How Cats Respond to Their Humans’ Deaths

Cats do feel grief at the loss of a guardian. Help them through it with these tips.

Cats get a bad rap for being aloof, but the sudden loss of their human can affect them deeply. By: quinndombrowski

Holly hid for 3 days after her 83-year-old guardian died. The police didn’t see the young Abyssinian and sealed off the apartment. The guardian’s daughter was informed that anyone wanting to go back in there to look for Holly would need the city’s permission.

Fortunately, two volunteers with Northeast Abyssinian and Somali Rescue (NEAR) got into the apartment to extricate the frightened animal from under a china cabinet. She is now being fostered by a woman who knows her Abys.

Too many cats with elderly caretakers end up needing to be rescued when their humans die. And you can’t always wait for the will to be read. Getting them out before the local animal control center steps in is critical.

People More Than Places

Cats, the old line goes, are more attached to places than to people. Even animal behaviorist John Bradshaw maintains that “cats are not as socially sophisticated as dogs are: they are undoubtedly intelligent, but much of that intelligence relates to obtaining food and defending territory. Emotions that relate to relationships, such as jealousy, grief and guilt, are probably beyond their reach.”

I don’t agree. And I’ve got a lot of company on this one. “Many people think that cats are aloof and believe that they do not care about their owners or miss household humans if they die,” writer A. Kaminsky remarks. “This is not the case. These animals form bonds with their owners and when a human in the house dies, they will mourn his or her passing.”

Cats are individuals — each one responds differently to the loss of his human. When author Gladys Taber died in 1980, Amber, her beloved and much-written-about Aby, “just faded away,” writes Taber’s daughter, “as if she sensed somehow that this time Gladys was not coming home from the hospital.”

Some felines withdraw into themselves. Others seem fine, but family members report finding them hanging out by their guardians’ urns, keeping vigil, as it were. One woman reported that her cat actually kept “rubbing herself on my deceased husband’s urn…. It makes me wonder if there’s something pulling her that way.”

It may be difficult for cats to grasp the idea that their human is not coming home. By: colmmcscky

Emotional Fallout

Cats definitely grieve, but do they distinguish between losing their human through death and losing him or her through the act of being abandoned? Hard to say. All permanent absences “leave holes in a cat’s life,” says blogger Sarah Hartwell, “and, depending on how attached the cat was to the missing person, can cause the reaction we call grief.”

It takes the cat a while to regain her emotional bearings. Holly, for instance, went off her food for a bit. She was “very depressed and confused about her change in circumstances,” according to Carolyn Chambers, one of the rescuers. “The cat is grieving the loss of the only person she’s known since 8 weeks old and the loss of her home. She started purring hard when I kissed her little head.”

Cats will hide and sometimes even pee their beds from stress. They can be clingy, as Barbara Barnett’s fosters, Sasha and CriCri, were. Both had spent some time at animal control after their guardian’s death and “were desperate for attention and love. CriCri would put his front paws on me over and over until I picked him up.”

Most cats do adjust to the loss of their original guardians, given enough love and understanding, and will gradually transfer their affection to their new humans, as CriCri did.

This sweet kitty needed a home after her guardian died:

Handle With Care

Grief has its protocols. Here are some tips for dealing with grieving cats after the death of a family member:

  • Stick to a routine so the cat gets a comforting sense of consistency. Kaminsky advises waiting “before making any drastic changes, such as remodeling the home, or even doing much interior decorating.” To the cat’s way of thinking, there has already been upheaval enough.
  • Make time for your cats. It’s easy to forget about your pets at this time. Boarding is not an option I’d recommend — they’ll end up feeling doubly abandoned. Perhaps keep them in a separate part of the house, though, so you don’t have to worry about them running out with everybody coming and going after the funeral.

Basically, be kind to these cats — they are grieving, too. And if you want to be especially kind to your own cats, lock down some iron-clad provisions made for them in case something happens to you. Holly, Sasha and CriCri recommend it.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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