Pet Factsheets

Grief in cats

©VetFolio LLC and Vetstream Ltd. Created and peer-reviewed by VetFolio LLC and Vetstream Ltd.

Dogs and cats seem to show a wide variety of responses to losing a close human or animal companion. As in people, signs of grief in pets usually improve with time. However, there are things you can do to help your pet through this difficult period.

Do cats grieve?

Whether animals feel emotions in the same way people do is unknown. However, their behaviors are commonly interpreted as reliable expressions of mood - for example, relaxed, fearful, or aggressive. Based on observed changes in behaviour, it is thought that some dogs and cats grieve after losing a close human or animal companion. In 1996, a study by the ASPCA found that more than half of dogs and cats had at least four behavioural changes after losing an animal companion. Many of these changes, such as eating less and changes in sleep patterns, were similar to behaviors exhibited by grieving people.

If you have recently lost a pet and other pets in the household are acting differently, it is possible that they miss the deceased pet and are experiencing grief.

What are the signs of grief?

Like people, dogs and cats seem to show a wide variety of responses to losing a companion. Behaviour changes observed in the 1996 ASPCA study included:

  • Eating less
  • Restlessness or sleeping less
  • Acting sluggish or sleeping more
  • Vocalising (barking, howling, meowing) more
  • Avoiding contact or play with other family members
  • Becoming "clingy"
  • Seeming disoriented or confused

However, these behaviours are also signs of illness in pets. If your pet is exhibiting any of these behaviours, call your vet for an appointment to rule out health problems.

Some animals appear to look for the missing pet, or, if the deceased pet was taken to the vete to be euthanased, they may wait by the door or window for him or her to come home.

Other changes in behaviour among surviving pets may reflect shifts in relationships, especially if the deceased pet was a dominant member of the household.

How to help your pet deal with the loss of a companion

As in people, signs of grief in pets usually improve with time. However, there are things you can do to help your pet through this difficult period.

  • If your pet is eating less or is not eating, encourage him or her to eat by making food more appealing. For example, slightly warming canned food can make it smell better to pets. However, be very careful to not overheat food, which can burn your pet's mouth. If your pet refuses to eat at all, call your vet.
  • Spend extra time with your pet, whether on walks, during grooming, or playing games.
  • Provide distractions for your pet. Hiding toys in his or her favourite places and putting a little dry food inside a puzzle toy are a couple of examples. Try not to accidentally reward behaviours that you do not want to continue. For example, do not try to distract a howling pet with treats, or the pet may learn to howl for treats. Wait until the pet is quiet, and then give him or her your attention.
  • If the deceased pet had a favourite blanket or toy, leave it in the house for a while so that other pets understand that the missing pet is not returning.

Because you are also feeling the loss of your pet, it can be hard to concentrate, and your behaviour can affect your other pets. Spending extra time bonding with them can help both you and them.

Whether and when to get a new pet is a very personal decision. However, trying to quickly "replace" a pet's companion is usually not recommended. Pets already in the household may regard a new arrival as an intruder so consider whether you and your pets are ready for a new family member.