Do Cats Mourn?

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Cat lovers consider sweet, soulful kitty eyes gazing at them to be heartwarming. Those feline glances can melt some human hearts. But after the loss of a feline, canine, or human companion, could those mournful eyes indicate that the cat is actually mourning?

Do cats have emotions?

It is difficult to assess what those mournful eyes mean, since our feline friends cannot tell us what they are feeling. Even though cats cannot verbalize that they are happy or sad, astute pet owners interpret their pets’ emotions based on behavior. With these interpretations in mind, it is commonly acknowledged that cats do feel happiness, sadness, possessiveness, and fear. They also get angry and nervous. And even though cats are often aloof, they are social animals that form attachments to two- and four-footed family members. And they do indeed mourn.

What are the signs of mourning?

When a cat loses a companion, whether animal or human, she grieves and reacts to the changes in her life.

Cats alter their behavior when they mourn, much like people do.

  • They may become depressed and listless.
  • They may have a decreased appetite and decline to play.
  • They may sleep more than usual and move more slowly, sulking around.
  • They may hide under the bed, choosing to be alone even more than usual for cats.

Pet owners recognize these changes in daily behavior as the same ones that grieving humans often exhibit. The common denominator in human or feline grief is the loss of a central individual (animal or human) along with the associated bond.

Skeptics suggest that cats don’t really grieve and attribute their behavioral changes to the alterations in daily routine resulting from the absence of an integral figure in the cat’s life. In other words, the cat gets “upset” because her schedule is off. With the loss of a companion cat, perhaps the surviving cat misses feline interaction and play time. With the loss of a human companion, perhaps feeding and play schedules are changed as the new caregiver takes charge.

Since a cat may not understand death as something permanent, sometimes they will wait patiently, believing that the deceased will return. Others suggest that the cat may just be reacting to the grief exhibited by humans in the house as they deal with the death of a family member.

Has there been any research on the subject?

A study conducted in 1996 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), called the Companion Animal Mourning Project, gathered data that shed new light on the feline grieving process. The survey study focused on common signs associated with mourning and found:

  • 46% of cats experienced a decreased appetite following the loss of a feline companion.
  • Many cats slept more than usual while some suffered insomnia.
  • Some cats changed the area of the house where they slept.
  • About 70% of cats exhibited changes in vocal patterns; some meowed more while others were quieter than they were before their loss of a companion.
  • Surviving cats were often more affectionate with their owners and became clingy.

The study, which assessed many different behavior patterns, concluded that 65% of cats experienced four or more behavioral changes after the loss of a family pet that indicated grief.

How can I help my cat cope with grief?

When signs of grief become evident following the loss of an animal or human family member, you can help your cat deal with grief in the following ways:

1. Spend extra time with your cat. Divert your cat’s attention by engaging in her favorite pastimes. Play a game. Sit on the sofa and have some quiet time together. Buy her favorite treat or food as a special pick-me-up.

2. Be more affectionate. Make a point of petting your cat more often. Make eye contact and talk to her by verbalizing routine household activities, “OK, Whiskers, let’s load the dishwasher.”

3. If your cat enjoys company, invite friends over who will interact with her. A little human variety can pique your cat’s interest. And if she becomes agitated or bored, she will safely retreat to another area of the house.

4. Provide entertainment while you are gone. Hide treats in favored household locations for her to find during the day or fill a foraging toy with food to keep her busy while you are gone.

5. Reinforce good behavior and ignore inappropriate behavior. Some mournful cats vocalize or meow without provocation. Although it is difficult, try to ignore this behavior. Resist the temptation to give your cat a treat to quiet her, which will only reinforce the behavior you want to change. Firmly tell her to hush and reward her if she complies. The reward doesn’t have to be food; a caress will suffice. You may also try to break the howling cycle by distracting your cat. Instead of approaching her, which may be interpreted as positive reinforcement of the undesirable behavior, try calling her to you. If she heeds your command, praise her and initiate a distraction such as playtime.

6. Consider medical therapy. If your cat has prolonged difficulty following a loss, ask your veterinarian about the use of a behavior modification drug. There are several medications that can serve as adjunct therapy and may enhance your efforts at resolving behavior issues associated with mourning. Your veterinarian may want to do blood and urine tests before prescribing medication to rule out systemic problems that could affect behavior such as thyroid problems, diabetes, or electrolyte imbalances, to name a few.

7. Think carefully about replacing a lost pet. If your cat’s grief is due to the loss of a canine or feline companion, don’t rush to find a replacement. Give your cat time to grieve and adjust to the loss. Introduction of a new pet may add more stress to an already stressful situation.

Establishing a new, comfortable social structure in the home following the loss of a human or animal family member is important for the entire family, but even more so for cats. People have lives that extend outside the immediate family unit and help distract them from grief or place the loss in a broader perspective. They see friends at work, meet people at the gym, and communicate with distant friends and relatives online.

Cats have a much narrower social structure with set boundaries that extend only as far as the inside of the house or the perimeter of the yard. Their days are focused on a much smaller social periphery that may include only the other pets and people within the immediate family unit. When a member of that family unit is gone, there is a huge void in the cat’s life and they may need help in dealing with loss.

Time will also contribute to the healing process of both pet and pet owner. Loss will become easier to bear and fond memories will replace sorrow. And the relationship between the survivors, feline and human, may evolve into something even more beautiful as a new way of life is established following a loss.

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