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Worries re: rigor mortis in animals?

post #1 of 8
Thread Starter 
To anyone who might be able to assist . . .

My family has just recently lost one of our cats of 17 years. He was, as I am sure all members of this site understand, a member of the family and is deeply missed. However, as described below, we are troubled by the apparent changes in his body after death, and I am trying to find some answers if at all possible -- I apologize in advance for the potentially troubling nature of this message.

We believe that our cat passed away in his sleep -- a repairman at the house that day saw him crawl under his van and when he checked to make sure that he was gone before he pulled away, he found him peacefully resting, already gone. He appeared to have died in his sleep.

However, when my mother prepared to put him to rest, she was very shaken to see that his face had a terrible expression (I apologize, but we are hoping to find an answer) -- his eyes were very wide open, almost bulging, and his jaw was tightly clenched. We have done some internet research and believe this was due to rigor mortis, but we are naturally devastated and horrified to have seen him in this state. He was in very poor health as it was (he weighed very little towards the end), so we are hoping that perhaps his poor condition just made the rigor mortis more pronounced.

Does anyone out there have any information to confirm that this is so? My mother is very upset by it, and we are hoping to put our minds at ease somewhat by confirming that he really did just pass away in his sleep, and that this facial expression was just something unfortunate, but very natural, and does not indicate that he had any fear or discomfort at the end.

To anyone who is able to respond, thank you for your help -- anything you could offer would be a great comfort.
post #2 of 8
I would just like to start by saying that I am so sorry for your loss.

When I was a child, I remember being shocked by the look on the faces of my rabbit and guinea pig when they each passed away.

Whilst they went to sleep peacefully, when I later returned to look at their bodies they looked as if they were grimacing and were stiff and un-natural and I am sure that their eyes had opened.

I also found this online which may answer your question:

My cat has recently died, and when found her lying by the backdoor, her mouth was open a small amount and her eyes were open too . Apart from this she looked as if she had died in her sleep. Please can you advise me whether eyelids do open when animals and humans die. Or did she just slip into death while conscious? I appreciate that you normally have questions regarding humans and not cats, but this is something that I would like to know.

2nd July 2004

We are sorry to hear that your cat has died. It is indeed possible and common for eyes to open after death, even if they were closed at the time of death. This is due to chemical changes occurring in the muscles within the first few hours, causing them to contract and stiffen. This process is called rigor mortis. Rigor mortis tends to affect the smallest muscles first, and then spread throughout the larger muscles. Typically, rigor is first apparent in the small muscles of the eyelids, then the lower jaw and neck, followed by the limbs. The muscles of the eyelids are called orbicularis oculi and levator palpebrae superioris. In life, orbicularis oculi is used to close the eyelids, while levator palpebrae superioris lifts the upper eyelid to open the eye. When rigor affects the levator muscles first, the eyelids open and the muscles stiffen. Thus, when rigor affects the orbicularis muscles shortly afterwards, the force of contraction they produce is not enough to overcome the stiffness of the levator muscles and the eyes remain open. Rigor mortis continues for a day or two and then the muscles soften as decomposition sets in. So it is possible that your cat passed away in her sleep.
post #3 of 8
Condolences to the family on the loss of your cat. Maverick Kitten has provided valuable knowledge which may help others here in the future, as disturbing as it is to read. I hope that ManxCat's mother will get comfort knowing that her precious furbaby did indeed have a peaceful ending, and now plays happily over Rainbow Bridge. Welcome to TCS, ManxCat; I am sorry that your first post was in Crossing the Bridge and I hope you are able to participate in the other forums soon. Susan
post #4 of 8
I am very sorry for your loss. I pray that your precious kitty didn't suffer.
post #5 of 8
Thread Starter 
Thank you -- I found the same story on the internet just before I wrote my posting, but I wanted to make sure that was consistent with everything else . . .

He was not the first cat we have lost, and he will not be the last, but I suppose those are the things you sort of have to take along with the pleasure they bring when they are feeling fine and frisky -- we've found manx cats have just incredible personalities -- no two of ours have ever been the same, and yet each has been wonderful.

Regardless, he was in such sad condition that I have to think that his passing is a blessing -- and I am grateful that he was able to be at home, around the things he knew all his life, instead of in the vet's office.

Thank you again for your help and kind words . . .
post #6 of 8
How sad that your kitty passed. And I'm sorry his look was upsetting to you. I work as a nurse, and used to work on a unit with many very ill, elderly people. I saw several people die peacefully, yet with eyes open. It was as if they passed so quickly, they didn't have time to close their eyes.

I was holding one lady's hand when she passed, and it was very quick and painless, yet we had to close her eyelids before her family came in to view her body.

It sounds like your old boy was seen under the van, resting peacefully. He either simply failed to awaken, or woke up for one last look at his yard before he passed. May he rest in peace.
post #7 of 8
I'm so sorry you lost your companion of 17 years. That's a long time to share your life with someone, and no-doubt he was deeply loved.

Please do not let his facial expression haunt you. It most likely was rigor-mortis, and it can be disturbing. Understand that this happened after he had already passed...and then remember him only as he wants to be remembered...from pictures, memories, and from all of those happy years. I'm so sorry.
post #8 of 8
I know it happens that way in humans... cats are probably no different. The shock of finding a loved one dead does diminish after time, though... the memories of happy times together will stay forever.

According to my psychology prof, the human mind, when faced with a moment of shock or time of sadness, tends to "soften" traumatic memories after a time... happy memories stay on, and are generally blended into an overall impression of the people and places in them. Most likely, yours will work the same way (only with extreme cases, like post-traumatic stress syndrome, does this tend to differ); and you will remember your cat as he would want you to recall him.
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