Grief in Cats – How to Help a Pet That is Grieving

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.

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4 Responses to Grief in Cats – How to Help a Pet That is Grieving

  1. Carole says:

    Maggie is grieving so profoundly. She was only attached to her brother. She is trying to reach out to the other 2 cats in our home — who have always ignored her. She has always loved our golden retriever in a shy way; he is very gentle with her, but does not offer much relief. I love her so and want to help her, but she seems to be going thru her own process == as am I. Am looking for a maine coon kitten?? Would that be good or not?
    Lost

  2. Beth says:

    Thank you for the information about grieving cats. I had two cats and one died two weeks ago. The remaining cat is urinating by the front door, not in the litter box. Also, he will not go into the room where the other cat died. This cat gets lots of attention from me when I am not at work, and seems “needy” for affection.

    Thank you again,
    Beth

  3. Elana says:

    I have a siamese cat, which my Mother hand raised from a kitten due to the cats’ abandonment. My Mother died suddenly on the night of Dec. 6th, 2013, and sugar, the cat she raised was trapped in the room with her, which was the bathroom and the water was running. Sugar was in the room for about ten hours with Mama, before and after her passing given Sugar always had to be in the bathroom with anything and everything. On Feb. 21 of this year, my cat Madison, the cat we had a few months before we took in Sugar, was hit by a car in the afternoon. I allowed Sugar to see Madison, who had lived two years of her life in a cone due to her habit of chewing herself raw (This started when we had her fixed) as well as pulling her fur out. Her body was totally in tact, the car that hit her clipped her cone and that snapped Madis’ neck. We allowed Sugar some time to see her, Sugar and Marie (The cat that I’ve had since three years of age) seemed a bit concerned but wandered off, touching noses to each other. Marie isn’t affected by either loss, however when Mama died Sugar began losing weight. But since Madison died I’ve only seen Sugar eat a few bites of food three times in the span on time Madi has been gone. Sugar will eat a few treats, but goes outside and eats a lot of grass, and I’ve seen her throw up a few times. I’ve been sure to allow Sugar a bit of freedom as well as giving her a good bit of attention and giving her more toys and treats. She only gets up to go outside or to go from my bed to the couch and sleep. I’m very concerned for her because of how much weight she has lost and the lack of her grooming her self. Do you think since there has been little to no improvement and she’s only getting worse that I should take her to the vet and see about the appittie stimulant? Also, would adding a new companion, probably a puppy, after a few months and making sure Sugar has her “place”, would be an ok option?

  4. Joshua C says:

    I also have a cat who just lost a companion cat, and both of the cats I got at the same time at the humane society. I let the living cat see the deceased cat who had to be euthanized, and he could smell the medicine they administered and sniffed her briefly. He seemed to understand she was gone, but the first day he was meowing and looking for her (seemingly) the next morning. I spent most of the day with him petting him and reassuring him, and he is eating, and I got him to play, so maybe he is adjusting well. He is a very playful cat however, so I think after he has had time to grieve (I’m hoping about a month will give him time to adjust) I can go out and get a cat of similar age and size for him to establish a new companionship with. I try to avoid saying the other cats name around him for fear that he’ll think I am calling her and she will appear. It’s definitely been hard to lose an animal, but watching him try to cope with it is also especially hard. Animals definitely have feelings, and while they may not have the cognitive skills to understand everything, I’m pretty sure they can sense that something is definitely not right. I’ll try to remain upbeat and positive for him, but I do want to allow him his time to grieve as well. Hopefully we can both help each other through it.

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