Let’s Talk: Do Other Cats Move to Fill a Departed’s Cat’s Role?


I’ve seen some amazing things lately, which only a cat nerd (read cat lover) might appreciate. I’ll start by saying that we’ve had a couple of cats pass on this year. Eighteen-year-old Kali passed over in June. Sixteen-year-old Karma passed on (with our assistance) in mid-December. We had a lot of time to prepare for Kali’s passing, and not much for Karma’s transition.

Our wood stove/fireplace is central to this story.

Karma and Kali loved to sit by the fire together, all winter long. (Winter here is about half the year. I’m mostly serious about this.) They’d lie on the little rug in front of the wood stove and stare into the flames for hours on end. Other cats joined them, sometimes even fighting for a spot on the rug. But Karma and Kali were always at the fire, and more so than any of the other three to four cats. (This household had six cats at its maximum, and now has five.)

When Kali passed, nothing much changed. Perhaps it was because she was ill for three months before she passed over. It was also during summertime, when my cats would rather be basking in a sun puddle.

When Karma was diagnosed with an oral tumor, the vet gave her “three weeks, maybe three months.” As it turned out, we had three weeks before we had to assist her in going over the Bridge. Chester, my buff orange boy, had always been very attached to both Karma and Kali. Karma had a way of making her needs quietly, but deliberately, known. Chester groomed her quite often when she was sick.

I have seen cats shun another ill cat, but I have never seen an ill cat taken care of like this. Karma spent much of her time by the fire, and Chester was right there with her, grooming her and caring for her.

When Karma passed on, Chester went through (and is still going through, though I think he is on the upside) a period of grieving. In addition to many other behaviors associated with grieving, he spent a lot of time alone by the fire. This made me sad at first. But gradually, I began to see some very cool things.

Jamie Bluebell (the only female in the house now) began to join Chester by the fire. I had never seen Jamie want to be by the fire before (except for a short stint when she was a kitten), but maybe she had never felt as if there was space for her. Now, she was snuggling with Chester, and he was grooming her. Jamie had also never shown a particular affinity toward Chester, though I wouldn’t say she disliked him. Chester loves to groom other cats, and I was happy to see this occurring. I began to notice that Rama (black male) and Kieran (Turkish Van male) were taking fireplace shifts as well. They’d lay next to Chester, and he’d groom them, or they’d groom him. Chester has always been one of those cats who seems most happy when he is taking care of others.

We’re noticing patterns shifting. Jamie Bluebell is spending less time alone in the breezeway, and more time in the living room with everyone else. Kieran, Rama, and Jamie are spending time by the fire with Chester. And Chester is starting to come out of his funk (thank goodness). Norton (who is six months old) occasionally shares the fire with Chester, but I don’t see Norton having the awareness yet that I think I’m seeing in the others.

I’m keeping my eyes open for other shifts, too, just because I find this all so interesting (I told you I was a cat nerd). I’m wondering if what I’m seeing is simply other cats “comforting” Chester, or if they really are taking Karma’s place by the fire. This may be way too much anthropomorphism for some, but I have seen these types of things occur in other households, too, when a cat passes on. In one friend’s house, when the dominant cat passed on, the other household cat suddenly found her voice and became much more communicative vocally. It seemed that she really developed more of an outward, observable personality.

Mostly, I find the changes and behaviors fascinating. I will never forget watching Chester care for Karma, or watching the other cats move in to take Karma’s place at the fire.

If you have a multi-cat household, how have things changed when a cat leaves the household or passes on? Do you notice the remaining cats changing behavior or taking on new roles? Share your insights in the comments.

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About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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