When a cat loses a feline friend or a human family member, what do they feel? Do they experience sadness or grief? Do they understand death as something permanent? And if they are capable of grieving, how long do they mourn the loss of a loved one?
Cats have a reputation for being aloof and solitary, but they are actually social critters who form deep attachments to people and other animals. While it’s not certain if they perceive death the same way we do, cats do grieve when they lose a human or animal companion, usually exhibiting behavioral changes in response to the fluctuations in their life.
In 1996, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a study called the Companion Animal Mourning Project. The study found that:
- 46% of cats experienced a decrease in appetite after a feline companion passed away.
- Roughly 70% of cats showed changes in vocal patterns. Some meowed more often while others became more quiet than normal.
- More than 50% of cats became clingy and more affectionate with their humans.
- Many cats slept more than usual, while some had difficulty falling asleep.
- Some felines changed the location of where they normally slept.
- 65% of cats experienced at least 4 behavioral changes following the loss of an animal companion.
According to cat behavior counselor Vicky Halls, there are three stages of feline grief. The first stage is where the cat attempts to find the loved one who has passed away. Signs include excessive vocalizing, pacing, and searching. This active but relatively short-term phase is then followed by a more passive one—a second stage where depression sets in and the cat becomes withdrawn. The third and final stage is acceptance, and this is usually where any permanent changes in the cat’s character become evident, such as becoming more friendly toward their humans.
It can take anywhere from days to months for a cat to go through these three stages. The ASPCA study had similar findings, stating that all cats who had lost a companion returned to normal within six months.
A cat who is dealing with the loss of a family member, whether human or animal, will need extra attention and reassurance during the mourning period. Here are some ways you can help your cat through the grieving process:
- Keep everything the same. Changing your cat’s feeding times or even moving furniture around can add to their stress. Minimize change in the household to give your cat some sense of continuity amidst these confusing times. Try to be as normal as possible around them, and don’t be too hasty in removing the deceased’s belongings.
- Spend more time with your cat. Playing with your cat or even just sitting together on the couch can divert their attention and give your feline friend some much-needed comfort.
- Enrich their environment. Offering new toys and treats may help reduce your cat’s newfound clinginess. Hiding treats around the house for them to find during the day will also keep them busy while you’re gone.
- Limit outdoor access. If your cat had access to the outdoors, keep them inside as they may try to search for the departed individual, which could lead them to unfamiliar territory and dangerous situations.
Should I let my cat see the body?
Some people have reported that their cats stopped searching for a deceased feline companion after being shown the body. If you feel that it would help your cat, then there is no harm in doing so.
Should I get another cat?
If your cat is grieving the loss of a feline friend, don’t rush to find a replacement right away. Your cat is unlikely to welcome a stranger while they are still adjusting to the loss of their companion. Give them time to grieve, and wait for a few months to see if they really need a new friend. Introducing a new cat at this time will only make an already stressful situation more stressful.
What happens in a multi-cat household?
If a cat in a multi-cat household passes away, the remaining felines will eventually work out a new hierarchy. This is part of the grieving process and it’s recommended to let it happen without any human intervention.
When should I take my cat to the vet?While many felines experience poor appetite when they lose a loved one, it’s best to take your cat to the vet if they don’t eat for three days.