by Deborah Perzak, DVM
The loss of a pet or other types of grief can be heartbreaking for humans but it can also be very difficult for surviving pets. Cats do grieve, but unfortunately they can not tell us how they feel so we must be attuned to signs of grief in our pets and support them as they go through the grieving process.
Grief is the result of abrupt or unexpected severing of attachment. While a cat may not be able to comprehend the circumstances surrounding such a loss, they do understand that something or someone is absent.
Situations that would cause a cat to grieve are varied. The most obvious ones would be the loss of a companion cat or other animal, such as a dog. Just as relevant is the loss of a favorite person. The loss of both a companion pet and a person can result from many situations, with the most common one being death. Other losses that can affect our feline friends include a change in life circumstances such as a move, a divorce, or a prolonged absence of the person due to illness or military life. Other examples of situations that may cause grief for cats include a family member leaving home for college, an elderly family member going into a nursing home, separation of companion animals due to one of the pets going missing or being placed in a new home.
A grieving cat may show signs of depression that you would expect in a person. Some cats will stop eating, have gastrointestinal upsets, such as vomiting or loose stools, over-groom and thus lose hair due to stress, or exhibit inappropriate urination or defecation. Others may have a complete lack of interest in their surroundings, and they may simply sit and stare for hours. Additional signs of grief include sleep pattern changes, either sleeping less soundly or for more prolonged periods of time; searching for the missing companion in places the companion frequented, such as favorite chairs or their bed; waiting by the door, hoping the companion with materialize; or in the case of a pet that was buried at home, sitting at the gravesite for hours. Some cats have been known to wander and pace for hours, howling for their missing companion. In more severe cases, separation anxiety can develop, clinging behavior may escalate, confidence may diminish and stress related medical problems such as sterile cystitis can occur. In a multi-cat or pet household, the stress level may increase temporarily as the animals adjust to a newly established hierarchy
In general, the healing process can take between two weeks and six months! During this time, it is very important to give your cat quality time and reassurance. Spend time petting her, talking to her, and engaging her in play with a new toy, or even catnip. You can also offer occasional food treats, but be wary of encouraging finicky behavior. If the cats and other pets are trying to establish a new hierarchy, give them time to do that. Try not to intervene unless tempers are flaring and someone is in danger of getting hurt. Since cats are creatures of habit, try not to change their routine too much unless it is unavoidable. In that case, establish a new routine quickly and keep it as close to the old routine as possible.
Sometimes, I have advised pet owners that have had to euthanize a companion pet to allow the grieving cat to view the body if and when it is appropriate. Anecdotal reports vary from the cat sniffing the body, touching the body, laying down beside it, or showing complete lack of interest. I cannot help but believe that it does help with closure in pets that were very bonded to one another. Other suggestions to help with the grieving process include allowing the pet access to the companion’s bedding or special toys and in the case of humans, offering the cat an article of clothing or other material that was used by the person to comfort him.
Cat owners have often asked me if I think they should get another cat or companion for the grieving cat. I normally suggest that they give the cat time to adjust and work through the grieving process. Some cats are perfectly happy being the only cat of the household and seem to enjoy being “Top Cat”. Others need the companionship. If you decide to introduce another cat, kittens seem to work better, but if the grieving cat is a senior pet, it may not appreciate a youngster. I have a client who had such a situation occur. When the elderly companion of my senior feline patient passed away, the owners tried to add a new kitten because my patient was grieving the loss of her companion. However, this cat was not the least bit impressed and was rather annoyed by the energetic kitten. They decided to adopt another kitten and paradoxically, peace was restored and the senior cat bonded to the newest kitten. At the same time, both kittens played together so it seems as if everyone is happy.
When a cat is going through the grieving process owners should be alert to changes in eating patterns and body condition. Give the cat time to eat and encourage her if needed. Some cats literally need to be hand fed and praised with each bite. Monitor the level of food and water and make note if it is not decreasing like it normally does. This can be challenging in multi-cat households but it is very important. Unfortunately, if a grieving cat lives in a multi-cat household, it is not uncommon for anorexia to persist for days to weeks if the pet owner is not aware that the affected cat is not eating. The best advice to prevent this is to pay particular attention to all of the remaining pets for a few weeks after a grief inducing incident occurs to keep you tuned to sudden changes in weight, body condition, and coat condition. If you suspect that your cat is not eating for more than 2 days, please consult your veterinarian immediately. Cats, especially overweight cats, are prone to a deadly fatty liver syndrome called hepatic lipidosis. If needed, your vet can prescribe an appetite stimulant and teach you how to force feed your grieving feline friend.
Remember that the grieving process could take a lot of time. Cats can be either social or solitary. When they do not feel well, they tend to hide in places that they do not normally frequent. This may be the only sign of grief the cat exhibits. In most cases, the episodes and signs of grief lessen with time, but if not, consult your veterinarian. In cases of severe behavioral distress, he or she may prescribe an anti-depressant medication to help the cat through the process.
Finally, remember that your emotions can affect your cat. Cats are exquisitely sensitive to human emotions, routine, and behavior. Thus, if you are upset or stressed, it may cause your feline companion to become anxious, stressed, depressed, or agitated, often leading to some of the physical signs discussed above. If you are having trouble coping with the loss or change, it would benefit you to consult with someone or a support group trained in bereavement counseling.