We know this is a sad topic to address, but we also know it’s an inevitable part of life with animal friends. Our lives are shorter than yours, and we want to acknowledge that and give support to grieving humans. This topic has been on our minds too, since our beloved dog Aki is getting ready to leave her body. She’s a very old dog and she’s becoming increasingly disabled, so all of us know her time is coming soon.
Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
Sunday morning, my husband went into the laundry room and saw our 13-year-old cat sleeping. He called her and then felt her … and she was gone. She had no known problems. She had only been to the vet once in her life (for a removal of an infected nail) and had lived indoors all her life. Her eating habits were normal. She had not vomited. There was just clear liquid under her body. Her kitty litter habits were normal. She was such a cute little baby. She was a runt so she always looked like a kitten. When we were in our office she would come in and talk to us. She would many times sit down in front of us to watch what was happening on TV and she would come in and tell us when it was bedtime. One of the cutest things that she did was when we had a group of 20 over for a meeting a week ago, she came and sat down in front of everyone and looked up and was intently listening to my husband speak. I knew she would not live forever, but why would she die suddenly with no symptoms of illness? She was sweet and we miss her.
Siouxsie: The death of an animal friend is never easy, Faye. But it’s even harder when it comes as a complete shock. Our condolences are with you and your husband.
Thomas: There’s no real way to know why your cat just went to sleep one night and never woke up. There are possibilities, of course, but unless you’re willing to have a veterinarian do a necropsy to find a cause of death, you will probably need to live with that uncertainty.
Dahlia: Well cared-for indoor cats have an average lifespan of 16 to 18 years. But, as with humans, cats can die exceptionally young or live many years longer than the average. A lot of it has to do with genetics: Some cats are just “coded” for shorter lifespans and one day they just go to sleep and don’t wake up.
Siouxsie: I’m 13 years old myself, and I feel as though I’ve got many more years to go.
Thomas: The most common reason for cats to die suddenly is heart disease. Cats can develop a condition called cardiomyopathy. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy causes the muscles in part of the heart to thicken and not work as well. Dilated cardiomyopathy causes the heart to get big and flabby — once again, causing the heart to work poorly. Restrictive cardiomyopathy causes the heart to pump “stiffly” and not as effectively.
Dahlia: Cardiomyopathy generally presents few symptoms, although a veterinary exam would have detected a heart murmur or changes in heart rhythm. As cardiomyopathy progresses, you would notice symptoms like unwillingness to exercise, lack of appetite, possible vomiting, and a buildup of fluid in the lungs that causes difficulty in breathing.
Siouxsie: One of the common side effects of cardiomyopathy is the formation of blood clots in the arteries. These clots can break loose and travel to the lungs or the brain with disastrous consequences. Clots can also lodge in the arteries that feed the rear legs, causing paralysis or limping along with dark, cold paw pads. It’s possible that your cat may have “thrown a clot” and had a stroke or some other terminal episode.
Thomas: Heartworm infections can cause sudden death by blocking blood vessels in the lungs, causing a “pulmonary embolism.” Although heartworms are thought to be parasites that only afflict dogs, this is just not true. Heartworms don’t live as long in cats as they do in dogs, and because the worm load is so low the parasites would be hard to detect in a regular heartworm screening. But cats–even indoor-only cats–can and do get heartworm.
Dahlia: Signs of heartworm disease include occasional coughing and vomiting, decreased activity level and sometimes development of a picky appetite.
Siouxsie: Hypertension can cause cats to have strokes because small blood vessels bleed into the brain. Depending on the location of the bleed, the stroke can cause a range of symptoms from disorientation to trouble walking or eating to death (if the stroke occurs in the part of the brain that controls the heartbeat and breathing).
Thomas: Generally speaking, hypertension goes hand in hand with other elderly-cat diseases such as hyperthyroidism or chronic renal failure. These diseases have pretty obvious symptoms, though, and it would have been hard not to notice something wrong if your kitty had CRF or hyperthyroidism.
Dahlia: Most of these conditions would have been noticed during a veterinary exam. This is one reason why it’s particularly important to take your cat for annual checkups, particularly once they reach their senior years (generally considered 8 or older).
Siouxsie: We’re not saying this to guilt-trip you, Faye. As you said, your cat looked healthy right until the end. We’re saying it for the benefit of our other readers who care for senior cats and maybe don’t see the annual checkup as an important thing for a cat that looks healthy. But if you do adopt another cat in the future, we hope you’ll consider taking him or her for regular checkups.
Thomas: There’s no way to make the grieving process easier for you. But from your description, it sounds like she didn’t suffer. If it’s any comfort, we think your cat had a very good life. You and your husband gave her shelter and lots of love, and please know that her soul is wherever cats’ souls go, purring at you with love and adoration.
Dahlia: We’re sorry we can’t give you any real answers, because you just never know. But you do have our sympathy and we’re sending you lots of purrs to heal that empty place in your heart.