The answer will be a personal one because we can’t rely on science. I believe cats don’t understand death. They don’t fear death and are impervious to its ramifications.
This is a question asked through Google search. Unsurprisingly Google fails to provide an answer and instead lists articles on cats grieving. This is not quite the same in my view because although there are signs that cats grieve the loss of a cat companion (or humans sometimes), it does not mean they understand what death means i.e. that the cat has been lost permanently and is deceased.
As Sarah Hartwell writes, grieving is an emotion brought about by the “abrupt of unexpected severing of attachment”. For humans this means the death of a dear companion with the knowledge that the companion is lost for ever.
My gut feeling, and I have to rely on it as would anyone writing on this topic, is that cats don’t understand death and its meaning. This applies to their own death and that of another animal or person.
Perhaps this is a simplistic argument: when cats are euthanised at a veterinarian’s clinic, you don’t see an understanding from the cat that she knows she is about to die. There might be anxiety but this is normal at a veterinarian’s clinic.
Also cats don’t measure the potential for dying when carrying out certain activities. For instance when crossing a road with traffic they will be anxious about vehicles because they are large, fast moving objects but they don’t assess the risk of death against the reward of getting to the other side. If they did they would not attempt to get to the other side.
Perhaps that is a misplaced argument as well but the point I am getting at is that cats don’t seem to be aware of the risk of death and therefore it might be fair to say that cats don’t understand the gravity and totality of nothingness that death brings.
This is a great positive in the cat’s psyche. Many humans, billions of them, fear death because they know that it is so completely final. It is permanent nothingness. People believe in the after life to avoid this reality and to assuage their fear of death. This feeds back to their behaviour. We don’t see that in cat behaviour.
People are bound to have different views on this topic because we don’t know the answer. The answer may depend on our personal view of death and what it means to us. The allegory of the rainbow bridge is one in which deceased cats go to a better place, where we can meet our darling lost cats again on our death. We create this to ease the emotional burden of our loss.
I believe cats are far more emotionally functional than humans. Their emotions are impassionately attuned to survival but without fear of death as it is an aspect of life. We are more emotionally mixed up 🙂