Signs a Cat Is Dying

Stephanie Howe, DVM
By Stephanie Howe, DVM on Feb. 27, 2023
senior man sitting on couch pets orange cat and has cell phone in the other hand

As pet parents, we all fear the loss of our beloved feline family members. While we may hope that our cats will age gracefully and die a natural death, most cats will ultimately pass from a chronic, debilitating, or terminal illness.

Thankfully, we have the option of providing hospice care and euthanasia to help relieve them of pain and suffering.

Here are some signs to watch for as cats near the time for palliative care and a decision of euthanasia.

Is My Cat Near Death? What Are the Signs That a Cat Is Dying?

The most obvious signs of illness are physical signs, such as:

You may also notice certain changes in your cat’s behavior, physical appearance, or hygiene as your cat declines:

  • A change in their normal wake/sleep cycles

  • Random vocalization

  • Abnormal grooming and hygiene habits

  • Body odor or bad breath

  • Glazed or dull look to the eyes

  • Abnormal breathing pattern or breathing with their mouth open

  • Hiding more

  • Abnormal behaviors like aggression

If your cat is showing some of these signs, have them evaluated immediately by your veterinarian. If a terminal disease is diagnosed, it may be ideal to work with your veterinarian to establish a hospice care or euthanasia plan for your pet.  

Evaluating Your Cat's Quality of Life

It is also important to monitor your cat’s quality of life as they age. Questions about a cat’s overall quality of life should include several considerations:

  1. Is your cat still eating and drinking?
  2. Are they still able to enjoy the same activities and interactions with their human and animal companions?
  3. Is your cat comfortable at home and able to move about and rest without experiencing pain?
  4. Are they having more good days than bad?

If the answer to these questions is no, then you may need to consider the next steps for your cat, including palliative and hospice care or euthanasia (either at home or in the clinic).

What Is the Cat Dying Process?

Euthanasia allows you to say goodbye to your pet before their quality of life becomes unacceptable or their pain becomes unbearable. Your veterinarian or hospice care team can help you to determine what options are best for your pet.

Euthanasia is generally a very peaceful way for your pet to pass on, in which they generally fall asleep and do not wake. Your veterinarian will administer medication to your pet to relax them, usually followed by a final injection.

The transition to death comes when the cat stops breathing and their heart stops beating.  After death, there may be some brief muscle twitching, a last deep exhale, and loss of bladder and bowel control as their muscles relax. This can be very troubling for pet parents to watch, because they may mistakenly believe their cat is still alive. Your veterinarian will listen to your cat's heart to ensure they have passed.

If your cat is passing unexpectedly and you are not able to reach your veterinarian, the final stage of dying can be very stressful for both your cat and you. Having a hospice plan in place can help prevent your cat from passing stressfully at home.

In the final stages of unmedicated death, a cat’s breathing may continue to falter, and cats may appear to be gasping for breath. Their body temperature will begin to fall, and their extremities may feel cooler to the touch. Cats are typically unable to rise and will typically show no interest in eating or drinking.

Do Cats Know When They Are Dying?

Cats seem to be aware of the concept of death and do understand when they are feeling ill, but it is hard to know if they understand the finality of their own passing. It is not uncommon for an ill cat to begin to hide as their time draws near, but this could be a symptom of their worsening illness and not a direct sign they know the end is coming.

Many cat parents find it surprising that cats will purr more when they are beginning to pass. This is not something we truly understand. Purring may be used as a form of communication, a sign of hunger, or even a calming mechanism, instead of only being a sign of contentment when a cat is happy.

What to Do if You Think Your Cat Is Dying

If you are concerned that your cat may be dying, it is very important to have them seen by a veterinarian immediately. One of the best gifts we can offer our pets is a peaceful passing when their time has come. If your cat is not eating, is extremely weak, is not getting up to use the litter box, is not drinking, or seems to be in pain, have them seen by a vet right away.

How to Comfort a Dying Cat

Keeping your cat comfortable during their final time is not always easy. At home, you can ensure they have access to a comfortable bed in a warm place. You may need to help your cat maintain their cleanliness by brushing and promptly removing and cleaning any messes. Keep your cat in a calm and peaceful environment free from rambunctious pets, kids, or other disruptions.

Your cat may prefer to spend their time quietly curled up on their own, or they may want to snuggle up close with family. You know your cat best. Most importantly, work with your palliative or hospice care team to ensure that your cat is kept as pain-free as possible.

Featured image:

Stephanie Howe, DVM


Stephanie Howe, DVM


Dr. Stephanie Howe graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, after receiving a Bachelor of Science...

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