Many cat owners wonder if their feline companions understand the death of another pet in the household. Unlike humans who comprehend the finality of death, it’s unclear whether cats grasp the concept that a deceased friend is gone forever. However, cats likely recognize the absence of a missing companion even if they don’t fully understand what death means. Here’s an overview of what science says about cats and death recognition.
How cats react to the death of another pet
When a dog, cat, or other animal friend dies, surviving pets will notice the absence of their companion. They may appear confused while searching or waiting for the missing pet to return. Some of the common behaviors cats display when another resident pet dies include:
- Searching for the deceased pet around your home
- Waiting or looking for their friend at spots the dead pet used to frequent
- An increased interest in sniffing or investigating areas where the dead pet spent a lot of time
- Vocalizing more often such as meowing or crying
- Decreased appetite or lack of interest in toys/treats
- Changes in sleep patterns like sleeping more or becoming restless
- Becoming more clingy and demanding more attention
Your cat is most likely to demonstrate these behaviors within the first few weeks after another pet dies. Some cats may go back to their usual routines more quickly while others can remain unsettled for months.
Do cats understand the permanence of death?
Experts disagree over whether cats can comprehend the irreversible finality of death. Like dogs, cats do not have a concept of the afterlife or ponder existential questions. However, some researchers argue cats are intelligent enough to recognize a dead companion will not return.
Cats may not understand that death makes a friend’s body stop working. But they’re able to detect a lack of sound, smell, movement, and responsiveness from a deceased housemate. It’s possible cats interpret these changes as the companion permanently disappearing or abandoning the home.
In one study from 2019, researchers found cats spent more time exploring the area around a dead feline’s corpse compared to a toy or object. This suggests the cats recognized their lifeless friend was different and demanded more investigation.
Do cats grieve when another pet dies?
The depth of grieving varies a lot between individual cats. Littermates or pets who were closely bonded for years tend to show more evidence of mourning compared to casual acquaintances.
Some behaviors that may indicate your cat is grieving after losing a companion include:
- Loss of interest in play and less sociability
- Changes in vocalizing patterns
- Altered sleep and activity levels
- Decreased grooming and appetite
- Seeking more affection or attention from human family members
- Becoming more timid or anxious
A grieving cat may wander aimlessly, stare into space, or wait vigilantly at spots the deceased pet liked to sleep or eat. These actions suggest your cat is missing their friend.
How long do cats grieve?
There’s no definitive timeframe for feline grieving. Cats can mourn a companion’s death for weeks to months. However, exaggerated or prolonged grief in cats warrants a veterinary visit to check for underlying medical issues.
Signs your cat may be experiencing unhealthy grieving that requires vet care include:
- Refusing to eat or drink for more than 48 hours
- Significant lethargy, lack of interest in surroundings, or hiding
- Excessive irritability or aggression
- Neglecting proper litter box habits
- Self-mutilation, over-grooming, or pulling out fur
Your vet can assess whether depression or another medical problem is causing these severe issues in your bereaved cat.
Do cats understand euthanasia?
When a fellow pet becomes terminally ill or suffers from age-related decline, euthanasia may become necessary for humane reasons. Cats are unlikely to comprehend the rationale behind euthanasia or that it was a compassionate decision.
However, your cat will notice when their companion’s scent, presence, and sounds disappear after an at-home euthanasia or when you return home without them after a vet visit. Even if your cat doesn’t associate their friend’s permanent absence with the euthanasia itself, they will still experience grief and confusion when their long-time companion suddenly vanishes.
Cats’ evolutionary view of death
Species that live in social groups – like dogs, elephants and chimpanzees – may have evolved to better understand death since this knowledge benefits the entire group. Solitary hunters like cats haven’t faced the same evolutionary pressures to comprehend mortality.
In the wild, feral cats leave their communities when it’s time to die alone. So even though we view our felines as family, the detached evolutionary strategy of cats means they aren’t wired to mourn death in the same complex way humans do.
Helping your cat cope when another pet dies
The loss of a companion cat or dog is challenging for grieving owners too. While your own pet bereavement runs deep, you can also help your mourning cat through the transition in a few ways:
- Keep your cat’s schedule and routine consistent as possible. Feed them on a regular schedule and preserve the same playtime, nap spots, and litter box setup they were accustomed to.
- Spend more one-on-one playtime with your cat. Increase interactive toys and activities to distract them from the absence of their friend.
- Give your cat more opportunities for mental stimulation through puzzle feeders, new toys, and access to look out windows.
- Make sure your grieving cat still receives regular annual vet exams to rule out underlying illness causing any behavior changes.
- Consider adopting another friendly cat so your pet has a new companion after an appropriate grieving period. However, some cats prefer being solo pets.
Working through grief takes time for cats and humans alike. While your cat can’t understand the abstract concept of death, they feel the loss of a missing companion. With patience and TLC during the mourning period, most cats gradually adjust to the absence of a deceased friend.
How do cats act when they are dying?
Determining if your aging or unwell cat is close to death can help you provide comfort care as their health declines. Here are some common signs a cat is dying:
- Decreased or absent appetite and extreme weight loss
- Labored, open-mouth breathing or panting
- Severe lethargy, decreased movement or vocalizing
- Non-responsiveness to stimuli or inability to recognize familiar people
- Collapsing or unable to stand for more than a few steps
- Chronic vomiting or diarrhea
- Open sores, bleeding tumors, or foul odor from necrosis
- Incontinence or loss of litter box habits
- Jaundice – yellowing gums or inner eyelids
- Difficulty controlling body temperature
Saying goodbye is excruciating when your cat is nearing end of life. But identifying feline behaviors predictive of imminent death allows you to prioritize comfort and spend final days appreciating your treasured companion.
Do cats come back to die at home?
You may hear tales of cats leaving home to quietly pass away alone when they are ready to die. However, cats dying outside from illness, injury or predation is likely more common than them departing purposefully.
While the myth persists that cats prefer to slip away on their own terms, your beloved pet depends on you for care. If your senior or terminally ill feline tries wandering from home, consider these tips:
- Check with your vet to determine if dementia is causing your cat to become confused and lost.
- Ensure your cat is microchipped and has ID tags on their collar so you can be contacted if they become lost.
- Limit outside access if it seems to be exacerbating your cat’s health issues. For example, install cat fencing or switch to a strictly indoor lifestyle if feasible.
- Try natural calming supplements or pheromone diffusers to ease anxiety driving your cat to roam.
- Ensure your cat is spayed/neutered to decrease urge to seek mates and wander for breeding if those instincts arise at end of life.
While each cat is different, most rely on their owners’ care when declining rather than intentionally leaving home to die. Focus on quality time together and consider in-home euthanasia when your pet’s time comes.
Signs your cat is dying of old age
Cats can live well into their late teens or early 20s. But aging eventually takes a toll. Changes you may notice in your senior cat as they decline include:
- Significant weight loss and muscle wasting despite appetite
- Chronic vomiting, diarrhea or constipation
- Lumps, tumors or cancers
- Dental disease or mouth pain
- Decreased grooming and matted fur
- Confusion, anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Loss of sight, hearing, or ability to smell
- Arthritis, limping, stiffness, or difficulty jumping
- Increased sleeping and lethargy
- Loss of bladder control or consistent accidents
Managing pain, adapting their environment, and maintaining litter box hygiene can help your senior cat enjoy more good days before decline takes over. Stay alert for signs of catastrophic collapse signaling emergency veterinary need.
How can you tell if your cat is dying?
Identifying signs of imminent death allows for end-of-life comfort care. Here are indicators your cat may only have days or hours left:
- No interest in food or water for over 48 hours
- Cat cannot lift their head or make attempts to stand
- No response to stimuli or seems unaware of surroundings
- Difficulty breathing such as open-mouth panting or loud gurgling
- Body temperature dropping below 99°F or rising over 104°F
- Incontinence and lack of litter box use
- Skin tenting – when pinched, skin stays tented vs. springing back
- Non-responsiveness to medications or treatments
- Agonal breathing – irregular pauses between breaths
Saying goodbye is excruciating. However, realizing your cat’s death is imminent provides chance to minimize suffering and surround them with love and comfort at the end.
How do cats act when they know they are dying?
Cats likely don’t comprehend the concept of death approaching. But they react to the discomfort and symptoms of underlying terminal illness or injury. Behaviors to watch for include:
- Withdrawing from family members or hiding more often
- Decreased interest in play, food, or treats
- Pain-associated behaviors like vocalizing, aggression, or self-mutilation
- Restlessness, anxiety, stress panting, or agitation
- Changes in sleep patterns and lethargy or clinginess
- Loss of litter box habits or difficulty moving to use box
- Excessive thirst and urination or lack of bladder control
- Labored breathing, coughing, or respiratory distress
- Weakness, stumbling, falling, or inability to stand
While not fully aware death is approaching, your cat will feel unwell from health issues driving their decline. Seek vet advice to ease discomfort and provide tender care when your pet’s health is failing.
What to do if your cat is dying at home
Realizing your beloved cat is actively dying is heart-wrenching. If you opt for home care instead of euthanasia, tips to comfort a dying cat include:
- Gently stroke or brush them if they seem to enjoy touch
- Keep them warm using blankets in their favored rest area
- Play soft music or sounds to mask stressful noises
- Use pheromone sprays or diffusers to ease anxiety
- Speak gently and reassure them of your presence
- Limit handling or repositioning to avoid stress
- Keep other pets away to prevent crowding
- Monitor litter box usage and provide assistance
- Offer aromatic foods for interest even if appetite is gone
- Ask your vet about palliative medication if signs of pain are noticeable
While losing your beloved companion is devastating, you can take steps to comfort them and provide a peaceful passing at home. Consult your vet for guidance as your cat’s health fails.
Cats likely don’t comprehend the permanence or irreversibility of death. But they do grieve and react to the absence of a missing companion. While they may search for a deceased friend initially, most cats adjust to the loss over time. You can help your cat cope by preserving their normal routine, spending extra time together, and considering a new companion when the mourning period ends. Understanding how cats perceive death allows you to interpret their behaviors and provide supportive care as your pet’s own life draws to a close.