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Grieving Cats

Jane Ehrlich on November 09, 2014

Who would still ask if cats grieve? That emotion, however a cat’s experience is seen through our poor human lens, is one where accusations of anthropomorphizing can be just wrong.

Clients plead, “I just want to know what my cat is going through. What can I do?” Good question. We still don’t know much.

However, we watch the changes in their manner, from their reactions to the loss of another cat, whether friend or enemy, when it comes to sleeping, playing, eating, eliminating, just being, to status readjustments in a multi-cat home. There are changes and there are responses.

Some cat experts believe it unlikely cats mourn the way humans do.

Dr. John Samuelson, President, AZ Veterinary Medical Association: “Is the cat wandering around the house feeing sad? Or thinking, ‘Score! I’ve just doubled my territory!”? The fact they’re not pack animals means they’re less likely to mourn, because they’re not social to begin with.

Another well-respected vet, who asked not to be named (Nobody wants to hear this, and nobody wants to be the one to tell clients this) believes, “The only grieving cats do is when their babies die—for perhaps six or seven hours. There is no true empathy for each other. A dog cares who they’re with. A cat cares about where they are—they protect their turf.”

These views represent those that many vets maintain.

Others believe cats mourn, and quote statistics to back it up. In 1996, the ASPCA’s Companion Animal Mourning Project found that 46% of cats ate less than usual after the death of a companion cat. Around 70% showed a change in vocalization pattern. Many slept more, and changed the place where they usually slept.

Prof. Nicholas Dodman, Program Director, Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences, Tufts U. Cummings School of Vet. Medicine. was vehement. “They grieve! I ’ve seen it many times.”

JE: Why do some vets still believe they don’t? That because cats are not a pack animal, they don’t have empathy for one another, so believing they mourn is anthropomorphizing?

ND: That’s unknowledgeable and they haven’t kept up. ‘D’ in animal behavior! It’s ‘50’s thinking. There was a movement in the 1950’s, real scientists don’t attribute feelings. Just because they speak in a different language to ours doesn’t mean they can’t feel what we feel. There’s nothing special about cats that they wouldn’t feel…wouldn’t grieve.

JE: According to the “Mourning Project” , more than half the cats became more affectionate, even clingy, with their owners, when they grieved.’

ND: I have not seen that. If they are mutually bonded to another animal, they will go into depression. Life seems gray. They lose interest in life. I had one cat who wouldn’t eat, after his friend died. He developed hepatic lipidosis—went to ICU at Tufts, and on verge of dying. They narrowly pulled him through.

In addition to lack of appetite and loss of interest, as stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released when cats mourn, hair loss (often because of over-grooming, as grooming is self-comforting, and feel-good endorphins are expressed) can be common. It’s been theorized that as a cat’s own smell is comforting as well, the urinating in inappropriate places may also be a kind of self-reassurance, as the cats feel stressed.

Many experts note a three-stage grieving process: the first shows itself with vocalizing, pacing and searching. The second: the cat is listless and disinterested in whatever is going on around him. The third stage is a kind of acceptance, although perhaps not in the human sense. This is where we’ll find cats truly “coming into their own” in their character; becoming friendlier, more active, more…individual, if the passing cat had previously dominated him, for example.

The death of a cat leaves not only a change, but a hole in many cats’ lives. Some experts feel a cat’s notion of death is that of a child’s—the state of permanency is unfamiliar. Yet clients have noted that when a cat is around the body of the deceased cat, there was less “mourning”; did they make a link between killed prey and a dead friend? Was there therefore a kind of resolution to that death?

I wonder about a difference in smell to and of an ill or even dying animal There must be that percentage of a second, after all, that cats recognize each other by smell before the sight, which would explain the phenomenon of scrapping with a previous friend-cat newly returned from the vet’s clinic; that cat is a stranger to the one left at home. In addition, they have such a strongly-developed sense of smell that the lack of the specific cat’s scent in the home is surely noted. Yet, when a cat is taken to the vet’s to be put down, cats, like children, can wait for him to return..

When it’s your child, that’s another matter. I’ve seen many mother cats whose kits were permanently, prematurely removed (through death or inappropriate selling), continue to look for their children for weeks at a time, while wailing and pacing. They displayed mental pain. That wail had a different sound than that of a mourned mate: it was more protracted and anguished-sounding.

While some cats seem to mourn—-hunting for them, searching, reacting for months, others get a fresh start when a warring feline departs. They don’t seem to even mourn. They find their own personality once more, and can play, dash, show renewed confidence and renewed bonding with their humans.

For some cats who are no longer the suppressed ones, the ‘low cats on the totem pole’, you can practically see them do cartwheels (catwheels?) when the previously dominant cat has passed. There is either a jostling for top position (first to eat? Taking over the humans’ bed or the velvet armchair in he sun? A cat’s hierarchy is more fluid than a dog’s, but hierarchy it indeed is.) A new proverbial lease on life awaits.


We can be there, with more love and more play. BUT don’t force it. Cat sets the agenda. (Otherwise, that could add even more stress if, let’s face it, the cat doesn’t desire it.) Keep indoors if Shadow’s mate was outdoors, and Bella is searching for him. Other than that, keep the routine—routine. And remember that your stress—your misery—can affect her. Keep an eye on the situation, and watch for any changes. Mourning can last for days, weeks or more. Treats, toys, and unforced attention.

Don’t be too hasty in removing the deceased cat’s things—that smell may be comforting, and can possibly help the others ‘transition’, as it fades.

Let the surviving kids work out their rejigged social ranking themselves. We’re human, after all; even the most savvy of us will miss subtle body language and scent signs that only a cat can know.

For how long does this grieving process last? Of course it varies—it can be, in my experience, from a couple of weeks to several months. I’ve seen shorter and I’ve seen longer. At some point, you may want to discuss the idea of short-term anti-anxiety medication with your veterinarian. Nobody likes drugs, but there is a real place for them , as there is for humans, sometimes, when it comes to calming the suffering.

Get a new cat? Not so fast.

First: give yourself time to process the loss. And make sure you’re not trying to replace the loved one who has died. No cat should be put in this position: she has her own personality, her own needs, own character.

Maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe the remaining cat has come into her own—and seems quite, quite content being the only one. Perhaps she has, indeed, found herself. Perhaps the several remaining cats have settled into a new grouping, even blossomed with that, and a new cat would only disrupt that. They also don’t need the stress of a newcomer, especially now. Maybe you have enough cats; Veterinarian-behaviorist Bonnie Beaver indicates that with more than five cats, you’re asking for behavioral problems; in my clients’ experiences, it’s more than four.

Consider your own life. Do you want more freedom for activities that fewer cats—or even no cats—would make possible? Perhaps you can foster, instead. Will a new cat outlive you? Consider an older cat, perhaps.

How soon? When you truly feel ready. Take time to process the loss, don’t just knee-jerk. I don’t know if I’m typical, but I waited a couple of months before getting another cat after my beloved Savoy died. I adore Grace, but realize it took me a little longer to truly bond to her because of that.

Consider this subject a thrown-down gauntlet. Needs research, not just anecdotal narratives. I’m hardly pooh-poohing those; how much research has been instigated by just that? Personal experiences are often what we have to go by.

But cats should come with a warning. ‘This individual feels. Hurts. Respect that. Take care of that’ We need to anticipate, recognize and be able to help console and reassure them when they’ve lost someone. After all, we need that—don’t we?

Photo credit: Shira Gal


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