When Cats Grieve: How to Help

Grief is the price we pay for love. When one of our cats dies, we have lost a beloved family member, and we feel it deeply. We may lose sleep, lose our appetite, spend more time alone, or spend more time seeking comfort from others. Our routines feel off, because they included the cat who is now gone. We may sometimes think we see him out the corner of our eye, and then catch the thought and be hit by a wave of sadness.

When a feline family member dies, everyone grieves, including our other cats. A close attachment has been severed. But we don’t really know what cats feel when they grieve. It’s likely there is some confusion: Fluffy was here and now suddenly he’s not. A lot of things change, too. Cats work out complicated territory arrangements in our homes, and all that is upset when one cat dies. Who eats where, who sleeps in the window perch, who gets to sit next to us on the sofa—all that is now in flux. It’s confusing and disturbing for a family of cats who probably spent months working all that out.

Recognizing Feline Grief

You may find that a cat who typically spent play sessions sitting across the room just watching suddenly joins in, or one who never slept on the bed now does. These areas and activities may have previously been controlled by the cat who died. You may also see little spats and disagreements between your cats over spots they never contested before. This can be a tense time as they redraw boundaries and renegotiate relationships.

Cats’ sadness and confusion may be obvious as they wander from room to room and call out for their lost companion. Or it may be subtle. How cats grieve has actually been studied, and many of the signs mirror our own.

In 1996 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a study called the Companion Animal Mourning Project, which assessed the behavior patterns of cats after a companion cat died. They found that about 70 percent of cats changed their vocalization patterns, meowing significantly more or less than usual. More than half became more affectionate and clingy with their owners., Many changed their sleeping patterns—sleeping more, less, or in different places—and 46 percent ate less than usual. Other signs included pacing, searching, changes in play and activity patterns, hiding, and overgrooming. Overall, 65 percent of cats showed four or more behavior changes after the death of a family pet.

Clearing up the confusion when a cat “disappears” is the idea behind the advice to let cats sniff and examine the body of a deceased companion. There is no evidence either way that it does or does not help. While it’s likely they know the body they are sniffing is dead (cats are hunters, after all, and kill their prey), they may or may not know that it’s their companion.

Speaking from my own experience, I have had cats who were euthanized in the veterinarian’s office and cats who died at home and were thoroughly sniffed by their feline family. I have not seen any difference in the way my other cats behaved. In all cases, they seemed confused and stressed by the disappearance of their friend. And seeing that broke my heart even more.

Of course, cats are sensitive to our moods, so as we grieve, they will join us in our sadness. For myself, I found that helping my cats work though their grief also helped me work through mine.

Helping Cats Grieve

What can we do to help them? First, we need to understand that, just like us, all cats grieve in their own ways. Some seem to move on quickly; some take months to adjust. Just as you want your friends to accept your grief and be supportive, don’t judge your cat or set any expectations.

Stick to feeding and play routines as much as possible, but also try to develop some new games or cuddle routines that focus on the surviving cat(s) in ways that seem special to them. If your cat seems clingy, give him more attention. It’s good for both of you! Give him as much attention as he needs. Pet and play with him as often as he seems to want it. If he is vocalizing, call to him so he hears your comforting voice and feels less lost.

Should You Get Another Cat?

It is tempting to go out and get another cat but think long and hard about that. Introducing a new cat is always stressful, and this is not a time to add more stress to your feline household. Give your cat time to grieve and adjust and figure out his new place in the family. If you now have just one cat and find that he suddenly blossoms and becomes more interactive, chances are he played second fiddle a lot of time and is now enjoying being an only cat.

If your cat and the departed cat were best buddies, he may still not want a companion. If I became a widow tomorrow, I would not appreciate my mother sending over a replacement husband—someone she picked out—weeks or months afterward. Cats typically don’t enjoy having new “friends” thrust upon them. That’s especially true for older cats. They do not want a new kitten in their lives, jumping and chewing on them and basically being the adorable pain in the neck all kittens are. Ask yourself, “Is this new kitten really for my cat at home, or is she for me?”

The situation was reversed when my beloved cat Cannoli died a little more than a year ago. Cannoli was eight, and was a big brother to Spike, a very active three-year-old who was actually more focused on his cat buddy than on me. Cannoli died at home but Spike still seemed lost and confused by his absence, wandering from room to room and searching the closets. He became more affectionate and attentive with me, but he also played less. He spent a lot of time staring out the window.

I actually didn’t want another cat, because the loss of Cannoli at such a young age really broke my heart. But Spike had been so focused on his brother, and was playing so much less now, that after about five months, I decided a young cat might be just what he needed. I chose a kitten because Spike was so young and active—a slightly younger cat with similar activity level and play style tends to be the best match. Spike and T’Pring are inseparable now. I hope they both live very long lives.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Beth Adelman, MS, is a cat behavior consultant in New York City. Beth is currently on the executive committee of the feline division of the Pet Professional Guild and is a frequent speaker on cat behavior. 

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