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Do They Feel?

black cats

This article is about the experience of loss, grief and in-home euthanasia for other pets in the household and discusses the decline and death or euthanasia of several cats along with many photos of my cats after they had died. That may be painful for many readers to see, so please visit this text-only page so you can read the story without looking at photos that may be upsetting.

I first published this article on August 11, 2014, inspired by watching my cats around Kennedy in his last hours, and during and after his euthanasia at my home and remembering other such moments. Today, August 6, is the anniversary of Kennedy’s passing, and recently I saw a video of a cat interacting with his buddy cat after the cat had died of cancer and I thought I’d share it again.

. . . . . . .

How many times do we look at our animal companions and see a sparkle that is clearly emotion, or watch them clearly demonstrating compassion in a particular circumstance? Do they feel the things we feel? Or are we anthropomorphizing actions we think are like ours? Day to day interactions may be easily explained away, but it’s what happens in deeper moments around illness, incapacity or death that may tell more. I’ve watched my household of felines with one of the ones we are losing as that cat grows older or more ill, and at the time of their death, and I can clearly see a true emotional response.

When I’ve chosen euthanasia for one of my cats, my veterinarian makes house calls so unless I’m at an emergency hospital and have to make the decision there I have always had the procedure done at home. The rest of my feline household has always been present, and often in attendance. I’m accustomed to their reactions, quietly watching with what appears to be understanding. I usually presume that, with the intuitive awareness animals have of their surroundings, they probably knew what was happening with the cat who is being put to sleep long before I did. In fact, they often choose to hold vigils with the cat, meditatively spending time in the sick room, or actually cuddling right up next to them in ways they may have never done before. I watch these activities for my own understanding of the situation as I determine the progress of one of my cats toward its transition, and filling any physical or emotional needs it may have during that time.

Kennedy was with us for only a little over seven weeks. We never knew him when he was well, and for most of our time he was confined in the bathroom for the obligatory two to four week quarantine that I give each new rescue. He did have a negative FIV/FeLV test by the veterinarian before he came here, but I let time pass for any possible newly-acquired illnesses or infections to develop and often to wait for an FIV/FeLV test or retest on the chance they might have encountered a cat with either illness in the days just before rescue; either one takes at minimum two weeks to incubate before it shows symptoms or a positive result, FIV taking up to three months. Because both illnesses are easily spread through aggressive contact, likely when integrating a new cat, a long wait and a slow integration is worthwhile. The door is absolutely closed for two weeks, hands and arms are washed, all food and litter is taken immediately out of the room and dishes are washed in the room. Later, if the cat appears to be healthy I can open the door with a screen or gate so they have visual contact with the rest of the house, but still no physical contact with the rest of my cats.

black cat
Kennedy sits at the gate to look out the door.

Kennedy passed his two weeks and I put away the food to avoid temptation and opened the door with the baby gate in place now and then. He watched the world go by as the Five kept their distance for about a week, then slowly my guys began approaching the gate so that by four weeks, with Kennedy looking about as fit as he would ever get, active and alert and talkative, Bean and Giuseppe sat in front of the gate and Kennedy reached up and poked his paw through. At about six weeks I decided to open the gate and give him access to my studio as well, then also to my bedroom, but kept the stairs blocked. He had face-to-face contact with the Five as they watched him wander around the upstairs with occasional nose taps and distant hisses, and they all spent time together in my studio for a few evenings. Giuseppe hopped into the bathroom with him now and then when the gate was in place.

black cat with cataracted eye

Then, of course, he had his wonderful two-day outing where the baby gate could not keep him in. And Sunday evening when he got up on the bed with me while I rested my back and had his little brotherly affection session with Giuseppe, decidedly approaching with submission, then returning the little bath. But on Monday we knew something was wrong.

When he had a seizure that night and another the next day, even with medication, I could not ignore the weight loss or lack of appetite and knew his time had come, and brought him home from the emergency hospital for one last night with us.

He was tired and didn’t have the energy to join us in the studio, but Giuseppe went in the bathroom with him, and the others wandered in and out as I prepared for bed. The next morning they did not come upstairs as they usually would, even when I opened one last can of food for him. Yet when I prepared the kitchen, moving things, turning on the lights and setting a soft rug on the cabinet for him prior to my veterinarian’s arrival at 10:30, they gathered in the kitchen. They don’t get upset with veterinary appointments and are friendly with my veterinarian and her technician and greeted them, and stayed all through the entire process, quiet and attentive.

black cats
Snoopervising the veterinarian’s preparations.

Kennedy hissed after his first injection, but in less than a minute was in a full deep sleep. We moved him to a comfortable position on his side, turned off the big lights and let the sedative take full effect. Mimi took a position on the stool and watched closely, the others ranged on the table. Giuseppe came up and gave him a little nudge on the back of the neck and a nuzzle on the face, then went back to the table.

two black cats
Giuseppe gives Kennedy a nuzzle after he’s had the sedative; apologies for the blurry photo, but that may literally soften the image.

We turned the lights back on for the second injection and he was gone in barely more than seconds. We all gave a quiet respectful moment, petting him and all other cats in the room, and as we took care of paperwork Mr. Sunshine stepped up onto the cabinet and sat near Kennedy.

black cats
Mr. Sunshine goes to sit by Kennedy.

After my veterinarian and her technician had gone, each cat said his or her goodbyes once again, Bean had said his goodby and gone off to other things, and then it was Mimi’s turn to say goodbye, though she did not leave afterward.

three black cats
Mimi comes to say goodbye.

Mr. Sunshine settled down right up against Kennedy’s back, purring, and stayed there for about 10 minutes. He was not sleeping, he was wide awake and watched me as I walked around to pet each of them and take photos. Sunshine was definitely not moving from his spot.

black cats
Sunshine settled slightly on top of Kennedy’s hips.

Then for a few minutes Giuseppe sat and studied Kennedy while Mimi quietly sat in meditative attendance.

three black cats
Giuseppe ponders while studying Kennedy.

Mewsette came to say her goodbye as all five gather once more.

six black cats
Mewsette takes a good look at Kennedy as the Five gather to say a final goodbye to their adopted brother.

I petted and talked with each of them including Kennedy, and not until Mr. Sunshine got up and left along with Giuseppe and Mimi did I move Kennedy from his spot, carefully wrapping him in a blanket and putting him in a box for the trip to Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation a little later.

Other experiences

black cat
Mimi keeps an eye on Emeraude and me.

I’ve seen the vigil, like Mimi above watching Emeraude in the bathroom the night before she died, and Mr. Sunshine’s and Cookie’s vigils below, by him and by others. The boys all witnessed Emeraude’s passing and sat with Emeraude afterward.

black cats
The boys visit Emeraude after the veterinarian left.

I had had Kelly put to sleep at the emergency hospital the day she collapsed, and I laid her in the same spot as Kennedy when I brought her home. Mr. Sunshine went to sit next to her and all the others came into the room and sat with us.

The five black cats gather to see Kelly (Mewsette already paid her respects).
The five black cats gather to see Kelly (Mewsette already paid her respects).

Cookie crouched in a loaf next to Peaches in much the same way as Mr. Sunshine did with Kennedy.

calico and tortie cat
Cookie settles next to Peaches on the bed.

Then she curled herself against Peaches’ hip after she had died, and Cookie also sat with others, Namir with Lucy, and all the way back.

calico and tortie cat
Then a little later settles next to her hip, awake.

And even the vigil before hand is familiar. Possibly they are there only because I am, but Emeraude, Kelly, Cookie, Peaches, Namir, Lucy and so on, all had their attendant felines, often the entire household.

Mewsette guards Cookie on her last day.
Mewsette guards Cookie on her last day.

Below, on Cookie‘s last day I moved around the house so we could spend a little time in each spot where we had memories.

The boys keep an eye on Cookie on my lap in the studio.
The boys keep an eye on Cookie on my lap in the studio.

Mewsette sat with her down stairs, then the boys as I sat in the studio at my drafting table, and finally Bean sat with her until the end, and stayed with her after, rolled up like a loaf, and purring.

Bean settled with Cookie for her last hours and never left her, or stopped purring.
Bean settled with Cookie for her last hours and never left her, or stopped purring.

All the way back to Fawn giving energy to Kublai for his last year.

black cat and torbie cat
Fawn “recharging” Kublai while he sleeps.

Of course, I’ve also had cats who totally ignored the whole thing and went off to nap or even play. But no matter their reaction, I have no doubt they fully understand what is happening.

And then afterward, there is real grieving.

I was so happy that Kennedy, for his brief time here, managed to become a true brother with the family. He seemed to integrate easily, and they all seemed to consider him one of them. His age may have been part of that as well—he was hard to tell when he first arrived, as emaciated and dehydrated as he was, but after the first day he just didn’t seem old to me, and his teeth, one good eye, even some of his musculature seemed young and recently healthy. My veterinarian gave him a pretty thorough physical after she’d sedated him and actually put his age in the range of seven to ten, which was about where I had him and, well, the Four had just turned seven, Mimi about 11. To have a new friend, then suddenly lose that friend is painful and confusing.

two black cats
Up close and personal.

For two days none of them came upstairs except to wake me up, where all of them normally sleep with me and famously join me in the studio. One by one they joined me, but days later Mimi had still not come upstairs at all. I even carried her upstairs when I went to bed one night and she jumped down from the bed and left. Mewsette spent most of the time in the basement. The boys and Mimi settled on my desk downstairs. I’ve had special foods and we have playtime as well as time to look out the basement door, which everyone enjoys. On any given day, I’ll walk around several times as I take breaks from work and locate each cat and have a little petting session, and this is especially important at this time.

four black cats
Only Mewsette is missing from this cat pile.

We grieved Emeraude in the same way. When we lost Kelly, we were quiet and kind of stunned, but they knew how badly I hurt and came together to comfort me. Mimi and I both grieved Cookie deeply for a couple of months and Mimi was very distant, finally recovering when we began to visit the yard on a regular basis and we developed a very close bond from that experience.

Cookie and I grieved Sophie in the same way. Sophie was Cookie’s lifelong friend and she was bereft; before the loss the two of them were a pair and though Cookie was always with me I rarely saw one without the other near and I knew there was a deep bond. Neither of us would eat, we could barely sleep but finally began to recover and grew much closer after losing her. And generally after each loss there has always been a period of just quiet before finding the new “normal” of our household.

I am quite convinced this compassion and grief is real.

. . . . . . .

Some people question, why all this fuss and formality for an animal? I question, why not the same dignity and respect for every living creature?

Read more articles about Pet Loss.

Gifts featuring cats you know! Visit Portraits of Animals



An Animal Sympathy Card for Rescues

A sympathy card for rescuers featuring Kennedy.
A sympathy card for rescuers featuring Kennedy.

“Unforgettable” features Kennedy, a hospice rescue who was only with us for six weeks but somehow seemed like a brother to the family of four as soon as he came in the door. Those bristly whiskers and gaunt face, copper eyes with a cataract, bent legs, stiff spine, who could forget any of Kennedy’s battle scars? But mostly, who could forget the part that was just him: happy, full of love and friendship, despite his pain and his past as you clearly see in his eyes?

The photo is one of the very last I took of him while he still lived, taken on the morning of the day I had him put to sleep, looking at me with trust and love and understanding and all that experience written all over his face. Click here to read more and purchase.


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6 thoughts on “Do They Feel?

  • Pingback: August Newsletter from The Creative Cat - Portraits of Animals

  • This is profoundly true, in the past I have seen cats reveal that they know another cat is ailing. I’m hurting from the recent loss of our Bud kitty and while it is so sad, I know caring for these magnificent little animals means we have to part company with them, one day.

    • I’m sorry for your loss of Bud. Grief is like water washing a jagged rock smooth, it takes the time it needs.

      I’ve always felt comforted that they are aware and helping as only a member of their own species can.

      ‘Tis better to have loved and to have lost than never loved at all. <3

  • both sauce and boomer made their journeys to heaven out side of the home; yet I still believe dai$y and tuna knew ahead of time, that they were ill and something was amiss; to this day daisy will lay in
    boomer’s old bed; something she’d never done before even on a “dare” and tuna will lay on the same spot on the floor that used to be a favorite of sauce’s ~~~~~ ♥♥♥

    • Tabbies, I trust watching my cats to discover these things. They know what was happening, and whether it’s their lingering scent or their lingering spirit, or both, I always leave things as they were for all of us.


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