Do cats experience grief like humans?
Losing a loved one has a profound impact on us as humans. The spectrum of emotion that we go through is vast, potentially lengthy, and also highly individual.
Do animals (specifically cats), go through something similar? And if so, how can we as guardians, help them through it?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
You see, no-one has ever been able to ask a cat how they feel. Everything we know about animal emotions are inferred by their behaviour and biological responses. In fact, the subject of animal emotions is one filled with debate.
Emotions in animals are considered a ‘soft science’. Any time there isn’t a ‘hard science’, inferences are made and opinions are had. And any time inferences are made and opinions are had, there are parties who will argue each way.
You see, ‘hard science’ prefers to deal with only the ‘publicly demonstrable’, that is, only things that can be actually measured. ‘Hard’ scientists consider anything that can’t be measured to be in the realm of ‘soft science’. It’s not necessarily that they don’t believe that cats experience emotions, but moreso that we can’t actually measure them so there’s no point in saying whether they do or don’t (or even considering it).
So, the fact is, we don’t actually know the emotions that cats experience. There is little doubt that they experience emotion, but no-one knows to what extent and whether it’s the same as humans.
What can be measured (at least anecdotally by guardians and behaviourists globally) is a number of behavioural changes that many cats may display upon the loss of a loved one. This, in my view, points to the fact that loss does trigger a cascade of behaviours that we explain with the label of ‘grief’. So yes, I believe cats experience grief, or something like it.
Grief (or the emotion we label grief) doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘the passing’ of a loved one’.
Let me explain. For us humans, grief normally has an aspect of permanency, which can mean the passing of a loved one, but can also occur as the ending of a relationship, job etc.
For a cat (or other animal) this can occur without the permanency aspect. Just an extended absence (or even shorter) can trigger the behaviours we attribute to grief.
I’ll tell you why.
Consider a cat who has an authentic, close bond with a human or another cat. The absence of the other cat or human is simply that – an absence. The only way a cat ‘knows’ if that cat or human is coming back is based on a history of an ‘absence -> return sequence’ in the past. ‘Grief’ can actually start occurring when the absence is longer than what the cat is used to.
For example, a cat who is used to their human going to work each day and returning just after dark, will (usually) experience no grief emotions when the human leaves for the day. They are used to this, as it happens most days. But if the human doesn’t return that night (especially if it hasn’t happened in the past), the cat may start to experience negative emotions.
A cat who is used to their bonded human leaving for days at a time may take quite a while to experience any negative emotions because they have been conditioned with those long absences.
The problem is, we can’t actually explain to a cat whether the loss or absence is permanent or not. They can only judge it by history. A person or cat who hasn’t returned is likely to raise a red flag only when it passes a point in time that the cat hasn’t been conditioned for.
This is why the behaviours we label ‘grief’ in cats are very similar to the behaviours we would label ‘separation anxiety’.
Grief in cats tends to follow a fairly predictable, 3-stage pattern.
This stage is relatively short-lived compared to the rest of the stages.
A cat in the Active Phase will appear to be actively searching for the loved one (cat, human or other animal), after realising the unusually long absence. This is marked by behaviours such as vocalisation (calling for them), pacing and other searching activities.
When the cat seems to realise that the object of their bond has gone, depressive behaviours may set in. The cat may become withdrawn, less active than usual, lose their appetite and appear just, well, sad. This is normal. How long a cat stays in this phase is highly individual, but we can do things to help, which you’ll read about in the next section.
Please note, if you are worried, a vet visit is always recommended, especially if a cat has stopped eating or toileting.
This is when the cat (hopefully with our help) begins to appear to get on with life and get back to normal. There may be some personality changes evident, as the overall relationship dynamics in the household will have changed. Some cats become a bit quieter, but conversely, some cats really appear to ‘come out of their shell’ and become more friendly and affectionate.
Most of the time, a cat will progress through all phases in their own time. Though there are some important things we can do to ensure we aren’t making it any more difficult for them.
If you can help it, now’s not the time to be making any major (or minor really) changes to the current routine, especially those a cat would consider stressful.
Any change in routine in a stressor, and we shouldn’t be adding any more to an already stressful time.
In the same vein, it’s not a good idea to make any other major environmental changes. If possible, hold off any planned changes for a while (e.g. new furniture, renovations, holidays etc).
And although you may think getting another kitten/cat will help company-wise, please understand it’s not a good idea right now at all. Your cat doesn’t need extra company, she needs time.
As empathetic humans, we naturally want to make things better for our animals, and that includes doing things that we think help other humans, like affection, cuddles etc.
A grieving cat more than likely will need their space, and may not be up to the ‘stressor’ of over-affection. It would be a much better idea to only give affection when they seek it out from you, not the other way around.
I know I said no changes to the routine or environment, but do consider making small changes that are rewarding for them. For example, a little bit more play if they are up for it, clicker training, a puzzle feeder, treasure hunts, some extra treats when you’re snuggling on the couch with your cat beside you, a new cat tree near a window, another scratching post, some classical music etc. These are all small changes that we know are highly rewarding for a cat, and can help them move through the depressive phase.
As you can imagine, grief is not an easy emotion for us or our animals. But by simply understanding and supporting them in a way that is good for them, we can make the process easier on our wonderful animals.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats.