When Is It The Right Time To Euthanize A Cat?

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When is it the right time to euthanize a cat? Deciding when to let a beloved cat go is probably the most difficult decision cat owners have to make. To say that the decision for euthanasia is emotionally loaded, fraught with confusion, and difficult to make with logic is an understatement.

Factors To Consider When Deciding When To Euthanize A Cat

There are many factors to consider, and you may already be too emotional about the situation to think clearly. Let’s break down the most important issues to consider as you go into this decision-making process.

In general, people who don’t mindfully consider the question of euthanasia in advance often wait too long, keeping their loved one longer than they should because they can’t bear to part with their friend. This can cause an elderly cat or a cat with terminal disease to endure suffering in their final moments that could have been avoided.

In these cases, people often experience extreme guilt and sorrow for causing their friend to suffer. The mental and emotional anguish of waiting too long can be acute.

Perhaps you believe that a natural death is preferable to euthanasia. However, cats that experience natural death often experience significant suffering that could have been avoided with humane euthanasia, which is pain-free. When you can, it is always best to end the needless suffering of our pets, not prolong it for selfish reasons or out of ignorance.

Sometimes, the best choice for your cat is humane euthanasia, but how do you know when?

While the best way to make end-of-life decisions for your cat is in partnership with a veterinarian you trust, there are several quality-of-life factors that you can use to help you decide when it is time to say goodbye.

Signs That It Might Be The Right Time For Euthanasia

Loss of appetite

There are several indicators that it’s the right time to start considering euthanasia, including loss of appetite, inability to move without pain, severe weight loss, and the inability to control elimination (urinating or defecating uncontrollably).

Loss Of Appetite

In human hospice, a patient’s desire and ability to eat is considered an important factor to measure their quality of life. Even though some cats will never lose their desire for food, many elderly, frail cats, or cats with terminal disease or pain will stop eating.

Refusing to eat can be an indication that it is time to consider euthanasia, especially in conjunction with terminal disease, if appetite stimulants have already been tried and aren’t helping if multiple types of foods have been offered, and/or the cat is losing weight.

Ability To Move Without Pain

Arthritis is extremely common in older cats. Signs of pain related to arthritis can include things like such as refusing to jump up on a counter or walk up and down stairs.

Signs of arthritis in cats can also can seem unrelated to joint pain, like not grooming, increased aggression when painful areas are touched, or inappropriately urinating and/or defecating outside the litterbox because the cat is too painful to get in and out of the box.

Cats can experience pain from conditions other than arthritis. Bladder inflammation due to stress, gut pain, and dental pain are all common sources of pain in cats.

The good news is that most of these conditions can be successfully treated, and respond well to pain medication, however, if you have tried pain medication or other therapies without success, or if your cat’s condition is severe or terminal, then it may be time put your cat down.

Inability To Control Elimination

Urinary incontinence is the inability to control urination. This can happen because of weakened urethral sphincter muscles, or secondary to other conditions, like diabetes or kidney disease. Bowel incontinence is the inability to control bowels, and results in fecal incontinence.

Both are messy, annoying, and unsanitary conditions that decrease the wellbeing of everybody in the household. Furthermore, incontinence can lead to bedsores and worse in cats who lie in urine or feces because they can’t move or won’t move.

If a cat has untreatable urinary or fecal incontinence that is unmanageable or in conjunction with other terminal disease, then it may be time to consider euthanasia.

Uncontrolled And Severe Weight Loss

Uncontrolled weight loss sign it's time for euthanasia

If your cat is losing weight severely and uncontrollably, it may be a sign that it’s time to consider euthanasia.

Many things, including cancer, kidney disease, hormonal disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions can cause weight loss. Severe weight loss in the face of a terminal condition is a clue that you may need to start thinking about euthanasia.

If your cat is happy, interacting with you, and still eating, then it is likely that your cat has a good quality of life and you won’t need to address the issue today, but at some point in the near future, before your pet’s quality of life starts declining.

Uncontrolled Vomiting Or Diarrhea

Vomiting is a common problem in cats, so common, in fact, that some cat guardians think that it is normal for a cat to vomit daily. Let’s get one thing straight: daily vomiting means your cat feels sick, and should never be considered ‘normal’.

Inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal cancer, and hormonal conditions such as hyperthyroidism can cause chronic vomiting and diarrhea. If your cat has chronic vomiting and diarrhea that does not respond to treatment, it may be time to talk to your veterinarian about euthanasia.

End-Stage Kidney Failure

Kidney disease is a common problem seen in older cats. While many cats respond well to treatment and can live happily for years with kidney disease, some cats get very sick with kidney disease. Signs of advanced kidney disease include drinking a lot, peeing a lot or not peeing at all, vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, blindness from retinal detachment due to high blood pressure, mental depression, and hiding.

Read More: Kidney Failure in Cats: Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment

If you have a cat with advanced kidney disease who has stopped responding to therapy, doesn’t seem happy, has lost a severe amount of weight, or is not eating, then it is time to talk to your veterinarian about end-of-life care.

Heart Failure

The signs of heart failure can be subtle in cats, and include sleeping more, hiding, loss of appetite, unkempt fur, open mouth breathing, pale or white gums, and rarely, coughing.

Heart failure in cats tends to cause fluid build-up in the lungs. This causes difficulty breathing and can cause severe distress to a cat. If your cat has progressive heart disease that has stopped responding to treatment, then humane euthanasia is likely indicated to alleviate suffering.

Other Diseases

Other diseases that are progressive, untreatable, or terminal, such as cancer, blood disorders, feline dementia, severe skin disorders, or infectious diseases, like feline AIDS, leukemia, or feline infectious peritonitis are all conditions where the pet parent is going to have to make a decision to euthanize at some point.

In all these decisions, it is always better to make the decision earlier when a pet is still having some good days, then wait too late and cause the pet to suffer and decline. When in doubt on what is the best decision, ask your veterinarian for their opinion.

Critical Care Decisions

Sometimes, accidents or emergencies happen, leaving you little time to think or make decisions about your cat’s life. These can be the hardest because they are so unexpected.

Urinary blockage in a male cat, being hit by a car, abscesses, and poisonings are some of the many reasons why you might end up in an emergency clinic with your cat.

Sometimes, your cat may have a grave prognosis with or without treatment, or you may not be able to financial shoulder the burden of an unexpected emergency vet bill.

In these cases, if you are counseled to choose euthanasia to end suffering, it feels devastating, but you are still making the best choice for your cat that you can in the moment, and it is important to not beat yourself up.

The AVMA is a good resource for financial assistance with vet bills.

In general, when a pet has more bad days than good days, then it is time to think about saying goodbye.

Cat sniffing flowers

Tracking your cat’s good and bad days is the best way to determine whether or not it’s the right time to consider euthanasia.

You can use a paper calendar and put a smiley face on good days, and a sad face in a different color on bad days to help you keep track. Lap of Love, a mobile veterinary service that provides end of life care has several good quality of life assessment tools on their website that you can download and print out to use.

If your cat is suffering and there is no cure or way to mitigate suffering, then it is time to say goodbye to your furry family member. If you aren’t sure, a veterinarian is your best resource. If you need some more time, talk with your veterinarian about pain management and palliative care: there are many options available to help buy a precious, pain-free period of time with your beloved pet. Ultimately, the decision to end a cat’s life is a very personal one that only you can make. You know your cat better than anyone else, so trust your gut decision, get support, and know that in the end, you honored your cat with a painless, peaceful passing.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you know when it's the right time to euthanize your pet?

It varies for every pet and is a personal decision. When your pet is doing well, what does a good day look like? What does your pet do? How do you feel? What does a bad day look like for your pet and for you? In general, if your pet is having more bad days than good days, then it is time to talk to your veterinarian about euthanasia or other interventions.

Do cats suffer when they are put to sleep?

In general, euthanasia is a very peaceful, pain-free experience. Your cat may feel a slight poke when pain medication and sedatives are administered with a needle, but after that, all pain is controlled, and most cats pass very peacefully and pain-free.

Is it better to let a cat die naturally?

Dying naturally can involve a lot of unnecessary suffering and pain. If your cat is dying or suffering and there are no treatments available, choosing humane euthanasia is a worthy way to keep your pet from continued suffering.

About Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com.

12 thoughts on “When Is It The Right Time To Euthanize A Cat?

  1. Lisa Hardwick

    Someone dropped off two kittens… one if the kittens eyes look terrible.. they are cery afraid of people, my husband tries to give it medicine but you cant get them to come to you.. not sure what to fo

    1. Mallory Crusta

      Hi Lisa, it would be a good idea to take both of the kittens to a veterinarian. If you’re unable to pick up the kittens, I would recommend placing some food or treats into a carrier and waiting for one or both of them to enter it so that you can transport them. Hope you’re able to get some answers soon!

  2. Sandy

    My cat is 12 she is losing a lot of weight not easting very well seems to poop often sleeps a lot., and is vomiting every day some times the food but usually the water.

  3. Frank

    I just want to say after reading your article I know I did the right thing for my cat Stewie who was put to sleep last Sunday August 22. He was a 15 1/2 year old Maine Coon and he had a lot of the symptoms metioned. He had lost weight and was down to 9 pounds (he was 18 pounds in his prime). His appetite had declined steadily for the last few months. I would make hime food just to try to get him to eat, and after a while he would hardly touch anything except cat treats or chicken. I knew the last 5-6 days before that this was it. He wasn’t sleeping in his usual spots, he was moving around slowly and navigating stairs very slowly and cautiously. Unfortunately he was not good with vet visits and I though it would do more damage than good. As he got older it would take him days to recover from the trauma of vet visits, he would get sent home with naughty notes because he was a danger to himself and others because he was so aggressive towards the vet. I would give him 200mg of Gabapentin a couple hours prior to a visit and he would still try to murder the vet staff, they hard a really hard time even getting him anesthetized to examine him, and he would growl while under anesthesia. Taking him in to get put to sleep was the hardest thing I ever did. Even though he was weak and frail, he still put up a fight so I knew he was still Stewie. I could just tell he was not happy anymore and that he was in pain and suffering because he started having more bad days than good days and his body language told me everything I needed to know. I have felt very guilty wondering if i did the right thing, I know nooow that I did what was best for hime, and that gives me some relief. We gave him a wonderful like, and he made our lives better too. I didn’t even like cats when my wife told me she wanted to get a cat. He was left in a box on the doorstep of a vet back in 2006 and was the only kitten left alive. He was hand raised and we took him in when he was 10 weeks old. He become my best buddy, he was a very loving and affectionate cat, I miss him dearly.

    1. Mary

      Thank you, Frank for sharing your story. I had a cat put to sleep a while ago and the vet said ‘I have never seen a cat more ready to go’ which I thought afterwards was probably what he said to everyone. The decision is so hard. I am here today because I have to make this painful decision with another cat who kept me company all through the last 11 years and especially through the pandemic. If only cats never died. You gave Stewie a good life and didn’t let him suffer.

    2. Gloria

      Thank you Frank for sharing insight into the life of Stewie. I too have a rescue Maine Coon about 17 years old. He might have been a year old when I adopted him. I’m the only one he truly likes. He hisses and growls at others in my visiting family but he certainly will come to the rescue of his two female companions if he hears they’re in danger. He never backs down from a dog or anyone for that matter. Great breeds aren’t they!
      My boy, Krispie now has chronic renal disease and I know it’s time, especially after reading your post and the article here. May God bless the pets and those that love them and care for them. It’s certainly heartbreaking as I had to make the same decision one month ago for my beloved husky companion, Nikko. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

  4. Jerry Szeluga

    My 18 year old tabby has lymphoma. She has been treated with steroids’ since June and has lost allot of weight, although weight loss has seemed to stabilize. We give appetite stimulants and my wife is constantly offering her different kinds of food, she mainly licks the broth from a wet meal. Dr now has me give her a B2 shot every week. Seems to give her constipation for a few days then lots of diarrhea. She is peeing all over the house and some of her diarrhea is outside of her litter box. She no longer wants to be with anyone very much anymore. We can barely leave the house as we are afraid of the mess we’ll return to or miss an opportunity if she wants to eat. Today she pee’d twice behind the TV on all the wires. She is also doing weird things that she never did before like wanting to sit in the shower or tub or today jumped into the kitchen sink. She doesn’t appear to be in pain but we can’t tell for sure. She is definitely not the same cat as she has no interest in snuggling and having her neck scratched. I know my wife will have great difficultly putting her down. I’m wondering if it’s getting close to the right time. Perhaps I’m just have difficulty dealing with the mess and restrictions we have not feeling comfortable leaving her for any amount of time, even with adult sons living at home. Is it getting close to the time to do something?

    1. Mallory Crusta

      Hello Jerry, thanks for reaching out. Between the uncontrolled elimination, significant reduction of interest in food, and loss of interest in snuggling and having her neck scratched, I do think it sounds like your cat is getting close to a point where it would be considered appropriate to put her down. However, there is no objective green light on this. Instead, it’s a conversation for you and your wife to have. It sounds like your wife has more of an emotional investment, so if you haven’t already, I believe it would be helpful for both of you to have a serious discussion of how much further your cat’s health would have to decline before you’d make this decision.

  5. Tonja

    To Frank, I am very sorry for the loss of your Stewie. I am so thankful for your story as my boy is very sick too and really stresses out at the vet. I think for me the hardest part is knowing he still has it in him to fight.

    My heart says I can’t do it but I know I have to sooner than later. I cancelled last week but am trying to find the strength.
    My boy is 20. I got him at about 2 months. His highest weight was only about 6 lbs. Then 2 weeks ago he was down to 4 lbs. I noticed his appetite decreasing along with not grooming, clumps of hair coming out and stretching his neck to drink water. He’s been on RX food for 13 years for crystals, on RX for hyperthyroidism for about 6 years and now he’s been given an RX for kidney disease and pain. I have NEVER been able to give him a pill. I crush the thyroid pill up and mix it with 1/4 teaspoon of canned tuna juice twice a day. However the kidney pill is a fail. He fights me tooth and nail literally and I am so afraid of hurting him. The pain medicine is a little easier but he’s learned to hang his head and not swallow it. They prescribed 3 mg and he was out for 27 hours.
    I only give him 2mg every other day or so because he can’t poo. I told the vet he no longer gets in the windows, comes into the other rooms, gets on his heater (cable box) or can see good enough to play. Everything scares him and he clings to me like glue when I am home. Thankfully, I work from home all but 2 days a week. I was brushing him really easy but he is so thin he doesn’t enjoy it either. He is still using his litter box to pee but he poo’s beside his box and has for several years. I think it’s constipation from the thyroid meds. I could hear him screaming 2 weeks ago when I took him in for bloodwork and I really wish they would have made the decision then. I feel like I am torturing him trying another medication at his age. I love him so much. I want someone to tell me it’s time so I don’t have to live with the guilt. At this point, I can’t eat much either. Little fella still tells me when it’s time to go to sleep and he sleeps on my pillow at night. He comes up to my face to lick me and I can tell it hurts to do that and the odor is really bad. The vet said that is part of the kidney disease but I just don’t know.
    Any input will be greatly appreciated and Thank You for taking the time to read this.

    1. Mallory Crusta

      Hi Tonja, my heart goes out to you—it sounds like you are suffering terribly over your boy’s illness and the worry over whether or not it’s time to have him euthanized. It seems you’re beating yourself up over every aspect of this, which is understandable but unnecessary. You don’t have to do anything until you’re ready, even if that time never comes. There is no pressure, and no decision will make you any less an ethical person. I know you’re looking for that final word from someone else, but unfortunately, I can’t give you that answer. It’s up to you. You can seek advice from others—perhaps you can ask your veterinarian explicitly whether or not it’s a good idea or consult with someone who knows both you and your cat—but ultimately, this is your choice. Take some time to visualize how you’ll feel if you decide to have your cat euthanized this week versus how you’ll feel if you don’t. Don’t focus on the moment it happens. Focus on your own feelings in the weeks and months afterward. Do you anticipate feeling that it was too soon? Or will you look back and feel sadness but a knowing that it was the right time? Use your gut feelings in this visualization as your guide. I also want to remind you that there are alternatives to traditional euthanasia at the vet. You can opt for home euthanasia, which should be less stressful for both you and your cat. Considering this option instead may help to make the decision a little bit easier.
      I hope you’re able to find some peace soon, and please do take care of yourself.

      1. Gloria

        Dearest Tonja,
        I agree with the comments above and urge you to talk to your vet about how the process for putting your companion down works. Find a vet that says they have a two step process. First a shot into the muscle that will relax him and allow him to sleep. Not painful. Then when you’re ready they will administer the drugs for euthanasia, which he won’t feel at all. This is the only way you will know that he is not suffering and having the pain he is enduring now. Cats are strong and will mask their pain but as their other organs get weak they will become more susceptible for blood clots or heart attacks. I know you don’t want to give him up but you don’t want hime to face this unexpected stress and pain that could come. I was fortunate to find a patient, caring Dr that goes the extra for the pet and the owner. Find the right one. Your healing will come in time. I’ll be pray for you.


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