Tuesday, April 16, 2024
behaviorcat behaviorcatsfoster catsKennedypet loss

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.

. . . . . . .

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? 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 that 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 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 comes 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.

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, before 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 and 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 just turned seven, Mimi is 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’ve joined me, but Mimi has still not come back up to the studio with me or sleep with us.  I even carried her upstairs when I went to bed one night and she jumped down from the bed and left. Mewsette has been in the basement most of the time. The boys and Mimi hang out on my desk. I’ve had special foods and we have playtime as well as time to look out the basement door, which everyone enjoys.

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 though Sophie was Cookie’s lifelong friend and she was bereft, but 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. I have experienced it too many times.

. . . . . . .

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.

Browse some rescued cats and kittens!


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20 thoughts on “Do They Feel?

  • Been a while since I dropped in.
    Sorry to hear of Kennedy’s passing, but happy is was peaceful and on his terms.
    This was a great article. I loved that the other cats were there with the cat and
    came to say goodbye with the other cats too. Maybe cats feel more than we know.

  • Paulette Smith

    Bernadette, thank you for your beautiful post!

  • It is very sad but that’s the contrast to the utter joy in life with our companions. A lovely post indeed and truthfully I didn’t start tearing up until I ready TTT’s comment! (i love those guys!) As Ms. Stella ages I watch her closely and never before even considered having an in home transition until recently. My vet is up for it when the time comes and I’m more grateful for that than I can express. Ollie really does love her a lot and I can’t imagine separating them at the critical time. It would seem an unbearably cruel thing to do.

    I have (unwittingly) participated in a crow funeral as well. It was an amazing (few) moments and I have never forgotten nor lost the humility I felt that day for being included.

    • Stacy, I’m glad your regular vet is up for coming to your home. Some people don’t like it because the memory of it is always there, but really, I would have to find someone to drive me, I’m in no state to go anywhere, and the poor kitty in question, that would be the last thing they’d want to do. But I think we need to take the others’ reactions more seriously. But don’t worry about Ms. S just yet–my Stanley lived to be 25, and others lived to 20 or past, I always hope that’s so for others.

      The crow funeral sounds interesting. Watching any being set its soul free is something you don’t forget.

  • Anne Slevin

    I don’t know where you get the strength Bernadette but you do and I am in awe of you for that. I too have the Vet. come to my home. I do this for myself as much as for them. I wish I had half the strength you possess. What you do in this world won’t go unnoticed in the next. God bless…

    • Anne, thank you so much. It’s not all me, I have a wonderful group of people in the rescue group to turn to. And love is a circle, what the cats give me sustains me as much as what I give them sustains them.

  • Denise Sitter

    Beautifully written, and so very true about how the cats are around the sick ones, along with the vigils. I’ve seen this with my cats. And they have held these vigils with my elderly dogs as well.

    • Denise, I don’t know if dogs do the same, but I don’t doubt they do. We all keep that vigil for those we love, no matter the species.

  • Bernadette…I dont know about the cats… but I’m sitting here bawling…
    ~~~ truly… yes, animals DO grieve one another; I’ve seen it all to often myself; to this day, tuna still lays in the EXACT
    spot sauce did, when he…. left; sauce died the 17th of march; 2013 ♥♥♥♥♥

    • Tabbies, Tuna remembers his buddy every day. How can such sensitive creatures otherwise not grieve a loss?

  • My heart goes out to you and your kitties, Bernadette. So sorry to hear of Kennedy’s passing.

    • Catwoods, thank you. He is free of pain and happy and I am glad for what I could do for him.

  • Karen Lucas

    Oh, Bernadette, what a heartfelt post and how amazing to see the cats with the cat who is leaving, both before and after. I have not been so fortunate as to have someone come to the house so my cats have gone to the bridge at the vet which is more stressful, no matter how kind and caring and gentle my vet is. When two of my cat Jenny’s brothers died suddenly two days apart, and all she knew was that they were suddenly gone, she grieved for some time afterwards. I knew it would have been better if she could have been with them. However, she had sat with the one who died first for many days beforehand and I realized afterwards that she knew even though we did not. Her other brother threw a sudden clot and there was no warning but she missed him terribly I think because she did not know either. I think the way you manage things is wonderful and a true blessing for all of your cats, having this chance to participate in the experience of death.

    • Karen, two days apart, and an unexpected clot, that must still hurt for you and for Jenny. I’ll bet she did know about the brother who passed first, I would swear they do. I am so fortunate with my veterinarian and my experiences with my cats. I truly hope that house call veterinarians become more common even if only for this.

  • Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my Jack and then the day he passed. He was my only cat at that time. I now have two (with a third coming my way) and I have often thought about “what’s going to happen when….” I thought I was being morbid or that I was just creating emotional baggage because Jack’s passing is still so very hard for me (3yrs) , but I often wonder how I’ll be able to help the ones that remain when one moves on. This story you shared was amazing and I can not thank you enough for doing so! Getting a glimpse of what you and your cats go through gives me some real insight that I think I’ll be able to draw from when the time comes.

    I am so sorry for the loss of Kennedy. I know Emeraude, Lakota and all the others who preceded him are all waiting to welcome him. He’ll recognize that same love that he felt with you and he will be happy.

    • Lynda, thanks for your comment. When I was anticipating the loss of Kublai nearly 20 years ago, the thing that upset me most was I just didn’t know what to expect, and he being the leader left my household in disarray for a while. And of all things, this is the last thing we ask about is what to expect, exactly because we are afraid of seeming morbid. I’ve found the best thing to do is to be knowledgeable and prepare yourself. Anything I can do to help others avoid unexpected painful circumstances, I hope to do so. I’m glad I could help you with this.

      Kennedy was so happy he could hardly contain himself, such a joy to know, even for that brief time.

  • Bernadette I have been waiting for your post on Kennedy. I was very drawn to him from the very start and I knew his time with you would be short, in our terms. Kennedy I think was happy and finally allowed to relax after enduring what we can only imagine. I try (but fail most of the time) to see time from the Cat’s perspective and I truly believe they don’t view it as we do or can. Therefore I believe that the brevity we know as in Kennedy’s case of only 7weeks was in essence his rebirth and his acceptance at walking into the light. Feeling comfortable finally that someone would care and comfort him and give him the love that all living things feel. I was devastated when I he had to leave for the RB, but we humans have to make difficult decisions. I had to let Gracie go 6 months ago, that was my first time experiencing euthanasia, and on the one hand I must say it was dignified and peaceful and brief. For myself I was struck with how one moment your spirit is here and then poof it vanishes. There is so much in between that second. Thank you for sharing and also sharing the photos. When Abby passed at home, I took her body to all of the cats afterwards and only Gracie had any lingering response. All the others didn’t want anything to do with her. Although Boo, my “I want to be alone” diva took pity on me and spend many days trying in her way to console me. Thank you again for sharing Kennedy. He was a special boy. I am glad he had you to be there for him on his final journey.

    • AbbyGrace, through the years I’ve known a number of rescues who seemed to appear just in time to pass away, but I really think they search and search and hold on until they find a loving place from which to leave. I remember Lakota last year, really quite ill when he arrived, but mustered four weeks of enjoyment at a new home and an adoring human before he just let go and left us. And Kennedy, whatever his story might be, was an intensely emotional and loving being. I know he had a very special person in his life at one time and how he came to lose them and met his injuries I’ll never know, but he, too, held out until he found the place from which to launch himself into his next existence, whatever that might be. From our perspective the brevity is the sadness, but from theirs I think the brevity doesn’t matter at all, it’s just that they finally found that safe place to let go, like your rebirth and walking into the light.

      It is an awesome experience to witness a death like that, and I mean that in the traditional meaning of awesome, not the slang version, full of awe and wonder at the moment. Some cat do seem to pay no attention to their family members’ passing, but in watching what happens before, as I’ve mentioned here, I think they’ve made their peace with it and have already accepted the truth.

      Thinking of you and your feline family.

  • This was a tough one, Bernadette. I do think they feel…I certainly know I do…just reading about these cats I did not even meet made me cry.

    • Thanks, Sued51, I debated about publishing because it is so sad, but if there is any other time to see if compassion exists it’s at this time.


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