Our cats are living longer than they ever used to. Thanks to modern medicine and good nutrition, the life expectancy of an average moggie is now 14 years. A significant number of cats will reach their late teens or even early twenties. This is obviously great news for cats and their owners, but sadly it also means that we have to make more complicated medical decisions on behalf of our pets.
Advances in medicine mean that there are more and more illnesses that vets can treat, but we may not always be able to cure them completely. As pet owners, this means we may find ourselves in the terrible position of having to decide whether it is right for our cats to continue with treatment, or if it is in their best interests to let them go.
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Deciding not to continue with treatment is a heartbreaking decision to make. It can be difficult to know when the right time is. There are many different signs that our cats may be feeling worse and worse in themselves, so we’ll run through the most common ones here.
Eating – reduced appetite or no interest in food
This is probably obvious – in order to live well, our cats need to eat! A lack of interest in food can be one of the first signs that a cat is unwell. It is also a useful way to monitor how well your cat is coping with a long-term illness. They need to be taking in enough nutrients to keep them healthy and prevent them from losing weight.
If your cat is showing no interest in food, or only picking at a few bits here and there, this is a sign that they are not feeling well. They may be nauseous, or just generally feeling run down. But, either way, it means their quality of life is poor. If your cat is not eating consistently or is steadily losing weight, then these are signs it may be approaching time to take the decision and let them go.
Drinking – more or less than usual
Many illnesses in old cats will cause an increase in drinking, including kidney disease, diabetes, or an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). Any change in drinking is a warning sign that your cat may be unwell.
- Drinking more may mean that your cat has developed a new illness, or that one of their old illnesses has worsened
- Drinking less may mean your cat is not feeling well enough to drink, and is at risk of becoming dehydrated. This is particularly serious in cats with kidney disease, as it may cause the kidneys to become worse more quickly.
If your cat suddenly starts drinking a lot more, or a lot less, than they used to, this can mean something is seriously wrong. This will be affecting their quality of life, and can be one of the signs that the time to make a decision is near.
Toileting – outside of usual places
Cats are clean creatures. They hate making a mess, and generally will not toilet outside of their litterbox (or their favourite spot in the garden) unless something is wrong. An increasing number of “accidents” in the house often means that your cat is not feeling well, and is one of the signs that suggest we may need to act.
Pain – signs to look out for
Cats are really, really good at hiding pain, but there are some things you can look out for. Cats who are sore will want to move around less, and will often be less interested in interacting with you, or with other pets. They may sit in odd positions, particularly one where the back is hunched.
You may see signs of tension in their face, and their eyes may be pulled tight and appear partially closed. If this pain cannot be easily treated, then this may be another sign that you need to make a decision soon.
Play – no longer interested
Old cats still need to enjoy themselves! They may not run around as they used to, but will often still enjoy batting a toy around on the floor whilst lying on their side, or pawing at one in the air in front of them. If they are no longer able to enjoy themselves in this way, then this is yet another sign that their quality of life is worsening.
Interaction – withdrawing more
Cats might not be the most social of creatures, but they can still get a lot of pleasure from humans. Being stroked, snuggling up with us in the evenings, or just gently rubbing themselves against our legs. Cats who are feeling unwell will often become more withdrawn, and less keen on giving or receiving affection. This is usually a sign that they are not enjoying life as much as they used to. You may need to make a decision soon if this is the case.
Prospects For Improvement
All of these signs that we have been discussing are general symptoms of sickness in cats, but it does matter what is causing them. Some conditions are manageable – for example, arthritis might worsen over time, but there are additional medications that may then improve your cat’s quality of life again.
However, other conditions, like a malignant tumour or advanced heart disease, might only have limited treatment options available. If you know your cat has a life-limiting condition such as this which is getting worse, then you should discuss carefully with your vet whether any treatment is likely to improve their quality of life, and if so for how long. Even if there is treatment available, you should consider whether it is worth it from your cat’s point of view. You may need to consider if it is kinder to let them go rather than put them through it.
Making The Decision
The decision to have your cat put to sleep is never an easy one. If you’re unsure whether it is time, then do speak to your vet for advice. We have a lot of experience in helping with these kinds of dilemmas. It’s good to talk through things with family or friends, too, so you can have people to support you when the time comes.
You might want to discuss the practical arrangements in advance. This might include where you would like the euthanasia to take place and the arrangements for your cat’s body. Again, your vet will be able to let you know what the options are.
Whenever and wherever you have to make this choice, remember that is the last, best thing we can do for our cats. Let them go with love and dignity, so they do not suffer for one second more than we can avoid.
More posts in this series;
- How are cats euthanised and what should owners expect?
- End of life care for cats: knowing when the time is right
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