How to Tell if Your Cat is Dying

Cat Lying on the Floor

Our cats are cherished members of our family. Throughout their lives they show us lots of affection, bring us lots of laughter and sometimes they bring us to tears. Like all living things, part of having a cat is being by their side as they take their last breath.

As cats age, they have some of the same conditions as humans, such as muscle loss, arthritis, weaker bodies and failing organs. Cats can live a long time with many of these conditions. Some cats die very suddenly, from catastrophic conditions, such as; heart attack or stroke.

Often as cats age, you will begin to see changes in their bodies and behavior that may be cause for concern. A vet can help you determine if these symptoms and changes are cause for concern.

How Do You Know If Your Cat Is Dying?

Some of the most common signs that your cat is dying are:

  • They don’t want to eat or drink
  • They are losing weight
  • Their heart rate and respiration are low
  • Their behavior is changing
  • They sleep more than normal
  • They may have problems getting to or using the litterbox
  • They smell different
  • They are not grooming themselves
  • They want to be alone
  • Their body temperature is lower
  • They are weak and lethargic

Cats are good at hiding pain and it may take you a while to notice the differences in their physical appearance and behavior. If your cat is nearing end-of-life, you may notice several of these symptoms in your cat. I will also talk about my first-hand experiences with my beloved “Boy”.

They Don’t Want to Eat or Drink

Eating and drinking takes a certain amount of energy and if your cat’s body is weakened, he may not have the energy it takes to eat and drink. I have always tried to feed my cats “treat” food to try to get them to eat. Giving your cat special food can keep him eating a little bit longer.

They Are Losing Weight

Your cat may be getting thinner because he is getting up in years, but it could also be a sign he is dying. When my cat Boy got sick, he lost about 25% of his body weight, but he never lost the desire to eat. Here again, we did the best we could to keep Boy eating for as long as we could.

Their Heart Rate and Respiration Are Low

As a cat nears the end of its life their heart rate and respiration begins to slow down. A cat’s heart rate is usually 140 -220 and their respiration is 20 – 30 breaths per minute. Both numbers can be much lower in an ailing cat. Heart rate can be felt by putting your hand behind your cat’s left elbow. It was easy to tell Boy was breathing at a much slower rate than in weeks past. There were times I wasn’t sure he was breathing at all.

Their Behavior is Changing

You may notice that your cat does not want to cuddle with and in the past that was one of his favorite things to do. He may be a cuddler that changes to a cat that wants to be alone. The one thing we noticed about Boy was is crawling between the wall and a piece of furniture to sleep. He seemed to take comfort in being alone and this was very out of character for Boy.

They Sleep More than Normal

As your cat’s body begins to weaken, he will just not have his previous high energy. His periods of sleep may become more frequent and longer. Your cat may be uninterested in doing the things that are normal for a cat, such; as eating, drinking and grooming. If your cat is sleeping more now than in previous years, it could be a sign that he is nearing the end of his life.

They May Have Problems Getting to the Litter Box (Or Using It)

Your cat may have a more difficult time walking and become exhausted more quickly. He may just not have the energy to get to the litter box causing him to have pooping and peeing accidents. If they have dark urine, it can be the result of not drinking enough water. You may also notice blood in your cat’s urine or stool. Your cat may be prone to accidents during this time.

Boy’s Story – Boy never had any accidents, but one time I watched him rest about 5 times as he walked the 25-foot distance from his food to the litter box. Also, Boy loved to scratch and make a lot of noise in the litter box. As his strength disappeared, so did the noise. His scratching was almost indiscernible.

They May Smell Different  

As your cat’s health declines, their organs become less efficient, and toxins may begin to build up rather than be excreted. This can result in them smelling different than normal. An odor being given off by your cat is cause for concern.

They Are Not Grooming Themselves

Cats are fastidious groomers. When you notice a cat losing interest in grooming himself, this may be an indication his final days are near. Matted and dull fur is often seen on cats that are dying.

Boys Story – Boy had the most beautiful, thick red fur. But the last week of his life, it changed considerably. He had gotten thinner over the last three months, but the last week it almost appeared to be greasy looking. He did not have the energy to groom himself as he did before.

They Want to Be Alone

Cats seek solace when their bodies are ailing. You may find your cat lying in a noticeably quiet and isolated spot that he has never been in before. Since he is weak, he feels safer hidden away. This is how cats made themselves less vulnerable in the wild.

Boy’s Story – Boy loved people and would do anything to be sitting next to me (or on me). He was always around and one day he was nowhere to be found. We realized he crawled between the wall and a large piece of furniture. I didn’t realize a cat could fit in such a small space.

He came out when I shook his food. At the time, we still did not realize how sick he was. He did crawl back into the space periodically over the next month. As he got weaker, we blocked the space off. I feared that he would pass away behind the desk.

In the final days, he spent a lot of time lying under the dining room table which it was quiet and somewhat isolated from day-to-day activities.

Their Body Temperature is Lower

Your cat’s body temperature will begin to decrease as the body weakens and slows down. Their normal temperature is between 100 – 102.5. Your cat’s temperature can be taken with a rectal thermometer. It is easy to do yourself or you can have it done by your vet. If your cat’s paws have cool pads, this may be an indicator their body temperature is decreasing.

Boy’s Story – His whole life, Boy always had very warm ears. What I noticed most when he got sick was how his ears had gotten cool. They no longer had the warmth they once had.

They Are Weak and Lethargic

Not only does a dying cat sleep more and have less of an appetite, he may also be weak and lethargic during the times he is awake. He may have difficulty walking long distances without rest and his favorite activities are no longer appealing. You may find your cat’s legs are weaker than before and you may want to check with your vet to make sure your cat is not suffering or in pain.

Boy’s Story – This was the saddest part of Boy’s decline. It became difficult for him to jump up to his favorite places. And we could tell he was getting weaker. He did not have the fight in him he once had for getting his own way.

For a long time, we believed these changes in strength and muscle mass were due to him being a senior boy. But it soon became evident that there was more to it than that. He had been getting weaker over the last 3 months, but I would not consider him lethargic until the last 3 or 4 days.

How Can I Comfort a Dying Cat?

Dying is part of life. Even as humans, none of us get out of here alive. Just because that statement is true, it does not make going through the death of a cat any easier. For a minute, let’s look past our own emotions and look at a few things we can do to make our cats as comfortable as possible in their final days with us. Here are some things we did to make Boy comfortable during his final days with us.

  1. Worked with a vet – Once we realized Boy was not himself, we worked with a vet from the onset of his symptoms until the day he was euthanized. The vet clinic also took care of having his cremation. They returned his cremains to us along with other items we had purchased as part of the package. They were compassionate, caring, and experienced at helping pet owners through the grieving process.
  2. Set-up a warm bed in a quiet spot – Dying cats will seek warmth and quiet on their own. Providing it for them will avoid unnecessary stress.
  3. Clean the bedding – Make sure your cat’s bedding is cleaned often. Sick and dying cats have less control over their kidneys and bowels.
  4. Help your cat to the litter box – Cats do not like to do their business anywhere but the litter box. Walking to the box and getting in can take a lot of energy for a weak cat. Helping him can conserve his energy and reduce stress.
  5. Monitor your cat’s pain – One of the worst things for a beloved pet would be to die in agony. Be aware of what he is going through. Certain terminal conditions are painful and others not as much.
  6. Be open to humane euthanasia – We would love to keep our pets forever, but unfortunately, that will not happen. This is a decision that we made as a family for Boy along with our vet. It did not make sense to continue watching his life slip away minute by minute when there was no quality left.

Boy’s Story

I have talked about Boy (Bobo) throughout this article. Boy went to the vet twice a year for regular checkups that included teeth cleaning. He had been to the vet recently and the vet had given him a clean bill of health for a 13 ½-year-old cat. He had lost a little bit of weight and you could feel his bones a little more, but these were things you would expect to find in a senior cat.

Within 30 days of his vet visit, he seemed to be losing a little more weight. He was eating a little bit less, but he still ate a lot. He was getting “bonier” and weaker than his sister (Pixie) and he had always been the strong one. I took him to the vet and a few hours later I got the news.

His organs were all still in good shape, but his white blood cell count was high indicating he was fighting something. The vet had removed fluid from his belly and informed me he most likely had cancer. She recommended he have an ultrasound. His health was declining and the next day we took him to Blue Pearl Animal Hospital.

Since it was during the height of Covid, we sat in our car as medical professionals came out and took our beloved Boy into the hospital for tests. As we waited, we gave approvals and paid large sums of money from our cellphones in the parking lot of the hospital. Three hours later he was returned to us and we took him home to keep him comfortable. We fed him his favorite foods and tried to keep him comfortable and close to his litter box.

The next day we made the very painful decision to let him become a Pet Angel and be with his mother Mary who had left us 11 months previously. We took him to Banfield Pet Hospital. They were there when he was born and it only seemed fitting they would be the ones to help end his suffering. Boy (Bobo) left us on October 16, 2020…R.I.P. Boy.

You may wonder if you can always see that your cat is coming to the end of her life. The answer to that would be “no”. Many senior cats can die from illnesses such as cancer and organ failure and you can normally see their decline in health over weeks or months. But it does not always happen that way. See how it happened with Mary.

Mary’s Story

You don’t always see death coming in cats. Mary was a long-haired Main Coon. We rescued her out of a tree that she had been chased up by a dog. It was obvious she needed a family because she was emaciated. We brought her home and gave her a can of tuna. Ten days later she “gifted” us with two kittens. We named them Boy and Pixie and now we had 3 cats.

Fast forward 12 ½ years. Mary was now 13 ½. It was Friday night at about 6 PM and Mary was napping on the living room floor. I remember thinking how cute she looked. At 8 PM, I put out 3 bowls of food as I had done for many years. Usually, by dinner time, they were quite hungry and had been terrorizing me for the previous hour.

This night was different. Boy and Pixie just stood there looking at me but did not dive into the food. Then I realized Mary was not with them. The panic passed through me in waves. I just knew something was wrong because nothing kept Boy from food. I walked over to the spot where I had seen Mary sleeping a few hours earlier.

There she was lying on the floor, and she had passed away. There was no indication she was having any medical issues. She had been given a clean bill of health in the last 30 days. Earlier that afternoon, she had been running around the house and I had scolded her for sharpening her claws on my Vera Bradley backpack. About 6 hours later she was deceased and we never saw it coming…R.I.P. Mary.

Final Thoughts

Taking care of a sick or dying cat will probably be one of the most emotional events of your life, but it is part of being a pet owner. I am happy to say that I gave each one of my cats the best life I could even in the final days. You can do the same by following the tips above for recognizing the end-of-life signs and working with your vet to give your cat as much quality of life in his final days.