When humans experience loss, we speak of our emotions and understanding in terms of our grief and how we perceive our own existence in the shape of our loved one’s absence. Sometimes, we don’t always understand how death and loss affect the furry companions in our lives. In an earlier article, we discussed the impact of grief on our animal companions. This time, we want to look at cats specifically. While considered aloof and unavailable, the domesticated cat has a surprisingly deep emotional bond with those around them.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at our feline friends and how they react to upheaval and the loss of a household member. We’ll explore what signs to look for if you suspect your cat is grieving, how to help them through the process, and examine some further resources available to you on animal behavior and veterinarian help.
For scientists, it is no longer a question of “do animals grieve?” According to the 1996 ASPCA Companion Animal Mourning Project, the evidence overwhelmingly points to pets showing signs of grief.
For cats specifically, the study showed that 65% of cats showed 4 or more behavioral changes after the death of a fellow pet. While we cannot always predict what these behaviors look like (as each cat reacts uniquely to events), we can be confident that they experience the loss and may struggle to cope with these changes. It doesn’t always look like grief in the way humans experience it.
Perhaps it is more important to look at the circumstances that your feline companion may experience grief.
When animals have bonded to people or other animals in their lives, they are more likely to show signs of grief, including anxiety, depression, and other emotions that can have a profound effect on their behavior and their health. This is an incomplete list of occasions where your cat may show signs of grief.
Animal bonding is a common phenomenon. Often if two cats are adopted together or spend much of their lives together, they may develop a significant bond. Death affects animals similarly to people, especially if they were close companions.
For example, a young cat who grew up with an older cat in the household may not remember what life was like without that presence. The same goes for cat siblings who have spent their entire lives together.
The loss doesn’t have to specifically be another cat. Cats often bond with household pets like dogs or occasionally even smaller animals like ferrets or rabbits. If a beloved companion suddenly disappeared, the species matters much less than their absence – and the change in routine.
Cats can bond just as deeply with their owners as they can with other animals. When a beloved human passes away, your cat may experience some severe expressions of grief.
Many pet owners know stories about cats returning to locations in a home where their owner may have spent a lot of time – like a bed or a chair.
It also might be that your cat is picking up on your grief as well. If someone in the household passes, it’s likely to affect all the human members. Cats are well attuned to human emotions and behavior. Even if they were not as close to the deceased, they can exhibit signs of grief and stress in reaction to your emotional state.
Generally, cats are known for being aloof and unflappable when compared to their canine counterparts. Most people who have not owned a cat might think them indifferent to changes within a household or the passing of a beloved pet or family member. However, cats will often exhibit “grief” in a myriad of ways that might not seem immediately obvious. Feline grief behaviors can be alarming or unsettling if you don’t know what to expect. You may think your cat is acting out or, even worse, ill.
Here are some symptoms of grief in cats for you to look out for when you’ve lost a member of your household.
You’ve likely heard your cat make a noise like this before. Maybe you are sitting in one room when suddenly – from somewhere else in your home – the loud, warbling cry breaks through the sound of the television or conversation. As you go to see what’s wrong, you find your cat in an empty room looking lost or distressed.
Vocalization is the most common behavior displayed by grieving cats. A grieving cat may behave similarly to what we’ve described above. They may escalate to calling even in a crowded room, growing louder despite you offering words of assurance or even trying to hush them.
Some pet owners report that their cats will call out more frequently in the night, especially if they do not sleep with another animal or their human companions.
These vocalizations are a sign of distress and unease in your cat. This behavior may linger for a few days or weeks after the death of another household member.
As most cat owners know, your favorite feline spends a good deal of the day (and night) sleeping or lazing about. Because cats are a predatory species, wild felines like lions, tigers, or cheetahs spend much of their time conserving their energy to chase prey. In domesticated cats, this evolutionary process translates to lots of time spent being still with occasional bursts of activity and play.
When there is any kind of upheaval in a home – which can include the loss of another pet – that behavior can change drastically. You may find that your cat roams through the house as if they are seeking something.
Instead of settling as they normally might, your cat might get up frequently and go wander. This may be accompanied by those loud vocalizations or simply become quiet, anxious pacing. They may tread through a familiar route over and over or seem to circle a single site in your household.
This is normal behavior that may seem worrying if you do not know to expect it.
When people don’t feel well, they often experience a loss of appetite. Food is no longer appealing, and it is difficult to force oneself to eat. Animals experience similarly decreased appetite when they do not feel well either.
In the case of a deceased companion, your cat may be experiencing a severe upheaval in its daily routine. The drastic change may leave them uneasy, unwell, and unwilling to eat.
You may notice them avoiding their food bowl or staring at the food but not eating it. This is a common side-effect of major changes in an animal’s life. It is not uncommon for a cat to show a decrease in appetite for a few days.
However, if they do not eat – and more importantly are not drinking water – for three days, you should take them to see a veterinarian immediately. Prolonged dehydration and lack of nutrients can cause lasting damage to your pet if left untreated. That includes liver damage.
If your cat does suffer a loss of appetite, you could also see periods of lethargy. They may no longer engage in pay behaviors, chase their favorite toy, or run to the food bowl at the telltale sound of the bag opening.
Like a loss of appetite, this is normal in the direct aftermath of losing a companion. Their routine has been disrupted, and they may not immediately adjust to it.
When animals feel unsettled or alarmed, they often retreat to a space where they feel safe and wait out the situation. That may be what is happening in this case. Additionally, lack of food will also affect their energy levels.
Many times, cats relieving themselves outside a litter box indicates a medical issue (like kidney stones or a UTI). When it's medically related, you may notice that the urine spots are small or discolored with blood. If that happens, contact your vet for treatment.
However, there are also many instances where cats “mark” places in a home. If this is the case, the urine spots may be on high-trafficked areas, areas that smell like a specific person or pet in the household, or near food.
Cats will not squat for this behavior, often making sure they mark higher on the wall, furniture, or another spot they have chosen. While usually attributed to male cats, female cats can engage in this practice in certain circumstances.
While it might seem odd, cats can stop using their litter box as a sign of anxiety and stress. They may feel insecure and unsafe, so marking familiar territory around their home can make them feel better (but can wreak havoc on your furniture and flooring).
Fortunately, this behavior is often temporary. Clean the areas they gravitate toward frequently. Of course, you should take them to the vet as soon as you notice this change to rule out medical conditions that could cause the issue.
In addition to these behavioral changes, you may see your cat going through some personality shifts as well. These shifts are common but also something to look for in your household.
Some cats become more aloof and standoffish after someone in the household has passed away. They may resist coming when called, even if they previously did so before. They may hide away beneath furniture or climb into areas not easily spotted (like laundry baskets or on top of shelves).
You may find your cat in unexpected places for a few weeks after the death of another animal or person. You may also see them returning to a certain spot or location in the house over and over. This may be a spot they frequented before. However, it could also be a spot that was favored by the deceased. They may be comforted or drawn to the scent that lingers in the area.
Conversely, you may see that your cat is behaving more affectionately towards you or another member of the household. They may seem particularly clingy or affectionate. Common behaviors include following you around as you move through the house, refusing to leave a room that you are in, or even being physically close or touching you. You may find that cats that were previously stand-offish may seek out human attention and affection more frequently.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that cats ultimately become clingier in this situation. However, your pet may behave differently depending on the circumstances surrounding the passing.
When your pet is terminally ill, you can begin to prepare your household – pets included – for the upcoming change. Choosing some pet cremation jewelry or pet photo engraved pendants can help to prepare every member of the family for the days ahead. For more information, please visit our guide on the subject: Helping Family Say Goodbye To A Beloved Pet.
However, we know that you may not always have time to prepare for a loss. Even if you did, no guarantee extends to your other pets. If your cat exhibits any symptoms or signs listed in the section above, here are some ways to help your cat through the process.
Animals know when humans are upset. They can sense changes in our mood and overall behaviors almost better than other humans can at times. If your behavior changes, they’ll likely pick up on it immediately. This can lead them to experience more stress and uncertainty.
It’s important to keep up the same routines you’ve had. Stay with set feeding times and try to keep your general schedule the same as well.
If lack of appetite becomes an issue, there are things you can do to encourage your cat to keep eating. If they haven’t touched their food in a day, then make sure you set out fresh food for them – especially if you are feeding them wet food. If they usually eat dry kibble, you may want to swap it out for a wet brand. Those typically smell more strongly and may trigger their hunger. For the smelliest flavors, go for some seafood!
You may want to offer them additional treats between meals. Many cats enjoy Churu Cat Treats that are a puree texture. If your cat likes crunchy food, then you may want to check out a treat like Greenies (which double as dental treats) to stimulate their appetite and perk them up.
Heating wet food will give it a stronger scent and make it smell better to animals. Smelly food is a well- established method for enticing an unhappy cat to eat (unless there are underlying medical issues.)
Here are some other things you can try to encourage them to eat:
Sit Near Them. While cats seem aloof, most of them are social creatures. They enjoy spending time with their designated humans, even if it doesn’t seem obvious. While they may not immediately come to cuddle with you, you can attempt to engage them by sitting in the same room or just being close by as much as possible.
Be More Affectionate. Go out of your way to pet your cat more often. Call them and say their name if they begin to vocalize for no reason. You may also attempt to brush them more frequently when they enjoy it.
Playtime. If they have a favorite toy, introduce a dedicated playtime for them. While this is fun, it’s also physical exercise that will wear your cat out and burn off any excess anxious energy they might have.
Catnip. Most cats react positively to catnip. It can increase appetites as well encourage play behaviors and enhance their moods. For cats who are affected by catnip, introducing some loose catnip or a toy coated in it may be a good way to get them to engage more with their environment if they are feeling down.
Let Them Sleep with You. If possible, letting your cat spend the night in your bedroom may also help, especially if they are accustomed to sleeping with or near the deceased pet (or person). They may appear needier at night.
Some of these grieving behaviors are disruptive and some can be outright destructive on your home and property. You may grow frustrated as these behaviors continue, especially as you are the one kept up all night or cleaning after the mess.
It’s important to note, though, that your cat is not doing these things on purpose. Nor are they trying to annoy you. They are acting in their nature as they work to process these changes in their home.
Avoid disciplining your cat as much as possible. They won't link the discipline to their behaviors but it can aggravate their unease and grief. Discipline is likely to prolong the process.
It could even make them less affectionate or cease viewing their human companions as a safe spot to seek out comfort and attention.
Try to be patient with them as much as possible. Seek out some compromises to curb some of the worst of these (usually) temporary behavioral changes. You may find some of the tips on this list will do the trick.
There’s never any shame in asking for help. Sometimes you may not be equipped as an expert in the field of animal behavior or grief. That’s when you should contact an authority on the subject. That’s what your vet is there for!
If you need assistance finding a vet in your area, the American Veterinarian Medical Association has created a helpful online guide that will help you choose the best vet for your household.
Sometimes, you may need to seek out medications or other help to ease your cat through this transition. There are several medications for behavioral modification that your vet may want to prescribe or look into for grieving cats. Some of these may be temporary solutions that you can use for a time until they adjust to their new normal.
Mirtazapine – This is an antidepressant that has several benefits for cats. This includes stimulating them to eat, gaining weight, and in some cases has helped to control nausea. It comes in both oral tablets and a transdermal gel that can be applied to their skin.
Anti-Anxiety/Anti-Depression Medications – Believe it or not, there are several options for anti- anxiety medications available for cats. These are usually taken orally in a small dose and may help your cat adjust to changes in your home.
Pheromones - One very popular over-the-counter product is Feliway Pheromone Diffusers. You can plug them into the wall and allow the diffuser to do most of the work. They emit a soothing scent that should make your cat feel more at home. With this product, we recommend avoiding off-brand substitutes. Most reviews will tell you that the only brand that seems to give positive results is Feliway.
As with any loss, you need to take time and work through your emotions. The same is true when you’ve lost a pet. You may be tempted to get a new cat to fill the loss in your life but it is important to think of your remaining pets and their needs during this time. Choosing a cat cremation urn can help feel close to your cat in the interim days ahead before getting another pet.
Introducing a new animal into a household where some – or all – of the animal companions are still experiencing stress may backfire. Instead of bonding with the new cat, your cat might instead lash out unexpectedly, be aggressive, or hide from the newcomer indefinitely.
If you need more help with your cat, there many other available resources for you to seek out. We’ve compiled a list to get you started, including online vet resources, hotlines, pet bereavement resources, and a collection of books, videos, and articles at your fingertips!
Chewy.Com Connect with a Vet
Ask a Veterinarian Online.Com
Pet Loss Support Page
Veterinary Medical Center at Michigan State University, Their hotline for pet bereavement support: 517-353-5420.
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
Two Hearts Pet Loss Center
What Your Cat Wants - A blog resource from pet behavioralist Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado
PBS.ORG - The Depths of Animal Grief
When Should I Bring Home a New Companion for my Grieving Cat? – A Blog from Chewy.Com, a noted pet supply resource and education center
Do Cats Grieve? 5 Ways to Support a Grieving Cat Missing Its Feline Friend – An article from Catser Magazine
Animal Pain: What It is and Why It Matters - Bernard E. Rolllin (Colorado State University)
Cat expert Jackson Galaxy has a YouTube page filled with free videos on a variety of feline topics, including one specific to grief behaviors in cats. You may find his videos offer a great resource for any other cat-related questions you might have.
For more information on how animals experience grief, biological anthropologist Barbara J. King has published this TED talk: Grief and Love in the Animal Kingdom
This video from BBC Unplugged explores a study about the emotions in animals and their brains: Do Animals Have Feelings | Earth Unplugged
This Wildlife Discovery documentary explores animal emotions (dating back to the original research done by Darwin): Animals Like Us: Animal Emotions
This short BBC video helps you interpret how your cat might be feeling: Learn to Read Your Cat’s Feelings
AnimalWised has a short video about how cats perceive human emotions: Can CATS Sense Our EMOTIONS?
The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies. Wallace Sife PhD
How Animals Grieve. Barbara J. King
Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. Frans De Waal
Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat. Jackson Galaxy
Decoding Your Cat: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Cat Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones. American College of Veterinary Behavior & Meghan E. Herron
The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy — and Why They Matter. Marc Bekoff
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. Temple Grandin
My Cat Has Died: What Do I Do?: Making Decisions and Healing The Trauma of Pet Loss. Wendy Van de Poll
The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behavior. Dennis C Turner
Not in the way you might think. Cats do not have mystical powers that let them know when someone – or something – is dying. However, they (like many other animals) may be aware of certain things that are invisible to the human senses. While we don’t know precisely what they might sense, they are far more attuned with physical senses than we are.
There is some evidence to suggest that cats (along with dogs and other animals that rely on their keen sense of smell for survival) may be able to tell when another animal – or potential human – is very sick. They are likely smelling some biological changes that we cannot, so their sense is less of a prediction and more picking up on cues we cannot.
Yes. We have overwhelming scientific evidence that this is true. Researchers have reported changes in behavior from many species of animals, from elephants, wolves, chimpanzees, and other primates, whales, and perhaps even some birds. While animal species do not have the same cognitive awareness as humans, they do experience emotions the way we do.
Pets often show their joy, excitement, and become depressed under certain circumstances. It isn’t a surprise to think that they also experience grief at losing another animal or a human companion. While they may not perceive death the way humans do, they can certainly feel the effects of loss in their lives.
With felines, we have evidence that cats can understand that the deceased will not be returning, but they may not understand the how or why depending on the circumstances surrounding their death. Animals can register the absence of another pet, but they likely don't recognize the significance of death. For more information on the basics of pet grief, visit our guide – Do Animals Experience Grief?
As all pets will behave differently, it’s difficult to answer this question fully with the current research. However, anecdotal evidence suggests several differences in behavior between the species. Dogs, being pack animals, generally react more overtly to a missing member of their “pack” or social group. Cats, on the other hand, are less obvious in much of their behavior. Comparatively, it can make it more difficult to see these changes in cats.
Cats do not exhibit any “mourning” behaviors over the death of another pet, unlike wild dogs and wolves. For example, wolves have been seen howling over a dead packmate. Additionally, they will leave the body of a fallen wolf with their tails and heads hung low as if in mourning.
Yes, according to feline experts, there are three stages to a cat’s grief. These are:
Behavioral Changes. You should look out for any changes in behavior for your cat. Usually, this involves restlessly searching for the “missing” inhabitant. They may vocalize – or yowl – more frequently and be unwilling to settle in one spot.
Depression. Cats can experience depression after a loss. They may continue with behavioral changes that evolve into personality shifts during this era.
Acceptance. Finally, your cat will begin to accept the loss.
Most cats will go through these stages to some degree, though some may exhibit these behaviors more overtly than others. Cats are generally not very expressive animals. You may see more subtle changes in their behavior.
The symptoms of grief in cats can be familiar for anyone who has experienced grief - yet it is also unique to their species. If your cat starts exhibiting any of the following symptoms, they are probably grieving.
Pacing or Searching the House Restlessly.
Loss of Appetite.
Much like grieving humans, there is no pre-determined timeline for grief in your pet. Veterinarians report that domesticated cats will typicaly grieve from anywhere from a few weeks up to six months. In that time, any behavioral patterns may become their new normal behavior
There’s no concrete evidence to suggest that showing a surviving pet the remains of a deceased one will change their behavior or ease their anxiety or unease. However, some pet owners have reported that their pet has stopped searching for the missing pet once they’ve been shown the body.
We recommend using your discretion in this situation. Would it do more emotional harm to you if you were to potentially handle the remains of your pet? It is unlikely to negatively affect your cat whatever you choose.
That depends on what symptoms or signs they are showing. Most of the time, cats will exhibit some symptoms of grief but still be fine without a vet visit. However, some signs can be dangerous. One sign to look out for in particular is a poor appetite. If your cat does not eat for three days, you should make a very appointment as soon as possible. The same goes for water consumption. Lack of food and dehydration can be dangerous to your cat.
If your cat is grieving the loss of another household pet, that doesn’t mean you should rush to bring in a replacement. Your cat may not welcome another stranger in their home so soon after the household is disrupted. Cats can be standoffish or territorial with a new companion when they haven’t adjusted to losing the last one. If you have a multi-cat household, it may take more time to adjust as the remaining pets will most likely re-establish their hierarchy over time. Bringing in a new cat during this time can cause additional strife – and prolong some of the negative behaviors you may see. Your cat may react negatively or even aggressively towards a new pet.
Wait a few months to see how the cat adjusts before you think about bringing in a new furry companion. If you still have concerns about when the get a new pet, check out the guide to Knowing When Is the Right Time to Get a New Pet.
Sometimes, all you can do is be patient with your pets, especially if they are exhibiting signs of stress or grief. There may be increased fighting among household pets as a new hierarchy is established in the absence of one animal.
You may want to invest in a good pheromone diffuser for your home. We recommend the Feliway brand diffusers. You can plug them in at home and they should automatically release unscented pheromones into your house that calm cats and should decrease any fighting or improper urination.
Watching our pets hurt and being unable to help them – or ease their suffering – is always a difficult thing. Knowing that our cat may be grieving while we are in a similar situation makes it even more difficult. While animals often experience grief in their unique way, it’s often not too different from our own.
Like their owners, it is our responsibility to take care of them (as we would ourselves) during these hard times. Knowing the signs that your cat is grieving helps you recognize them and, as such, prepare you to help them through.
After a loss, know when is the right time to get a new pet
15 Ideas Of What To Do With My Pet's Ashes
What Is Hospice Care For Cats?
March 31, 2022 by Frances Kay