When Our Cats Grieve

The loss of an animal companion can be very hard to cope with - but do our remaining pets suffer like we do? Experts say yes. Heres how to help them


Simply put, grief is a reaction that is caused by an abrupt absence of someone or something that provided pleasure, comfort, happiness and reassurance. Much like we do, cats will also grieve following a profound loss.

But do cats mourn in the same way as humans? Is their grief as intense as ours? Since we cannot enter into the cat’s mind, it is virtually impossible to emphatically answer this question. But cats do display their grief in a variety of ways that we can recognize — and also for varied periods of time. What we can readily observe is that a cat’s behavior can change radically upon suffering the loss of a closely bonded feline (or human) friend.

Some signs to observe
When a feline companion suddenly dies or goes missing, his absence in the household may be keenly felt. Cats often become withdrawn, confused and highly stressed when they experience an abrupt loss. The surviving cat or cats often spend considerable time searching for the feline buddy: sniffing out their common areas, frequently returning to places in which the missing cat spent time, pacing, yowling and calling out in an effort to find their missing companion.

A grieving cat may lose her appetite and refuse to eat. She may show a lack of interest in her surroundings, play and exercise. Sleep patterns often change and she may stop grooming herself, or conversely begin to overgroom in an effort to self-comfort. She may become overly attached to her guardians and get extremely “clingy.” Some grieving cats may sit silently while staring aimlessly out of the window or at a wall. They may stop using the litter box, and house soiling can occur. Some cats may even try to escape by dashing out the door.

Helping these cats
Regular Catnip contributor Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP, is a board-certified veterinary internist, feline specialist and the owner of Manhattan Cat Specialists. In his thought-provoking article, “Do cats grieve for other cats?” he raises the question whether it may be helpful to the surviving cat to view the body of their deceased companion(the article can be accessed at: http://manhattancats.com/Articles/feline_articles.html.com).

In response to this question, Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS DACVB, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University replied, “Whether this is helpful or not is the subject of debate, and there is little evidence to support either view.”

Researchers in the field believe that cats may sense death much in the same way as a young child since they cannot grasp the permanence of death. If that is the case, Dr. Dodman states, “It would be like letting a two year-old child see a deceased family member at a funeral. The consequences may not register.”

Dr. Plotnick’s differing opinion is: “If dogs and cats do comprehend death more than we give them credit for, viewing a deceased companion may help to explain why that companion cat won’t be around in the future. Anecdotally, people have reported that some cats stop searching for an absent companion after being shown the body of a deceased companion. This may indicate that cats have at least some comprehension that something dead cannot come alive again. This may be linked to the fact that they are predators.”

How you can help
Grieving has no timetable. Some cats may grieve for a few weeks, or as long as several months. In order to better help the surviving cat through the grieving process, Dr. Plotnick recommends that you give the cat extra playtime, copious attention, patience, understanding and compassion.

It may help the cat to become more sociable and less clingy by offering new toys and treats, and enhancing the cat’s environment. According to Dr. Plotnick, “Cats are resilient animals. If given time to grieve, they will return to some of their old rituals, develop new rituals, and once again regain the contentment that they previously enjoyed.”

The grief of humans
Most cat guardians do not view their pet as “just a cat.” In fact, many people consider the cat to be a beloved family member. So when a cherished cat suddenly dies or passes away after a protracted illness, the guardian is often devastated — especially if the emotional connection is particularly significant.

For humans, grief is a highly personal and unique experience that often comes in stages. Grief can be cyclical, occurring in waves of highs and lows. Immediately following the loss, the lows are generally more profound and can be all-encompassing. However, with the passage of time, the intensity slowly starts to diminish. Even so, years after a profound loss, feelings of grief may once again spring up at the time of the anniversary, or when looking at photographs and recalling precious memories.

The grieving process can sometimes start prior to the cat’s death. Anticipatory grief may occur when the beloved cat has been suffering a painful, extended terminal illness. At first, the guardian may feel greatly relieved when the cat dies or must be euthanized; however the heartache may not diminish when the cat actually dies.

There are many facets of grief, including emotional and physical distress, the disruption of daily schedules and even obsessive thoughts over the deceased cat. Some people will experience pangs of guilt, suspecting that they must have “missed something,” causing their cat’s death. Others may be angry with the vet who didn’t “do enough” to save their pet. Some will be in denial and shut down emotionally, but fortunately most people will eventually reach feelings of acceptance and resolution.

Naturally, no one will react identically to the death of his or her cat. Every relationship between the cat and the guardian is truly unique. The qualities that made our cats so special to us — and the losses that we feel without their presence —greatly influence the measure and length of time of the grieving process. — Jo Singer


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