Our article on how to tell if your cat is dying is the most read article on Cat-World, and the purpose of that article is to help people recognise the signs that a cat is in the final stages of life. The volume and content of the comments alone show just what a painful and challenging experience it is for cat lovers, many of whom fight hard to save their beloved companion or lose them suddenly and unexpectedly.
Any animal lover knows how painful it is to lose a pet, and final months, weeks or days can be traumatic and take their toll. Many people will experience the cognitive dissonance of knowing the end is near vs clinging to the hope that something, anything can be done buy more precious time. Compounding the pain of losing a pet is the feeling of isolation because not everyone understands how important our pets are and the huge hole left after they have gone.
Pets are a part of the family; they provide comfort, companionship, and joy. They are somebody to talk to without the fear of judgment who are always there for us and always love us. For those who are isolated or lonely, they provide a purpose, something to care for, a reason to get out of bed, that connection with another sentient being.
Stages of loss
A wide range of emotions will be experienced after the loss of a pet, which is entirely normal. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, a Swedish-American psychiatrist, describes five stages of loss:
For me, denial starts before a terminal diagnosis, deep down I know something is wrong, but deny that it is potentially life-ending it can continue after they have passed.
After they have passed, denial that they are no longer there. Waking on a morning and hoping it was all a bad dream. Looking or calling for them. This state can help shield a person from the reality that they are gone. You can swing from sheer panic, absolute devastation to denying the reality.
I have not personally experienced this, but anger can manifest in many ways. Not coping under stress at work, anger at yourself for not doing more, anger at the veterinarian, a short temper with loved ones. These are all normal feelings as you process the loss.
Anger is a pain; it is not always logical; they fought so hard, we fought so hard for them, the sheer unfairness of losing them, the feeling of complete and utter powerlessness. Life is not fair.
This is similar to guilt, which I describe further down. If only I had noticed earlier or sought a second opinion, maybe there would have been a better outcome.
The inconsolable a raw feeling of loss. Tears that do not dry up, a feeling of lethargy, emptiness, finding no joy in things you normally find pleasure in. A sense of having nothing to look forward to.
You finally move past the shock and the grief and accept that the pet has gone. The trauma of the final months, weeks, days, or the sudden passing is gradually replaced with acceptance, and you can think of the good life your pet had instead of the pain at the end. You will still feel sad at times, but it is no longer all-consuming.
Not everybody will experience all of the above, and there is no timeline on how long each stage will last. For some, it can be quick; others will take longer. I find denial starts before a terminal diagnosis, deep down I know something is wrong, but deny that it is potentially life-ending.
My own emotions
- What just happened?
- Why did it happen?
- Why did I not notice sooner?
- I can’t believe he is gone.
- It was so sudden.
- I thought we had many more years together.
- We fought so hard.
These feelings are especially common if the death was sudden and unexpected. Grasping to comprehend what happened, one minute we were happy with our cat, the next they’re gone. We feel blindsided, one day everything is normal, and suddenly they’re gone. Our head is spinning.
Guilt is common, did you wait too long, did you give up too soon? There is no perfect time to euthanise a pet; they can’t tell us when they’ve had enough, we have to go by symptoms, behaviour and our veterinarian’s recommendation. Know that you did your best for the cat.
Guilt can also occur if the caregiver feels they have contributed to their cat’s death. Maybe not seeking veterinary attention quickly enough, accidentally or intentionally letting the cat outside, which resulted in an accident. We all make mistakes, and sometimes they do have serious consequences, but re-living the situation only compounds the pain and it won’t change the outcome. You have to learn to let it go and forgive yourself to move on.
Not relief that the cat has passed away, but relief that the suffering has ended. Some cats can live with a terminal illness for months. It’s hard to watch a pet you love so dearly face a terminal disease. It is a difficult fight, with lots of ups and downs.
Missing the companionship and the special bond you had with your cat. Coming home to an empty house, not being woken up at 6 am for breakfast or having them wind around your legs as you make your morning coffee. Missing conversations you would share with your cat.
The loneliness can be compounded by a feeling of isolation when friends or family don’t understand the deep grief you are experiencing. It is not uncommon for people to avoid a person who is bereaved because they don’t know what to say or can’t relate.
Grief is not always the same
Upon reflection, the grief I have felt for each cat I have lost has been different depending on my relationship with that particular cat as well as how and when they died. Despite the fact, Eliot was one of my closest cats, and 15 years on, I still tear up if I think of her, her passing came as a relief. It was hard to watch cancer eat away at her. I was incredibly grateful that Eliot was able to meet my daughter.
Suni died suddenly, before his time. It was painful and raw and took me a long time to get over the guilt of losing him and how he died.
Levi was tough because it hit the whole family and was also sudden. We all grieved together, and I still remember the four of us huddled around his grave sobbing.
For others, it was sad but expected. Mitzy and Misha were both 16 when they passed. I missed them but also realised that they had become old and unwell.
Physical symptoms of grief
Grief is not just an emotion; it is a form of stress which can affect us physically too.
- Loss of appetite
- Less patience
How long does the grief last?
There is no timeline on grief; it lasts as long as it lasts. My own experience has been that immediately after the loss of a cat, the pain is all-consuming, and the loss and sorrow are with me at all times. But slowly, life returns to normal. Every time I think of those pets, I feel a pang of sadness, but it is not with me all the time like it is in the early days.
Grief is unique, and we all take a different amount of time. Don’t rush yourself, don’t place additional weight on your shoulders by feeling guilty for grieving, but if you are struggling to cope after an extended period, please consider finding a trained pet-grief counsellor who can help you process your feelings.
What can you do to feel better?
Please remember that it takes time, don’t rush yourself and don’t push feelings down. There is no time limit on grief. Find people to talk to, either pet lovers or a grief counsellor.
I have found solace on Internet forums or more recently, cat Facebook groups. Cat-World has a Facebook group, and you are always welcome to join for a place to talk.
Surround yourself with people who love you and understand how you are feeling. Compassionate friends or family members and especially pet lovers who understand and empathise. It can help to have an understanding ear.
Schedule exercise if you can. While supporting a friend in an extremely difficult situation, I found walking with her gave her an outlet in which just to talk, no pressure, we just walked and talked, which seemed less invasive than face to face contact over a coffee. Sometimes we would say nothing at all.
What not to say to somebody who has lost a pet
Somebody who has lost a pet is grieving, but people are often dismissed. Not everybody understands the depth of a bond people have with their pets. A cat isn’t a toaster; you can’t just go out and replace it with a new one. Every cat has his or her personality and a unique bond with their human companions.
- Why are you so upset, it is just a cat?
- You will get over it.
- You can get another cat.
- He is in a better place now.
- I never liked cats anyway.
- It was probably for the best.
- You still have other cats.
- These things happen for a reason.
One member of our Facebook group said it the best.
They are someone’s fur baby. Someone’s companion. Another fur child’s sibling. A human child’s world when that’s all they have ever known. They are a family member and the keepers of secrets. They are healers and our most treasured friends. They are never ‘just a cat’.
What to say or do to somebody who has lost a pet
Not everybody can understand the deep grief of losing a pet, but that should not exclude them from showing empathy. Now is not the time to give your opinion on cats, just be supportive, it’s not hard!
What to say:
- I am so sorry for your loss.
- My thoughts are with you at this time of loss.
- I am so sorry for your loss; Fluffy was a beautiful cat.
- I’m here if you need to talk.
- That is so sad to hear; I know how much you and Fluffy loved each other.
What to do:
- Send them a sympathy card, our veterinarian always sends a hand-written card when we lose a pet, and I always appreciate it.
- Send some flowers, if they have other cats, make sure you send flowers safe for cats.
- Donate to an animal charity in the cat’s name.
- Be a shoulder to cry on, and an ear to listen. Let them talk about their loss and their pet.
- One cat lover was sent a packet of wildflower seeds to scatter over her cat’s memorial site, or you can also buy a plant to place at the memorial/grave of the cat.
When is the right time to get another pet?
There are no rules; some people get a pet right away; others can’t face the thought of a new pet. Our most recent loss of Levi in March 2017 was sudden, and it was traumatic. We decided that the right cat would happen at the right time.
Two weeks after we lost Levi, two Tonkinese cats were put up for adoption at the RSPCA. The next day we drove 2 hours to meet them and adopted them on the spot. That was the first day any of us had felt happy since the loss of Levi. We laughed and joked the whole way home. They are entirely different in personality to Levi, which I am glad about; I didn’t want a Levi clone.
You will find a cat when you are ready to find a cat, which may be in one day or 20 years.
We have covered this topic in more detail here.
Where to get help
For many, counselling or a grief loss group can help a pet lover deal with the loss of a pet. You are not alone. In Australia, the following resources can be of help.
- Beyond Blue
- Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
- Pets at Peace
- Pets and People
- Lifeline – 13 11 14
- Mensline – 1300 78 99 78
- Grief Line (12pm-3am) – 03 9935 7400
- Kids Helpline -1800 55 1800
- Suicide Helpline – 1300 651 251
My final thoughts
Before I took the plunge and adopted Eliot in 1994, I thought long and hard about it. I had lost two cats in my early teens, and it was very, very painful. I knew bringing a pet into my life would eventually cause me pain when they passed away. Was I prepared to accept that in 10-15 years, I would have to face their death? I decided it was worth it. Adopting Eliot was the best decision I could have made. I was quite lonely at the time, I had no family in Australia, and she became my source of comfort, companionship, and love for many years. It was lovely to come home and be greeted by a loving companion; she turned my sad apartment into a warm home. Eliot passed away exactly eight weeks after my first child was born. It hurts so much when they leave us, but my life would not be the same having not lived with them. I have no regrets whatsoever.
Losing Levi was particularly hard; he never played favourites with his humans; he loved us all equally, so all four of us felt his death.
I remind myself that we had eleven beautiful years with Levi, he had a good and happy life, he was loved not only by us, but almost everybody who met him fell for his charms. His death should not overshadow his life, nor for those final few days to define who he was. I choose to remember all the happy times we had.
- How he loved soft blankets to knead on.
- Having to remind friends to hang up their handbag or Levi would go through it.
- How good he was with the children who would carry him around like a baby
- The day friends returned to our home shortly having left because they’d got halfway up the road and found Levi had snuck into their van as they were putting their children in their car seats.
- How we would open a cupboard door only to find Levi sitting there staring back at us.
Those are the memories I want to keep, not the sadness of his final days.
The subsequent adoption of our Tonkinese boys, Calvin and Norman, did not replace Levi, no cat could ever do that, but their arrival did bring joy back into our house.
In memory of Eliot, Podge, Suni, Misha, Nicholas, Mitzy, Annie, Loki, Levi and all the other pets who have left us.
2018 World Pet Memorial is 9th June.
The Last Battle
If it should be that I grow frail and weak,
You will be sad, I understand,
We’ve had so many happy years,
Take me where my needs they’ll tend
I know in time, you will see,
Don’t grieve that it should be you,
Smile, for we walked together for a little while.