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Why Do Cats Isolate Themselves To Die?

It is important to understand our pet’s behaviors. If we do not, we might miss huge signs of illness. Even signs of death.

Cats are particularly good at hiding their pain and suffering from us. Where a dog might have something stuck in its paw and will seek assistance from their trusted human, a cat will do everything it can to fix the problem on their own and likely go into hiding during the process.

A cat’s seeming independence shines through even at the end. As most humans can relate, felines only like the limelight when they feel their best. 

However, this instinctual isolation does not mean they want to be alone. If we pay close attention to our pet’s behavior such as this, we should be able to provide them with the space and quiet they need, as well as care and love. 

But why do cats isolate themselves to die? There is no one clear answer except, in a nutshell, instinct.

This instinct comes from the need to hide weakness from predators. Though we know we are not predators of our pets, cats still prefer to keep their pain hidden. It is our responsibility to notice signs of distress and help them.

3 Reasons why cats isolate to die

#1 Instinct

It is instinctual and natural for most animals in the wild to isolate when sick. But it is not to “go off and die” as most people think, and it is surely not to spare our feelings. It is not a noble act in death, a common notion often perpetuated to make ourselves feel better.

If they do not withdraw into a safe space, it could mean becoming prey to another animal while in their weak state. In the wild, a sick animal becomes a target. This instinctual knowledge did not go away with domestication.

It is simply a leftover instinct of self-preservation. The cat feels vulnerable and compromised, so isolation provides a sense of safety. 

When something is very wrong, a cat’s first instinct is to run and hide. The same goes for being near death.

The cat understands, through pain or weakness or a deeper instinct, that it must isolate to feel safe and secure. 

It might be surprising to us, but cats do not exactly know they are dying. Of course, we have no way to know this for sure, but we do understand that cats don’t have the same concept of death as we do.

They do not anticipate death as we do our whole lives. Though of course, felines are incredibly intelligent, much more than we give them credit for, and it is possible that they do sense death. 

But mainly, they are feeling a natural winding down of their body and mind. With this, their instinct to isolate tells them to hide in a cool dark place.

The cat is vulnerable, and they are simply protecting themselves. 

#2 To conserve needed energy

A cat who is isolated is likely weak from pain, due often to arthritis or an acute problem such as a tumor or failing organs. In the cat’s last stretch, they may become depressed.

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They are losing functions and even walking might be difficult or cost too much precious energy. It is smarter for the cat to stay isolated and conserve their last bits of energy.

Every animal needs its rest while in the process of dying. 

Once a cat has settled into their final chosen place, they will probably not leave. This means no eating food, no drinking water, and no using the litter box. Sometimes a cat will begin refusing food and water before isolation, even sitting next to their food and water but not consuming anything.

As we know, not eating or drinking will not help the situation but cause increased weakness. This makes it even more important to find your cat if they have isolated themselves for death.

It could be your cat is seriously ill, and death is preventable. The cat does not know this and is only following an instinct to isolate.

Without human intervention, preventable death could become inevitable. 

So, if you notice your cat isn’t touching her food or water and the next day she is nowhere to be found, keep searching and call your veterinarian. 

#3 Peace and quiet

Doesn’t it sound nicer to die in a cool, dark, and quiet place than potentially surrounded by anxious and grieving people? Your body hurts but others want to fuss over you, so that cozy back corner of the closet with the fleece blanket is sounding great.

Dying is not easy, and sometimes dying alone, or at least being sick alone, gives one the rest needed for either recovery or a peaceful end. 

It takes a lot of energy to be social, and even more energy when one’s body has reached its end. Being social, costs needed energy, and being exposed could cost their life.

cats like peace and quiet places

As mentioned earlier, pets do not understand death or sickness the way we do, so isolation is the safest route when feeling vulnerable in any way. Even cats who are pregnant will isolate to give birth so as to conserve their energy and be less exposed to potential danger. 

Most often, a cat will escape into quiet and peaceful isolation before anyone notices something might be wrong. 

Every cat’s behavior will differ but usually, personality will change toward the end of life. If a cat is very social and loves attention, then increased isolation, irritability, and loss of interest in affection would be a huge sign something is wrong.

A cat who loved being held but now yowls when you try to pick them up is probably just in pain. If a cat that gave you no peace and quiet is now giving you too much space, then yes, you should be worried.

On the other hand, if a cat who didn’t care much for cuddles is now attached at the ankle it could be a telling sign as well. Some cats cling on for dear life.

It might not be death on the doorstep, but if regular behavior changes significantly it is time to see a vet.

How to notice a cat is reaching the end of its life

Many of the end-of-life signs have already been mentioned, but there are more to look out for.

  • Loss of appetite and thirst
  • Weakness, constant resting, reluctance to move
  • Lower temperature of ears and paws
  • Less grooming, a matted and greasy appearance
  • Isolation or clinginess, mood change, and generally odd behavior

How to help my cat through the end of its life

Caring for a dying cat will differ depending on the individual cat and the cause of illness. The goal for all end-of-life caregiving is to make your cat as comfortable as possible.

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It can be easy to make simple adjustments for your cat as it ages. 

If your cat is not getting around as well, provide ramps or steps up to favorite places such as windowsills and couches. A shallow litter box and ergonomic feeding station can make all the difference.

Spoil them with plush cushions in their sleep spots in order to prevent sores and other discomforts. If your cat has the energy, play with them to tire them out enough for a good night of sleep.

This will keep them active, physically, and mentally. Talk to your vet about your cat’s diet. Elderly cats often need special diets and extra moisture in their food. 

How to choose between “natural death” vs. euthanasia

Euthanasia in cats

When the cat is nearing its end, you may be caught in the dilemma between letting your cat die naturally at home or helping her by putting a stop to her pain.

This is a choice no pet owner wants to make. Unfortunately, it is a decision most of us will have to suffer over. The final decision will be based on the pet’s personality, the pet’s pain level, and your personal beliefs.

Though the pet’s needs should always come first. 

If you already know your pet would be anxious and scared at the vet’s office, this is a huge factor. However, even if you know your pet would prefer to have their final days at home this might not be ethical.

If your cat is in a lot of pain and will be as they decline further, would it be fair to keep them in pain for longer than necessary? Do they have an incurable condition that will only cause suffering in their final days, no matter how comfortable you could make them at home?

Quality of life is important to consider. No one wants their pet to suffer needlessly, and no one wants their pet’s final moments to be filled with stress.

It is possible to find at-home euthanasia, combining the best of both choices. Discuss options with your veterinarian to determine the best option for you, and much more importantly, your pet. 

Final thoughts

If you have a cat that sometimes or often goes outside, it might be more difficult to see behavior changes. This might also make it difficult to know if your cat has gone into the typical isolation that is natural near death.

The cat will most likely stay close to home even if they have seemingly disappeared. Make sure to check under decks, bushes, cars, or anywhere a cat could fit where shade and privacy are provided. 

There is a lot of discussion about why cats isolate themselves to die, and many people refute that it is a fact. Though it is common, it is not always true. Some cats in fact do not isolate and hide but become very clingy. 

The only way to know if something is wrong with your cat is to know your cat’s behavior well and to be vigilant in noticing changes. If your cat is not their usual self in any way, do not hesitate to call the vet.