Cat communication

Grief in cats

Do cats feel human-like emotions? Can they grieve?

Recently scientists have begun to recognise that cats lead rich emotional lives and can show emotional responses such as grief. Changes in their environment like losing an owner or a companion cat or other animal, moving house, surrender to a shelter or change of owner can all cause grief-like behaviour.

The research suggests that the level of distress is dependent on the degree and length of the bond with the lost loved one.

Grief may take up to six months to resolve.

How can I tell if my cat is grieving?

Watch for changes in their patterns of social behaviour, eating, sleeping and interaction with surroundings. How is this behaviour different to the pattern before the loss? Being familiar with your cat’s daily routine and behaviour helps. Focusing on the outward expressions of grief compared to their normal behaviour helps prevent you projecting your own emotions or expectations on to your cat.

Eight signs that your cat may be grieving

  1. loss of appetite
  2. changes in energy level – becoming very lethargic or extremely hyperactive
  3. changes to normal sleeping pattern
  4. searching or sitting where the lost one used to sleep
  5. excessive howling or unusual silence
  6. wanting to be alone or staring out of the window for prolonged periods
  7. neediness – following you and seeking attention more than normal
  8. health issues such as the emergence of latent cat flu or gastrointestinal upsets.

How can I help?

In most cases, passing time and a supportive owner allows healing to occur. Steps you can take to assist this process include:

  1. responding appropriately – for example, if the cat is howling don’t scold, just reassure gently and calmly
  2. providing extra love and attention (if your cat enjoys this) or respect their need for privacy
  3. keeping to routines such as daily feeding times, types of food offered and the position of litter trays
  4. encouraging appetite – try warming food or offering favourite foods
  5. offering an object from the lost loved one so your cat can access their scent
  6. allowing the grief process to take its course and not rushing into another pet immediately.


If your cat is losing weight, or exhibiting any other signs of illness, see your vet. They can rule out other causes of changed behaviour and there are support treatments and medications available to assist.

Is your cat tracking you?

Your cat can use your voice to mentally map where you are.

Do you ever get the feeling that your cat has a GPS tracking your location?  Research from Japan has found that your cat can mentally map your location by the sound of your voice.

Previously, research showed that cats do understand that an object still exists even if they can’t see it.  We didn’t know, though, how cats might use their other senses to track objects or people. 

So researchers from Kyoto University decided to test how cats used their sense of hearing.

To do this they ran an experiment to find out how cats responded when they heard recordings of their owner’s voice and a stranger’s voices in expected and unexpected places. 

The research found that cats weren’t surprised when their owner’s voice was played twice from the same place.  They also weren’t surprised when a stranger’s voice was played twice from the same place or once from two different places.

However, when the owner’s voice was played from first one place and then from a different place a few seconds later, the cats were surprised.

The researchers suggest that the cats mentally track their owner’s location using the owner’s voice and were surprised when the owner seemed to have moved from one place to another place.

So …  your cat’s mind is more complex than you thought. 

And they probably are tracking you!

You can read more about this fascinating research in the paper Socio-spatial cognition in cats: Mentally mapping owner’s location from voice


Why do cats purr?

The purring of cats is something we find very appealing.

They are able to vibrate their vocal chords as they breathe in and out to produce that rhythmic vibration we call a purr, in a similar way to human speech.

Research suggests a cat can purr in different ways and for various reasons.

Kittens are born blind and deaf and they begin purring after just a few days to attract their mother’s attention at feeding time. Cat owners are often treated to a coercive display of purring around dinner time.

Cats can manipulate their purr.  Researchers found that, when purring to solicit food, there is a concealed cry within their purr similar to the cries of a human baby. This triggers a nurturing response in their human owners.

Cats often purr when people stroke them so we associate purring and the cat’s pleasure. They may also be trying to encourage further interaction as if to say ‘please continue to stroke me’. But the benefit is not all one way. The purring of a cat has a calming effect on people and cat owners, for example, have a 40% lower risk of having a heart attack.

We usually associate purring with contentment  However, even though it takes energy, many cats purr when they get hurt or are in pain. So what makes the effort worth it? The purr generates strong frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz. Various researchers have shown that sound frequencies in this range are optimal for pain relief and can improve bone density and promote healing of bones and muscles.

In general, the easiest way tell why your cat is purring is to check their body language and the context. If the purring is first thing in the morning maybe they’re simply asking to be fed. If you just returned from a day at work they may be saying hello.

And if they are sitting on your lap purring contentedly? Hey, don’t overthink it, just relax and enjoy the moment.

For more reading, try this New Scientist article Why do cats purr?