Categories: grieving

Cat grief may be anxiety instead

Many cat owners and animal experts believe that cats can experience the emotion of grief. They have probably seen it first hand. These first hand experiences concern the change in behaviour of one family cat when another, towards whom the remaining cat was friendly, dies.

The remaining cat’s behaviour looks like an expression of grief for the loss of a companion. This may be true but it is more likely that the ‘grieving’ cat is actually feeling the emotion of anxiety. The anxiety coming from the need to find the lost cat.

Nowadays we all agree that domestic cats can feel anxious. It is probable that anxiety is a major part of the lives of many cats in unsuitable homes.

The anxiety on the passing of a ‘preferred associate’ (‘friend’ in plain English) disappears when all traces of the missing cat have vanished. There may be some scent left on household items which rekindles the anxiety concerning the missing friend.

Grieving cat or anxious cat?

That’s the alternative view. Kittens being homed before they are independent of their mother leave the mother searching for them. It’s as if her kittens have been lost prompting a desire to find them because mother cats raise kittens until they are independent. Once the lingering traces of the kittens’ scent have disappeared the mother will forget.

It appears that lions demonstrate a ‘grief-like’ state of behaviour on the passing of their cubs. Lionesses pickup their dead cub in their mouth and place him/her somewhere else before abandoning her. Is this a sign of grief? We don’t know but it is probably sensible to prefer the anxiety hypothesis over grief until we know more.

There is an ongoing discussion on the ability of domestic cats to experience the higher or more complex emotions. We are gradually realising that animals are more intelligent than we have given them credit for in the past.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • While it is always ALWAYS damaging to project human emotions onto an animal it's also just as silly and damaging to think they don't have emotions and feelings.
    Stress and anxiety is a common factor experienced by both human and animal in unstable homes where abuse even vocal is a daily occurrence.
    One of the reasons and there are many we brought Little Mercy into our home 5 days after Kitten's death was because Mook was refusing to eat, drink and we could see either major medical bills or her demise in the future. We traded one kind of stress for another but the stress of bringing a new kitten was stress with a good outcome.
    We accept that several species of animals experience grief Elephants are an example. Again while not equating human grief to them they obviously feel something. Cats are programmed to not show injury or pain as a survival tactic. I know lots of humans including myself that are experts at that.
    The hard truth is that recognizing the actual emotions present in any animal make most humans squeamish considering the pitiful way many of them are treated.

  • I agree with the article re: anxiety vs grief, but sometimes one must wonder. When my brother's Alsatian passed, his BFF, a cat of five years went room-to-room for nearly two weeks wailing pitifully. This was even after bro allowed the cat to sniff the dead dog's body before it was removed for cremation. The cat died shortly thereafter from renal failure, but sometimes we wonder if he lived as long as he did because of the dog.

    The shelter has seen what happens when a bonded pair of cats come in and are separated. It's done intentionally to ascertain whether or not they are truly bonded or can be adopted out individually. Those that kick up a fuss are returned to the same kennel and are only adopted out as a pair. The anxiety of the separated cats is palpable. Sometimes one of a bonded pair needs to go to the vet for whatever reason. The remaining cat becomes very anxious and yowls pitifully until its buddy is returned from the vet. Vets have revealed that the one in their care presents the very same behavior. Very interesting study in animal behavior and their emotional states.

  • I believe that animals both grieve and feel anxiety. I have read the story of the cat on the gravestone in Indonesia. This looks like full blown grief to my way of thinking. In addition, I would say that grief always contains an element of anxiety. 😢

    • Yes, Frances, it is once again a difficult subject and there is an overlap between anxiety and grief. The two emotions merge. The idea behind the article is simply to be a discussion point if you like. I tend to take a scientific viewpoint but am open, very much open, to the idea that cats grieve. I think we have to be careful, however, not to project our emotions upon our cat companions. Also we have to be careful not to anthropomorphise our cats and give them emotions or ideas and concepts which they don't really possess but which we do.

      That said animals are more intelligent and more emotionally developed than people generally believe in my view.

    • How about Hachiko, the Akita dog, who mourned his master for years at the train station for his master who'd died while lecturing at university? Hachiko never left the station for 9 years, 9 months and 15 days at precisely the spot where his master would've arrived,until the day he died. A statue of Hachiko was erected at the train station in his honor. I'd say that was an example of grieving, coupled with anxiety and loyalty.

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