When your best feline friend is nearing the end of their life, you want their remaining days to be comfortable, peaceful, and reflective of the way they lived in better days. This time can be so difficult, and we feel your pain. We offer this information to support you as you think about ways to honor the role your cat has played in your life and the love and care you will be providing to see them through.
Knowing your cat is nearing the end of their life is an emotional time, and often we find ourselves grieving before our cat is actually gone. It’s okay to be sad, angry, or feel lost, but try to avoid completely detaching yourself from the situation in your grief.
Share your sadness with your cat, nestle your nose in their fur, and let them lick away your tears, but allow yourself to still experience all the moments of joy they bring you during their remaining time with you.
Palliative care is sometimes called hospice care or end-of-life care. The World Health Organization’s definition is:
"Palliative care is the active total care of patients with a life-limiting illness that is not responsive to curative treatment. Control of pain, of other symptoms, and of psychological, social and spiritual problems, is paramount. The goal of palliative care is achievement of the best quality of life for patients and their families."
Essentially, it involves the overall care — medical and emotional — we can provide cats with conditions that we can’t cure or treat and go on as long as needed, for days, months, and sometimes even years. It also recognizes the impact on human family members and promotes care sensitive to their needs and wishes. Palliative care almost always includes pain management medications but can also include:
While it’s often heartbreaking to think about our cat’s illness or advanced age, palliative care gives you options to keep your pet comfortable in their final days.
Often, palliative care is provided for:
Follow your veterinarian’s instructions on giving medication (if prescribed), diet, environment changes, and activity level. It’s important to talk to your veterinarian and your family about your cat’s disease, how it's expected to progress, and the best ways to assess your cat’s quality of life. In addition, you may want to consider working with a veterinarian who has Animal Hospice and Palliative Care certification. The International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) provides a provider search on their website.
You may find it helpful to keep track of your cat’s activity, appetite, litter box usage, and overall comfort each day so that you can quickly notice if their condition, mood, or quality of life is declining.
Since quality of life can vary with each individual pet, there are numerous factors to consider, and they are different for each pet and their family. There is a series of tools that can be used to help you sort through these factors and assess your pet’s quality of life. The following tools can be used together or independently to help you with this process:
If your cat is taking multiple medications, a pill dispenser can come in handy. Be sure to keep medications out of reach of any pets or children in your home.
Because your cat doesn’t feel well, you may want to provide them a quieter, safer area of your home (away from small children and other pets). Ensure their spot is a comfortable place with their favorite bed and their litter box, food, and water close by – avoid making them go up and down stairs if you can.
Because cats are heavily influenced by smells, you may need to warm up their food to make it extra smelly (but not too hot, though) or try a few varieties your veterinarian recommended to get them to eat. Be sure to clean their food and water bowls at least daily to remove any lingering smells, gunk, or bacteria. And if they love treats, feel free to pamper them.
Consider a low-entry litter box (like the Kitty GoHere senior litter box) and potentially adding another box to make it easy for your cat to a) get to the box quickly and b) get into the box more easily. Scoop the box every day to ensure they always have a clean place to go. Of course, one of the best things you can give your cat during this time is your love and attention. Carry on with play, enrichment, and new things just like you would if they were well. Have gentle play sessions if your cat has the energy for it. Provide physical touch, such as gentle petting or massage, if your cat enjoys these. Talk to your cat and be present in the moment with them.
Your cat should be more comfortable within a few days of starting palliative care, particularly for pain management. While it can be common for cats to be sleepier when on pain medications, this can be a temporary adjustment period. Your cat should be eating, drinking, using the litter box normally, and more receptive to petting and attention. They may be able to move with greater mobility, particularly after the first several days.
The quality of life tools listed above will help you assess when things are getting worse. In general, if your cat is not eating or drinking, having difficulty standing, not able to use the litter box, or if they are vomiting or having diarrhea, reach out to your veterinarian to make them aware of these signs. It is possible that medication adjustments can be made or other therapy recommended to help your cat be more comfortable.
Unfortunately, eventually, all palliative care options are not enough. You and your family may need to make some decisions about your cat’s quality of life and how to let them go with humane euthanasia peacefully. If you haven’t had to make this decision before, ask your veterinarian to explain the process and discuss the options available so that you can be prepared when the time comes.
The following video may help. Dr. Dani McVety discusses quality of life and explains the compassion of euthanasia:
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