Sudden Cat Death: Understanding Why it Happens

sudden cat death
sudden cat death

One of the most awful things that a cat lover can experience is the sudden loss of a beloved cat. Trying to understand sudden cat death is excruciatingly painful. You want to make sense of what happens, consider what you could have done differently, and/or determine if there were signs of problems that you didn’t observe.  It is most difficult to understand sudden cat death when it is unexpected or happens to a young cat. In this article, we will discuss some of the possible causes of sudden cat death.

The life expectancy of cats can be anywhere from 16 to 22 years of age. Indoor-only cats live the longest followed by cats that are both indoors and outdoors. Cats that live only outdoors have the shortest lifespan due to exposures to toxins, trauma, animal attacks, and infectious diseases.

Possible Causes of Sudden Death in Cats

There are many causes of unexpected or sudden cat death.

As we consider illness and death in cats, one thing that is important to consider is that cats are very good at hiding their illness by their nature of survival. This fact sometimes will allow cats to be sick for a long time before we are aware. This can be especially true when we see the cat every day and don’t notice subtle changes such as weight loss, shedding, or a dull hair coat.  As our cats get older, we may believe that symptoms such as weight loss or lethargy are from them just slowing with age rather than from an illness.

Causes of sudden cat death may include:

  • Trauma. One common cause of sudden cat death is trauma.  This is more frequent in outdoor cats but can occur to any cat.  Examples of trauma include being hit by vehicles such as cars, bites from dogs and other animals, gunshot wounds, falls, or being crushed in a recliner. To learn more – go to Trauma and Injuries in Cats.
  • Toxin. Another cause of sudden cat death is ingestion and/or exposure to toxins and medications. This is another problem that is more common in outdoor cats but can occur in indoor cats as well. Common toxins include Potpourri exposure, medications that contain acetaminophen, plant toxicity such as from Easter lilies, and ingestion of various rat poisons just to name a few. To learn more about possible toxicities, go to Toxins in Cats.
  • Heart Disease. One of the most common causes of unexpected cat death is from heart disease.  There may be little to no warning signs. Cats can appear normal, hiding their symptoms well, and quickly decompensate finally showing signs of illness. Some cats will heart disease will develop difficulty breathing or have difficulty using their back legs while crying out in pain.  Some cat owners will simply find their cat dead. Learn more about What Does an Enlarged Heart Mean for Cats?  and How to Recognize Fluid in a Cat’s Lungs.  The most common cause of heart disease in cats is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM).  Feline heartworm disease can also cause sudden death.
  • Heart Attack. It used to be believed that cats didn’t get heart attacks but they do. A “heart attack” is the term commonly applied to people who have suffered a myocardial infarction (MI), most commonly related to coronary artery disease. The myocardium is the muscular tissue of the heart that receives nutrients and oxygen from the coronary arteries. The coronary arteries are small blood vessels in the heart muscle that brings blood from the aorta, the main artery of the body. When the muscle doesn’t receive normal blood supply, a heart attack incurs. Learn more about Heart Attacks in Cats.
  • Chronic Kidney Disease. Chronic renal (kidney) failure (CRF) is another very common problem in cats. When the kidneys fail, they are no longer able to remove waste products that lead to the build-up of toxins in the blood. This produces clinical signs of kidney disease that include weight loss, decreased appetite, vomiting, and lethargy as the kidney disease progresses. Some cats will also have increased thirst and increased urination.  This is most common in older cats but can occur at any age. To learn more go to Chronic Kidney Disease in Cats.
  • Feline Urinary Obstruction.  Feline urinary obstruction (UO) is an acute obstruction of the urinary tract, and although this disease can affect any cat, it is most common in males. This is commonly referred to as a “Blocked Cat”. Typical signs are straining to urinate and crying. When untreated, most cats will die within 72 hours.  To learn more, go to Urinary Obstruction in Cats.
  • Stroke in Cats. A “stroke” is a term commonly applied to people who have suffered a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) caused by cerebrovascular disease.  It was once thought to be very uncommon in cats and dogs but is now known to occur. A stroke is caused by the disruption of blood supply to the brain that results in failure of nerve impulses to be transmitted from the brain to the rest of the body. The symptoms can come on quickly and cause sudden cat death. Signs of a stroke can include difficulty walking, falling to one side and/or seizures. Click here to learn more about Strokes in Cats.
  • Infections.  Severe infections, commonly known as sepsis, can cause a progressive group of symptoms including lethargy, anorexia, weight loss, dehydration, fever, and death.
  • Shock.  Shock is defined as a profound life-threatening syndrome that results in low blood pressure and can quickly lead to death. Shock can be caused by an allergic reaction, heart damage, severe infections (sepsis), blood, trauma, blood loss, toxins, and fluid loss or from spinal cord trauma. Cats with shock can quickly die.
  • High Blood Sugar in Cats. Severe symptoms caused by uncontrolled diabetes can lead to weakness, lethargy, vomiting, lethargy, coma, and death. Learn more about Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) in Cats.

These are some reasons for sudden cat death. Loss of a cat can be devastating and hard to understand. I personally lost a beloved seemingly healthy 9-year-old cat. I spent years trying to understand how this happened, what I could have done differently, and what symptoms I might have missed …to still not have the answer. The only comfort I (and you) can take from this situation is knowing that you did the best you could and that you gave your cat a wonderful life.

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