The very same ‘lone wolf’ attitude that keeps cats stealthily out of sight is what makes a 14-year average lifespan possible. But years from now, that once rambunctious kitty with a wildly contagious personality will reach her golden years. Many of us miss the signs that senior cats are dying — but do cats know when another cat is dying?
Cats know when another cat is dying to an extent. A closely-bonded cat may try to entice the dying kitty to play, becoming withdrawn when ignored. Concerned cats may be lethargic, stop grooming, or show personality changes in response. Yet, most reactions stem from kitties reading our emotions.
While not the most upbeat topic, recognizing severe sickness thanks to an ultra-observant kitty could be life-saving. To learn about if cats know when another cat is dying, read on!
The Signs Other Kitties Can Detect
Cats are notoriously solitary critters, though the need for feline companionship is hotly-debated amongst cat owners. Some cats build inseparable bonds and share vulnerable moments with their feline housemates (i.e., Cuddling, allogrooming, wrestling). Others couldn’t be bothered by those creeping into their territory.
So, what signs do our more intuitive kitties detect as fellow cats near death? Here are three signs that tell a cat that something’s amiss:
Withdrawn Behaviors (or Personality Changes)
A closely-bonded duo boasts deep attachments and emotional-dependence. These adoring kitties — often blood siblings or close friends — may play together, nap in the same box, and experience intense distress once separated. Bonded cats are much more attuned to their fellow kitty’s personality and can detect changes almost immediately.
For example, cats might sense something’s severely wrong if their fellow housemate:
- Isn’t acting like their normal, affectionate, and playful self
- Insists on napping alone or becomes more reclusive
- Doesn’t respond to wrestling bouts or toys deposited nearby
- Won’t rush toward rustling treat baggies or finish breakfast as usual
- Breaks with the normal routine (hissing or resisting post-dinner grooming sessions)
Cats may lack the insight to know that a withdrawn or behaviorally-different kitty is nearing death. But emotionally-dependent cats certainly recognize that something isn’t quite right.
A Human Emotional Response
Losing a cat or coping with a grim medical diagnosis (i.e., Cancer, CKD) might float under your other cat’s radar. But even though humans continually misread cat facial expressions (41% of the time), felines are quick to decipher human emotions.
The latest research shows that cats can ‘match’ our moods, explaining why cats respond to happy vocal inflections and smiles with purrs and bunting. The opposite also stands. An insightful cat can detect unbearable sadness, stress, and frustration as you cope with this loss.
Even if your cat’s aloofness shields her from a sibling’s illness, recognizing that you’re depressed or angered will cue her into what’s happening: ‘Something’s wrong here.’ There’s no guarantee that your kitty understands why you’re feeling these emotions, however.
Cats may not tear into a trash can for meaty scraps as dogs would, but a cat’s olfactory (smell) sense far surpasses both canines and humans. That tiny pink nose is up to 14 times more sensitive than ours — but it’s not just carnivorous treats intriguing these olfactory receptors.
Cats (along with dogs and other creatures) boast the unique ability to detect cancer by their distinctive scent. Now, felines certainly don’t specialize in oncology. Nor do they understand what this smell indicates on a more scientific scale.
Fluffy might notice that another cat’s distinct pheromones reek of the ‘unknown.’ However, this odd scent that evades our nostrils stems from the polyamines that trigger cell growth in cancer patients — even in our four-legged friends.
How Cats Respond to Fellow Dying Cats
Grief isn’t only a human response to loss — species ranging from turtles and chimpanzees to giraffes and dolphins mourn the loss of their own. But a cat’s response to another’s approaching death is far from cliche, with reactions extending from severe depression to borderline elation.
So, how will the impending loss impact a cat emotionally and behaviorally? Here’s a spectrum of three possible responses.
Depression & Behavioral Changes
Even non-siblings and newly-introduced felines can develop strong bonds. When their oh-so-reliable pal suddenly appears withdrawn or depressed, these emotions — and grief — can transfer to the healthy cat. Potential behavioral reactions include:
- Desperately attempting to get the other cat to play, cuddle, groom, eat, or explore
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Crying out to get the cat’s attention or not meowing as often as usual (70% of the time)
- Halting grooming, eating (46% of cases), and playing routines themselves
- Growing clinginess with other felines and humans
Cats mourn their friend’s loss similarly to how humans respond to death. Don’t forget to pay special attention to your healthy cat in those emotional final days. Extra nighttime cuddles, favorite treats, and new toys might lessen the turmoil.
Even the most affectionate, compassionate, and selfless kitties can hit an emotional roadblock with a dying fellow cat. Those stereotypical ‘lone wolf’ cats might entirely evade this medical emergency while going about their routine as usual. These indifferent felines might eat, sleep, play, and use the litter box without signaling that something’s wrong.
However, just like humans, cats respond to grief differently, and no reaction doesn’t equate to ‘not caring.’ Cats who didn’t share an incredibly close bond and merely coexisted in a shared household might not be gut-wrenched with this looming death like you.
To think that your cat feels joy while you’re deep in mourning can feel defeating or even trigger fierce anger. However, look at this from a cat’s perspective — however selfish it may be. Cats crave attention, and a dying kitty who remains out of sight (and a highly-emotional owner desperate for snuggles) is the perfect opportunity to receive some much-needed affection.
This disheartening elation doesn’t stem from a dislike for the sick kitty but rather a cat’s social instincts and repairing her relationship with you.
Signs a Cat Is Sick or Dying
What if you don’t have an observant and compassionate cat eyeing another’s health? Changes to habits and personality traits are the clearest indicators of sickness or death, such as:
- Frailty or weakness
- Unusual behaviors (craving more attention, appearing aggressive)
- Lack of appetite, thirst, and grooming habits
- Significant weight loss
- New diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting
- A low body temperature (typically below 100°F)
- Low heart rate (below 150 beats per minute)
- Seeking uncharacteristic solitude (under the bed, behind furniture)
Observe your cat closely and take note of any changes lasting longer than 12-24 hours. A timely vet visit can result in an earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment options.
Lethargy, lack of appetite, and hiding could all have more innocent explanations — like stress, a respiratory infection, or old age. The video below overviews critical signs that a cat is sick:
There’s nothing more upsetting than watching your beloved cat fall ill or near her final days. But knowing when to ‘let go’ can make those last days more peaceful. To survive ‘broken heart syndrome’ and grieve this looming loss appropriately:
- Make those final days more comfortable (extra treats and cuddles).
- Allow yourself time to grieve — pets are family and can leave gaping wounds behind.
- Attend bereavement groups or schedule an appointment with a therapist.
- Don’t adopt a replacement kitty immediately.
Above all else, appreciate every playtime, snore, silly outburst, and bunt. You never know if it’ll be your last.
- Research Online: Longevity and Mortality of Cats Attending Primary-care Veterinary Practices in England
- Scientific American: Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously
- Banfield Pet Hospital: How can I tell if my cat is sick or dying?
- NWF: When Animals Grieve
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Chronic Kidney Disease
- Science Mag: How good are you at reading your cat’s facial expressions?
- Animal Cognition: Man’s other best friend: domestic cats (F. silvestris catus) and their discrimination of human emotion cues
- PAWS Chicago: Cat Senses
- Oncoscience: Inside a mystery of oncoscience: The cancer-sniffing pets
- VCA Hospitals: Do Cats Mourn?