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Dying cats will become withdrawn and irritable, unprovoked aggression may become more common, the cat’s appetite will change, and it’ll spend more time hiding or become clingy as it feels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 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, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.