Cats Feel Jealousy But Not Grief

Dr Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense states that he believes that the domestic cat is able to feel the emotion of jealousy but not grief. He states that, โ€œall that jealousy requires is that the cat merely perceives that another cat is getting more of something than it should”. In an article I wrong years ago, I decided that cats probably grieve, somewhat contradicting Dr Bradshaw’s ideas.

Cat Jealousy

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Because of the simplicity of the emotion of jealousy he believes that cats are almost certainly capable of feeling it but not as often as dogs. A lot of cat guardians will be able to recount stories of how their cat companion intervenes when they try and stroke another cat.

As for grief, most people believe, through observation or reading about it on the internet, that the domestic cat is capable of grief because they behave strangely when another cat that they have known disappears. Dr Bradshaw believes that what they actually feel is more likely to be temporary anxiety. This anxiety disappears when traces of the missing cat disappears from the environment.

For example, a mother may search for her kitten for a couple of days or more after the kitten has been moved to a new home. The mother will have a memory of her kitten. She may count the remaining kittens to check that one of them is missing. This is a reflection of what takes place in the wild when a cub goes missing and the mother seeks him as a natural instinct to protect her young until they are independent of her.

Useful links
Anxiety - reduce it
FULL Maine Coon guide - lots of pages
Children and cats - important

But as for domestic cats, the mother cannot recognise the fact that her kitten has gone to a new owner in a new home where he will be well cared for. This is because the domestic cat has experienced nothing like that in her evolutionary history. It doesn’t fit in to the evolution of the North African wildcat and is not therefore in her DNA.

Cat Grief

While the mother is reminded of the missing kitten, partly because there will be lingering cues of his presence such as scent; once the kitten’s scent has faded to the point where the mother can not longer detect it, Dr Bradshaw believes that at that stage the mother probably forgets all about the departed kitten. As long as she can still smell her kitten she may feel the natural anxiety that that engenders and which drives her to continue to search. However, this is not the emotion of grief.

The theory may not please many cat guardians. You may disagree with it. It does not refer to the situation where cats are close buddies and one of them dies. You may have read about what to all intense and purposes appears to be grieving under these circumstances. We aren’t sure, to be honest, whether cats can and do grieve.

Jackson Galaxy believes cats feel grief but have a better ability than people to move on and therefore get over it much faster. This is taking the middle ground and it’s an idea which I like.

Associated: Articles tagged “cat emotions”.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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10 Responses

  1. Jane Carter says:

    Come on Dr Bradshaw, the 21st century is calling you!

    He produces some interesting work but seems beholden (like many) to the notion that non humans cannot have complex emotions.

    Was it 20 years ago now that a large group of notable scientists produced a statement that acknowledged not just that other animals have complex emotions, but how they manage to have them without having a neo cortex like wot hooomans have.

    *eye roll*

    We need real cat people as scientists, we really do. Maybe that way, there’d be less of the hidden agenda swaying the results, or maybe it might mean there’d be more of it?

  2. Sandra Murphey, No. CA, USA says:

    I believe that animals feel emotion, but they don’t have the complication of thoughts that we do, which can prolong our grief. Jealousy can be ongoing as long as the situation continues.

    I recently saw a video of a cow who mooed all night for the calf that had been taken from her. In the morning, the calf, who was nearly dead from lack of food, was welcomed by her mom with dripping teats.

  3. Michele S. says:

    Michael: Does Dr. Bradshaw’s book elaborate on the source of his comment regarding ‘temporary anxiety’?

    I’m just wondering whether he’s taking into account multi-cat households where there may be an underlying tension amongst the cats. Charley certainly noticed when Sophie (the despot) was no longer around. He didn’t search for her, but he was cautious entering certain rooms in case she was waiting in ambush. Once he felt confident that she definitely wasn’t coming back, he became a lot more relaxed.

  4. Michele S. says:

    Cats can develop very strong attachments to people or other animals and I believe they feel grief or emotional distress at the loss/absence of a close companion. I’m not sure I’d agree with Dr. Bradshaw’s theory about it being a temporary state of anxiety. Whilst I accept that may be true of some cats, there are numerous accounts of cats remaining depressed long after any residual scents of their friend have disappeared. Let’s not forget either that cats are known to have good long term memories.

    There’s no timetable for grief and that applies equally to animals and humans.

    • Dee (Florida) says:

      True, true, true Michele.
      Beautifully put.
      It holds true for those who just rip away a mom’s kits from her too. They know their babes and are distressed when they can’t find. Would any of us want to just have a baby ripped from our breast? It all takes time and work.
      Everything is a process when dealing with stress and sorrow.

      • Michele S. says:

        Dee, I agree with you about the mother cat’s mental pain when her kittens are removed before she’s ready to let them go. Not to mention how distressed her poor kittens must feel ๐Ÿ™ It’s depressing to think how many cats and kittens have suffered this horrible experience in shelters as well as family homes.

        None of us really know for certain what is going on inside their heads, but we do know cats can express a range of emotions. So why couldn’t grief be one of them? Cats are very stoic. Can we really be sure that they don’t hide emotional pain as well as they do physical pain or injury?

      • Michele S. says:

        Dee: I instantly thought of your comment when I was reading the article about the dog killing all those cats and kittens in the shelter. I hope the surviving mother cat can overcome that kind of trauma.

  5. Leslie McIntyre says:

    Years ago I had two beautiful kitties Simon, a flame point Siamese and Subee a Himalayan. Simon disappeared one day, I was heartbroken, he was beautiful and incredibly easy going. Subee was more attached to him than me and It was obvious she adored him. For weeks and it may be hard to believe, she never got over it. For about 10 days she brought mice in several times s day, she had never hunted in her life. She cried all the time. The most haunting thing to me was her voice changed permanently. She came to me for comfort over the years, she was different, more intense and hated every cat she ever met from that point on. She even tried to kill a stray kitten that found me, not just beat it up. Makes me sad to even think about it.

  6. Dee (Florida) says:

    I believe that cats grieve, as there are accounts to numerous to count.
    Domesticated or not, a mother cat is distressed when a kit or kits are missing.
    It took me a very long time to figure out how to adopt out kits without causing the mother much grief. It’s time consuming but so worth it.
    It involves removing each kit, one by one, for periods of time and, then returning them; taking each again for a longer time and returning; on and on with more extended periods of absence until the mother “forgets”. It takes up to 2-3 weeks at times.
    I believe that it’s too stressful for a mother cat to have her kits just taken away in one sweep.

  7. Serbella McGee says:

    I agree with you and Jackson Galaxy, Michael. I believe that cats do grieve but that they are much better than humans in dealing with it and moving on. My boy Bandit seemed to know that my father had passed years ago. That cat would go into my Dad’s tv room and sit and stare at his empty chair. He became upset when we removed my Dad’s house slippers and changed the furniture around. It would not surprise me if Bandit was able to smell the cancer inside my father.

    Angel and Ruby searched for Rocky after he died. They didn’t eat much and they sat around staring into space more than usual. When Coyote passed and I brought his body home (before the cremation) Maya, his little sister, seemed startled when she saw him. Oddly enough, Coyote’s mom, Moo, didn’t seem to be affected. I got the impression she was thinking to herself, “Well, that’s his body but he’s not there anymore.” Maya moped around the apartment for a week. She and Coyote used to play a lot together.

    And I am certain that Samirah grieved for her first mistress. She totally ignored every potential adopter who came into the shelter for over a year: “You’re not my human. Go away.” I saw that about her when I came to see her. They grieve, but they get over it quicker.

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