting between seizures. It will cease movement and may appear not to recognize you or its surroundings. When this happens, your cat will likely have mere hours left to live.
Should I Euthanize My Cat?
Euthanizing a cat is not a decision to take lightly. It will have a significant emotional impact. Euthanasia should only be considered if the cat’s quality of life is significantly compromised.
Discuss the topic of euthanasia with a vet, seeking a second opinion if necessary. Ultimately, the decision will lie with you.
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 a cat distress.
If your cat’s health is on an irrevocable downward spiral, it may prefer to die with dignity. Just don’t rush into the decision.
As much as we wish they could, cats do not live forever. If your cat is dying, it will display particular behaviors. Recognize and accept these. The end of your cat’s life should be as comfortable as the years that precede it.