Sad cat - photo by karp3diem (Flickr)
People ask whether there is such a thing as cat grief. There are no easily accessible scientific studies, that I can find, which deal with this subject. Perhaps, though, we don’t need them. Perhaps we already know from personal observation and experience.
Grief is the emotion that we feel when we lose something, usually a companion or someone close to us. It can apply to an object rather than a living being but we usually associated grief with the loss of someone we know.
We know that cats feel emotion. This is readily apparent. Cats become angry and aggressive or suffer from anxiety. One form of anxiety for a cat is separation anxiety. These are well documented. My cat has experienced this when I was working hard and away a lot. The anxiety caused stress, which in turn caused cystitis.
Research by Dr Paul Morris at the University of Portsmouth, England indicates that cats have emotions and are more self aware than we thought. This research applies primarily to dogs but applies to other animals.
He found that dogs can react in a jealous manner, for example, when they try and break up a relationship between the dog "owner" (keeper) and another person. Dr Friederike's research at the University of Vienna's neurobiological department supports these findings. He described dogs feeling strong emotions of jealousy when they observe that other dogs are getting preferential treatment.
If cats feel emotion why not cat grief? Cats form social bonds. When these bonds are broken, for whatever reason, anxiety occurs1. Even shortish breaks between cats can affect their relationship. But lets remind ourselves that cats are individuals. Some cats will feel loss more than others.
An American study of companion animals living permanently indoors found that when one died the survivor showed behaviour that indicates that it “mourned” the loss.
The research showed that1:
- over 50 % of cats ate less during the grieving process
- they became more vocal
- they demanded more affection from their human caretakers
- over 40% of the surviving cats sought out the deceased’s favourite spot and spent more time there. This happened for 6 months after the death.
As cats are essentially solitary animals despite being adaptable enough to modify behaviour where necessary, there is anecdotal evidence from veterinarians that says that:
- cats are more relaxed after the passing of a companion cat
- cats are more “robust” as well and
- cat are happier.
This last finding, although informal somewhat contradicts the former findings. Although I don’t think it does. Initially a cat mourns and grieves because, like us, a cat has lost a companion. The cat is used to a companion. Habits and lifestyle have been created around the presence of a companion cat and/or human. The loss affects the cat emotionally. When the cat has readapted it becomes more relaxed as it is then at a fundamental level more in tune with its true solitary nature. That is my analysis of it. Other people including the regulars will probably have different views, which is fine and the way it should be.
Some well known cat people have personal experience of cat grief. Sarah Hartwell who runs the Messybeast website says that she has personal experience of the effect of cat grief on two cats who suffered the loss of their human companion. The cats were put in a shelter and then were looked after by a fosterer. One recovered slowly but pined for a long time. The other never got over the loss; and failing to eat at all, suffered liver damage and was eventually put down.
One question that is as yet unanswered is whether cats comprehend the concept of permanent loss through the death of a companion. There are indications that cats do understand that a companion is dead and therefore that there will be permanent loss. This seems plausible. Cats are very sensitive animals. I am thinking of Oscar the cat that can tell if a patient in a hospice is about to die. The ability to detect impending death may be due to the scent given off the person. This begs the question whether a surviving cat should be allowed to be with the dead cat to allow it to mentally adjust to its permanent passing.
Cat grief -- Associated pages:
Cat grief -- References:
1. The Encyclopaedia of the Cat by Dr Bruce Fogle page 85