Care for a Dying Cat and signs of pain, Caring for your dying cat is hard, perhaps more on the emotional level than actually providing for her daily needs. In her last weeks, she might experience good days and bad ones. When the latter outweigh the former, it’s time to say goodbye. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision. The old saying remains true: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
Typically when cats become terminally ill, the lose interest in food. Your cat might take nourishment if you coax him or force-feed her. If she won’t eat her regular food, try baby food, boiled chicken cut into small pieces or put through a blender, or chicken broth. If your cat is incontinent, keep soft, washable pads under her, and clean her with warm water. If her mobility is limited, gently reposition her regularly to prevent pressure sores. Brush her gently every day. Not only is this comforting, but it can help stop matting in cats who no longer groom themselves.
When is hospice care needed?
Hospice care is needed when a cure is no longer possible for a disease, or where a choice is made to discontinue treatment, these can include:
- When the cat and/or the caregiver are unable to cope with the management of a disease (for example, a cat strongly resents receiving medical treatments such as injections or pills)
- Diseases or conditions which severely impact the quality of life, such as advanced arthritis
- At the end of a terminal illness such as cancer
- A decision is made not to proceed with curative treatment for a disease or injury
- After a diagnosis of a chronic disease such as liver or kidney disease
- A decision is made not to pursue treatment for a life-threatening disease
A Quiet Place
Keep your cat in a quiet, warm place, away from household traffic, other pets, and kids. Avoid playing loud music in your house — soft, gentle music is fine. Provide your pet with a comfortable bed and close access to a litter box. While the cat’s surroundings should be quiet, they shouldn’t be dark. Natural light is fine during daytime; keep a low-level light on nearby at night. Spend time petting and comforting your cat. You and other family members should use a soft, soothing tone of voice when with the cat.
You and your vet must constantly assess your cat’s pain level. Depending on the disease, your cat might experience little or moderate pain as her body begins shutting down, or she could suffer severely. Your vet can provide appropriate pain medication, but you might have to pill your cat a few times daily. Behavioral changes can indicate the presence of pain, even in a medicated cat. Ask your vet about complementary pain therapies such as massage or acupuncture.
If your cat is no longer eating, has breathing issues, or shows signs of pain even with medication, it’s probably time to let her go. Listen to your vet. Some vets will come to your home and put your cat to sleep so the cat doesn’t endure the stress of a car ride. If your vet doesn’t offer that option, it’s likely you can schedule euthanasia late in the day, the usual time practices conduct this service. You can choose whether to stay with your pet. The vet will arrange for cremation or burial services. In many places you can choose to take your cat’s body home for burial. Your vet can also provide you with information on pet bereavement counseling. The counselors understand that she wasn’t “just a cat” but was an important and beloved member of your family.
What does hospice care involve?
The goal of hospice or palliative care is to maximise the cat’s comfort and minimise suffering:
- Nutritional and fluid support
- Meet other necessary needs
- Manage pain and symptoms
- Provide comfort
- During this period, it is important to work closely with the veterinarian who can prescribe medications where necessary to relieve discomfort and suffering.
The veterinarian will discuss with you the disease and the expected outcome as well as formulate a treatment plan. The treatment plan will cover all aspects of medical care the cat will require, including medications, nutrition and regular veterinary appointments to monitor the cat.
Cats are hardwired to hide signs of pain and discomfort, and the caregiver must learn to recognise signs of pain.
- Withdrawal from family
- Changes in personality
- Neglecting to groom
- Hunched over appearance
- Loss of appetite
- Aggression when touched
There are several options the veterinarian can recommend to relieve pain.
- A transdermal patch which provides continuous pain relief
- Oral tablets
Never administer human painkillers such as Ibuprofen, Aspirin, or Tylenol/Paracetamol to a cat. Cats lack the necessary liver enzyme to process these drugs and can be fatal if ingested even in small amounts.
The terminally ill cat can face a range of symptoms such as seizures, nausea, vomiting, pain (listed above). It is up to the caregiver to relay symptoms to the veterinarian who can prescribe the right medication to make the cat more comfortable.
Symptoms of nausea can include lip-smacking, loss of appetite, and drooling.
The nutritional requirements of a cat who is near the end of life are going to differ from a healthy kitten or adult cat. Loss of appetite is common side-effects of pain and nausea (which we will cover below).
Ensure the cat receives adequate nutrients, and in some cases, prescription diets to help manage or slow down the progress of a condition.
Hand or syringe feeding carefully warmed foods such as cooked chicken breast or soft canned food can sometimes help. Your cat’s veterinarian can prescribe a high-nutrition food such as Hills a/d. Or, add tasty treats to the top of the cat’s food such as a small sample of tuna, or a gourmet cat gravy such as Dine Creamy Treats (available in sachets from your supermarket).
If you are still struggling to get adequate nutrition into your cat, speak to your cat’s veterinarian. They can recommend a high-calorie gel such as Nutrigel and/or appetite stimulants, or insert a feeding tube if all of the above methods fail.
At the very end, the cat will stop eating and drinking completely; this is normal as the cat’s body is shutting down. Do not force the cat to eat, as this can cause an already gravely ill cat to choke.
Dehydration is a common side effect of many life-ending diseases as well as a reduction in thirst due to feeling unwell and underlying conditions such as kidney disease which affect the ability of the kidneys to concentrate urine. Signs of dehydration include poor skin tenting, dull eyes, and tacky gums. The veterinarian can teach you how to check for signs of dehydration by lifting the skin at the back of the neck to see how fast it springs back.
If the cat is dehydrated, it will be necessary to administer fluids under the cat’s skin at the back of the neck one to two times a day. This is less daunting than it sounds.
Make adaptations and provide physical comfort:
Set up an area for the cat; it should be close to human interaction, but not a high-traffic area. A bedroom is an ideal place. Keep the bed, litter trays, food, and water bowls nearby. If the cat is well enough, regularly put the cat in his or her litter tray and then place back in their bed. I have found all of my cats have remained mobile right up until the end, but those last few days, they were unable to move more than a few feet. Do not expect a cat in the final stages to have to navigate stairs or travel long distances for food, water, or to go to the toilet.
If the cat has stopped grooming, gently brush the coat to prevent mats. This is especially important in longhaired breeds.
Pressure sores can develop in cats with limited mobility, provide a soft bed with plenty of padding.
A gravely ill cat will need to be kept in an environment in which the ambient temperature is easy to regulate (with a heater or air conditioner), as seriously ill cats are not efficient at regulating their body temperature, nor can they move to a warmer or cooler area.
Cleaning up after the cat:
Fecal and urinary incontinence are common towards the end. Regularly check the cat for signs of wetness and clean immediately to prevent urine or fecal scalding. Nobody wants to lie in their own mess, and that includes a terminally ill cat.
If an accident does occur, clean the area with an unscented baby wipe or a warm, damp cloth to avoid urine or fecal scalding which can lead to serious pain and infection. When cleaning the anal area, wipe away from the genitals to avoid transferring bacteria to the genitals. Watch for signs of urine scalding, with symptoms of redness, raw skin, and pain in the area.
Place plastic sheeting between the bed and a blanket, or a puppy training pad on top of the blanket to stop the bed from becoming soiled.
Provide emotional comfort:
Every cat is different in the level of comfort they want. Some clingy cats seek out solitude towards the end; other cats want and need the comfort of their human companions. Let the cat lead the way. Keep a close eye on cats who want solitude without being intrusive. For the cat who wants to be near people, let them.
- End of life hospice care for cats
- What is hospice care?
- When is hospice care needed?
- What does hospice care involve?
- Can the cat be around other household pets?
- Signs a cat is in the active phase of dying
- Care for the caregiver
- When to euthanise