In the past, euthanasia was often the only option for cats with terminal illnesses. Today, hospice or palliative care is a very real alternative.

Hospice involves providing supportive care to cats in the final stages of their lives so that when the time comes, they can pass naturally and peacefully. The primary goal is to keep the cat comfortable and free of pain, with a focus on quality of life.

Palliative care should not be considered a last resort. It is not about dying, but rather, about finding ways to help the cat live comfortably with a terminal illness.

What does palliative care involve?

Comfort: Provide clean, soft bedding with easy access to food, litter boxes, favorite sleeping spots and interaction with family members. Handle ill and/or elderly cats gently because many terminal medical conditions create discomfort and pain.

Nutrition and Hydration: Sick cats may need encouragement to eat, and you may need to experiment with different foods. While a high-quality canned or raw diet is ideal, this is a time when your cat gets to eat anything she wants, so if she wants lots of treats, let her have it. Always have fresh water available.

Cleanliness: Ill felines may not be able to groom themselves. Assist your cat by gently brushing her. Keep her eyes, ears, the area around the mouth, rectum and genitalia clean if she can’t do it by herself anymore.

Pain Management: Cats are master at hiding pain. Watch your cat carefully for signs of discomfort – these may be subtle and can include hiding, avoiding contact with family members, or changes in sleeping positions. Cats only rarely vocalize when they’re in pain. Work with an integrative or holistic veterinarian to develop an appropriate pain control program for your cat.

Holistic Therapies: There are many non-invasive, gentle holistic therapies that can provide relief to terminally ill cats. Energy therapies such as Reiki, Healing Touch, Tellington Touch and others can be particularly effective.

A terminal illness in your cat doesn’t have to mean euthanasia. With hospice care, it can become a time of bonding and transformation, during which you and your cat can spend hours of precious, peaceful quality time together.

A time for peace and bonding

Despite the emotional and practical challenges hospice care presents, it can also be a time of great peace and increased bonding between cat and human. “There is no deeper communication than there is with a living being as it reaches the end of its path here, says Bernadette Kazmarski, who for the past 20 years has been providing hospice care for each of her cats when they’ve reached the end of their lives. “After a couple of decades I thought I was as close to my cats as I could be, but the closeness went ever deeper through giving palliative treatments, seeing the gratitude in their eyes, and being able to keep them feeling well enough until they were ready to let go.”

“Getting over my fear of hurting a cat never goes away, even after multiple hospice instances, especially as I’m not a master of anatomy or disease,” Bernadette adds.She found that having a caring veterinarian guide her through the process was invaluable.

Veterinarian Dr Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love International (a network of vets whose goal is to empower every owner to care for their geriatric animals) and a hospice veterinarian in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, offers a view of hospice care from a doctor’s perspective.

“I never thought I would find hospice rewarding… until I started doing it every day,” says Gardner. “I am able to help pet parents during the most difficult yet precious time with their pets.” She knows personally what people go through when their furry loved ones get old or sick. “I’ve lost many myself, and each one is a huge loss. As a hospice veterinarian, I am able to provide families a sense of hope when most feel so helpless.”

This article was first published in the February/March 2016 issue of Animal Wellness Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

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12 Comments on Hospice Care for Cats

  1. I’m experiencing this now, and I didn’t even realize it! My boy, age 11, has a mass in his lung, and has lost more than half of his body weight. He feels like a skeleton with fur! But he thrives, he purrs, he seeks me out, he cuddles with me…and the past two days has increased his food intake!!!

    I have instinctively been doing all that is suggested in this article…my bond with him is strong. My two girls are compassionate with him as well. The dog is, well, a dog. LOL. But he’s a cuddle bug too.

    Thank you for this article. It relieves me to know my instincts are correct.

  2. These are all good suggestions, not only for terminal cats, but for older cats who are starting to show (and feel) their age.
    I would ask cat guardians to examine, deeply, their motives for keeping their cat alive. Is it because the cat still has quality-of-life, or because their owner just doesn’t want to let go? I’ve been there. After several days of syringe-feeding and fluid treatments, which kept my cat alive, I realized I had to let go & choose euthanasia. My cat, sweet to the end, was starting to fear me, wondering what I was going to do to her next. She was tired of being messed with and was ready to go, and I wasn’t willing to watch her deteriorate into a helpless and pitiful creature.

  3. Ingrid, this is probably my favourite article of all the wonderful stuff you’ve written. I found the same with my beloved Moofy – she lived happily with terminal cancer for almost 2 years, and after that intense bonding and care, the loss of her was comparable to losing a human member of my family. You’ve addressed this sensitive topic with real grace. Thank you.

    • Liz, what a blessing for you & your Moofy to have 2 years of memories! My Indy lost 50% of his weight before he let me know he was tired of medical intervention & was ready to be at peace. It seems less than a year wasn’t enough, but I was I between jobs–who’d have thought that was the best situation?! You must be an awesome kitty mama!

      • CAThy, thanks for your kind words! Moof couldn’t have surgery so I researched everything on the internet to find alternatives and we had some wonderful experiences with natural treatments.

        I’m so sorry to hear about Indy, it is heartbreaking to watch them deteriorate in front of you, I know. It’s interesting you say Indy let you know when it was ‘time’ – I was anxious that I wouldn’t know when Moofy was ready, but she also made it very clear and we got the vet out to our home the same day.

        It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, but so important they don’t suffer for a moment longer than they need to.

  4. I did a lot of this in the months before Jewel made her way to the Rainbow Bridge. I’d like to explore more holistic approaches to treating pain in the future if Carmine or Milita ever need pain management. That’s one thing we just couldn’t seem to get – Jewel’s arthritis pain was intense, and I could see and feel it. We did everything we could to make her comfortable, but I know she still had some pain, which made me really sad. She was a strong and beautiful cat, and she let me know when she was ready to leave us. She taught me a lot about love. I miss her everyday, but I know I’ll see her again.

    It’s true that providing your kitty with palliative care deepens the bond you share. I hope that a lot of other cat owners will take the suggestions you offer in this article – they really are great ones.

    • People are always surprised when they hear about how hospice care can deepen the bond. I don’t think it’s something anyone can really understand unless they have experienced it.

      • Absolutely! Through my now 17 yr old Middy’s acute kidney failure 10 months ago, we spent a lot more time together–which he loved! Even though some of that time was IV fluids, meds, trips to the Vet’s. Even though he was very sick, he didn’t seem to give up, so we kept treating him. I love our Vet, but the first visit included ‘THE’ (dreaded) talk.. I said I was willing to scrape for funds & put everything into treating him, b/c I thought he still had a good QOL (quality of life). I didn’t regret it! She calls him my miracle kitty =^..^=. Even though he protests his meds & IV fluids, he acts as though he knows it helps him feel better, & he doesn’t hold it against me (especially when he wants his reward! 😉
        Maybe being a long time Pediatric nurse helps w/the medical treatments, but I am thankful for every day we have, from catnip to cuddles. This is a great article, Thx for sharing, Ingrid!

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