There are certain challenges to living alone. Those who do know it’s more expensive, it can sometimes be too quiet, and if you don’t reach out to people on a regular basis sometimes it’s hard to stay on others’ radars. Add to this how much more time people have been spending at home of late and it’s no wonder why millions of people are Googling, “Will my cat eat me if I die?”.
That is quite a question. Thanks to science, and some very astute observers of it, we know a little bit of something about how to answer this slightly morbid yet entirely sensical question. The answer is…perhaps.
Have Cats Ever Eaten People?
As cat behavior expert Dr. Mikel Delgado points out in this article, “cats are naturally hunters, not scavengers. Scavenging is something dogs do, and scavenging behavior is rarely observed in felid species.” However, Delgado has delved a bit into this wormhole of morbidity and found that even though scavenging is rarely observed in cats, it does happen. In this blog post she cites a recent study about feral cats that were seen scavenging from human corpses.
The study, performed at the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) in Colorado, was actually looking at decomposition in human bodies. You see, FIRS is a “body farm” where people donate their bodies to science. In two cases, game cameras caught feral cats (among other animals) scavenging on bodies left in the environment. In both cases it wasn’t just a one-time thing; each cat returned repeatedly to eat from the bodies until the level of decay became too great. With this, researchers also noted that “such cases studied in detail are relatively few, spatially relative, and lack statistical robustness.”
Why Would a Pet Eat a Person?
Though there may be some overly sensationalized media reports regarding pets eating their people who have passed, there really isn’t a lot of actual proof out there that says “yes, your cat is going to eat you.” What there is, though, are a lot of best-guesses made by people who know cats pretty well.
Delgado notes, “Because some of these scavenging incidents happen shortly after the human dies, other researchers have theorized that it’s not necessarily hunger that triggers the injuries that occur, but an attempt by the pet to get the attention of or even revive their human. That said, a lot of injuries inflicted by pets after their human’s death do appear to be hunger motivated, and many of the pets who did eat their humans also died of starvation themselves…” Just in case you missed that, we’re talking about “pets” here—not just cats. Some other recorded cases of “postmortem tasting” include dogs and once, even a golden hamster.
The point that seems most salient here is that a pet might accidentally create postmortem injuries in trying to revive their person. Anyone who had “played dead” around their pet knows that it doesn’t take long for them to get concerned if you are not responding. So injury to a body doesn’t always mean “eating”. There’s just not a good way to research any of these theories—for obvious reasons.
Let’s also turn this around a bit for some added perspective. Humans eat animals all the time and in certain cases, will even resort to eating other humans if they are hungry enough. So, it almost makes sense that given no other option, your cat might eat you.
Is My Cat Really Going to Eat Me if I Die?
Here’s the thing. Cats are creatures and all creatures must eat to survive. If you are the sole provider for your cat and do not have friends or family regularly visiting you, and something happens so that you can not provide for your cat, your cat is going to get creative. How creative may include depending on you to provide for them not just in mind and spirit, but literally in body too. Wired magazine notes that incidents where pets have fed on human bodies “are most common among owners who have a chronic illness that causes a sudden death, have free-roaming pets, and who are socially isolated”.
Even if you are young and healthy, if you live alone or might be spending an extended period of time alone somewhere, it is a good idea to set regular check in times with friends and family. These can be as simple as a phone call or as complex as a weekly dinner but either way, it ensures that someone will be paying attention if you don’t call or show. Accidents can happen. In fact, the number of fatal accidents in the home is second only to fatal accidents in cars. The most likely accident to occur is a fall and this can happen to anyone—no matter how young or healthy or strong you may be.
Though the study referenced above noted the scavenging cats as feral cats, there is no reason why an owned cat wouldn’t eat whatever was available if they were hungry enough. As Delgado noted previously, most pets who did inflict injuries on their humans ended up starving to death so the jury’s really out as to why nibbling happens–it’s either for hunger or to get your attention but it doesn’t seem all that sustainable. Another cat behavior expert, Vanessa Spano, a resident at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, pondered this same question for Inverse and came to the conclusion that “The majority of domesticated cats will realistically not prey on their adult human parents.”
In the end, it appears that your cat (and dog and hamster) might use your body as a food source if it was absolutely necessary—they also might not. As Delgado put it in an interview with Wired, “there’s no reason for people to panic about an epidemic of pets eating people.”
Perhaps the best way to think about all of this would be if this unfortunate situation were to occur, which is not likely, it is possible that in death you could still provide life for your beloved pet.