It is not unusual for us to have more than one pet in our lives. We have more money and leisure time to spend on our pets than we did years ago and so more and more of us are choosing to live with two or more animal companions. This is great for us, as it means that we have more furry friends in our lives to keep us sane. However this also means that animals are more likely to form bonds and relationships with other animals, whereas in the past this was not the case.
Cats are not pack animals like dogs and so are quite happy being the only animal around. In fact most of the time they give other animals a wide birth. However now that more and more cats are being homed together, their relationships with each other are changing. It is now not uncommon for cats to form very close bonds with other cats in their family circle. They can now often be seen grooming each other and sleeping together on the same cushion. So we should not be surprised that they will grieve the loss of another cat, just as we do with our human family and friends.
However knowing if a cat is grieving the loss of another pet is not as easy to identify as in humans. After all cats cannot express how they are feeling to us in words and do not shed tears in the same way as we do. However cats do show other signs of grief that are very similar to our own. Loss of appetite, sleeping more, sleeping less and increased vocalization are all signs that could indicate a cat is distressed.
Other signs of grief are, pacing and looking around the house for days, as if trying to find their companion. Looking out of windows and mewing for no apparent reason. A lack of interest in their favourite toys or food and a general listless behavior that is out of character. Of course many of these signs can also be contributed to ill health and so if the behavior continues it may be advisable to consult with a veterinarian.
To try and help a cat through a period of grieving, we can pay more attention to them and make more of a fuss of them than we would normally do. However we should not give them treats but rather we should try and distract them with a game. It is all too easy to give a cat a treat to console them when they are mewing or not eating their usual food, but to the cat, we are rewarding the behaviour and they will continue to do it.
It is also important not to rush out and try to replace the pet with a new one. Often people think that this will help their existing cat to get over the loss. However this is often a mistake. Cats should be given time to come to terms with the fact that their companion is not coming back. It also allows them time to establish their own position in the household again. Many owners have reported that a once shy and quiet cat, completely changed after another cat passed away. This can be easily explained; the cat may have been subdued by the other cat and was suppressing their own personality. Once left alone for a while, they as it were, "come out of their shell". So it is good to give them time after a death to find their feet again.
Once sufficient time has passed and the cat's behavior is back to normal, then it should be fine to introduce another cat to the home. This of course is very much reliant on the cat's personality and the likelihood of accepting another pet, but then only individual owners can make that judgment.
What is Grief?
Grief is the result of abrupt or unexpected severing of attachment. Cats are aware that a familiar person or companion cat is absent and may search for that person or cat. The death or absence may change an established hierarchy as well as being the absence of a familiar companion. While this is not the ritualised grief of humans, the sudden absence of something familiar is distressing to many cats. Mother cats whose kittens were taken away and destroyed often looked for their kittens for many days, all the while pacing and crying out. As well as the physical pain of engorged mammary glands, the cats displayed mental pain.
Grief has been observed in many wild species following the death of a mate, parent, offspring or pack-mate. For example, elephants have been seen to caress the body of a deceased companion and even to caress elephant skulls. Feline grief at the death of a long-term human or feline companion can include severe mental disturbance. Grief varies according to the individuals and some cats show little grief (some are reported to exhibit glee at the death of a sparring partner) while others can be deeply traumatised. In the past, this variability caused some scientists to dismiss the concept of animal grief as anthropomorphism on the owner's part. Such scientists forget, or ignore, that fact that humans are equally variable in how they express grief.
Grief is a reaction to the sudden absence of something or someone who caused happiness, satisfaction, comfort or reassurance. The absence of a familiar part of the environment causes sadness. The continued absence of that person or thing can lead to stress. In the context of a bereavement, this stress is termed grief. The major difference between human and feline grief is that cats grieve for familiar and close companions while humans show grief for a distant relative or for a public figure. Cats lack the abstraction (and the memory capacity) that allows humans to grieve for someone we have never met or who has been absent from our life for a prolonged period of time. Humans often have elaborate or ritualised ways of dealing with their grief. Cats may become withdrawn or, at the other extreme, over-attached and "clingy".
I have personal experience of a pair of cats whose owner had died. The cats refused to eat while in the shelter. To reduce stress, they were fostered in a household and the vet prescribed appetite stimulants. One cat recovered but remained withdrawn for a long period of time. The other continued to pine and became critically ill until it had to be euthanized (prolonged fasting results in liver damage). Its behaviour was so severely affected that the foster carer considered force-feeding unsuitable; the cat had no interest in life. Post mortem showed no sign of disease except for that caused by failure to eat. There is one instance where a streetwise cat was believed to have committed suicide by deliberately walking in front of a truck a few days after the owner had died; however the cat's motives cannot be verified.
Humans have long been believed to be the only creatures that cry in sorrow or grief. There is some evidence that other animals form tears when in physical or emotional distress. Cats may express grief through nightmares (quite possibly a dream of the missing person has been replaced by wakefulness and the abrupt realisation that the person has gone). One of my rescue cats, Sappho, had repeated nightmares after the traumatic death of the owner in the cat's presence. Sappho woke up whimpering and fearful from sleep and required physical reassurance from me. If this happened at night, she actually climbed into bed and hid as far down the bed as possible, crying out (initially at a rate of one vocalisation per second) until her fear and grief subsided. As well as being clingy, she often woke me from sleep as though afraid that I had also died. This behaviour continued for several months, presumably until the traumatic memories faded.
Causes of Grief
Humans understand grief as being the sense of loss following a death. It is a form of anxiety felt at the abrupt severing of a relationship or the sudden absence of a familiar person or animal companion. Cats react to the sudden absence and, therefore, may show anxiety or grief in situations where death is not a factor. Grieving may be related to the death or sudden absence of a human companion, caregiver or animal companion
The sudden absence may be due to a person leaving home e.g. a youngster going to boarding school or university or leaving home entirely; an ill or elderly family member goes into hospital or a nursing home; divorce; another pet goes missing or is rehomed or because the cat itself has been rehomed. All of these leave holes in a cat's life and, depending on how attached the cat was to the missing person, can cause the reaction we call grief. Unlike humans, cats do not understand the concept of temporary separation due to school terms/semesters and any long separation is, in the cat's mind, permanent (when the youngster returns home these become welcome visits rather than a return to normal).
Help a Grieving Cat
If you have a cat, you have probably wondered if cats ever grieve. Although there isn't much scientific evidence that they do--all signs point to "yes." The fact that cats form close bonds with humans and other animals only suggests that they do grieve when the bonds are cut. Cats are also so sensitive to changes in their lives, such as a new home or being kenneled, that they can suffer an emotional response similar to grieving. Here are ways to console a grieving cat.
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Understanding Cat Behavior
The Healing Process
The first stage of grief is activation. During activation, the bereaved cat may spend hours or days looking for the missing companion. If the missing companion is a human family member, the cat may approach the door whenever someone enters the house. Outdoor cats may search their territory or sit on the doorstep waiting for the absent companion. If your indoor/outdoor cat starts searching, you may wish to restrict its movements for several days as normally home-oriented cats (and dogs) have been killed on the roads as a result. This stage is followed by depression. Over a few weeks (occasionally longer), periods of depression grow shorter and less frequent and normal behaviour returns. Normal behaviour may include some permanent behavioural changes related to changes in territorial rights or social standing.
On average, the healing process takes between two weeks and six months. During this time, a grieving cat will need reassurance and attention. This doesn't mean forcing attention on a withdrawn cat, but it does mean little things such as offering food treats, catnip or new toys to draw a withdrawn cat out of its shell or to reduce a suddenly clingy cat's over-attachment. If the cat is severely affected or shows no signs of overcoming its grief, a vet may prescribe anti-anxiety medication. You may also want to consider complementary remedies, but if you do, make sure they are ones approved for cats since many human preparations are toxic to cats. There are a number of suitable homeopathic remedies and suitable Bach remedies.
If the cat is now on its own, some owners ask if they should get it a new companion to prevent loneliness. While this may work for the more sociable and extrovert breeds, it doesn't work for all. The new cat will be seen as a stranger and a territorial invader. For this reason, if you anticipate the death of a pet due to age or non-contagious/non-infectious illness, it is usually better to introduce a new companion before the ailing pet dies to allow the newcomer to form a relationship with the existing cats.
Allow the surviving animals to work out their new social order themselves. As a human, you will miss subtle scent and body-language cues that they use. Also try not to unintentionally reinforce any behaviour changes unless you are willing to accommodate permanent changes. Although food treats and extra attention will help a depressed or withdrawn cat in the short term, try not to let the cat become more finicky or more over-attached (this can lead to separation anxiety when you leave the house for any reason). Cats are creatures of routine so try not to change routine too much as this will cause additional stress. If the absent companion was a dog (that needed walks) or a person, a change in routine will be unavoidable. If possible, try to establish and stick to a new routine, not too dissimilar to the old one, as soon as possible. This will allow a grieving cat to deal with one stress factor at a time.
- Look for signs of grieving in your cat. Although emotional depression is not a specifically recognized diagnosis in cats, behavioral depression certainly is. Depressed cats may sleep more and generally act lethargic, or they may act the opposite and pace the house for hours. Cats, like people, need the space to feel loss. After all, they certainly act as if they miss a long-time companion. A change in activity is a good sign. The change may involve your cat pacing a lot in search of his lost buddy, hiding from you, acting lethargic or sleeping a lot. If your cat cries a lot and requires more affection or does the opposite and shuns affection, it can also be a sign of grief. And lastly, a lack of appetite may also signal a grieving cat.
- Some cats are more playful than others, and are fond of tussling, chasing and just running about with another pet. For these cats, the loss of another cat in the household may result in a dramatic behavioral change. If you notice that your previously silly cat has grown sullen, you can influence her behavior with new toys. Select several new toys from among the type she has favored in the past: simple dangling toys, fleece toys and balls are all interesting if they are also put away between play sessions. Try playing a video of birds or, better yet, present her with a new bird feeder (on the other side of a window, of course).
- Although eating is not a social behavior among cats (as it is with dogs), grieving cats may show a decreased interest in food. For cats, and particularly those who are overweight, anorexia (lack of eating) can lead to a serious liver disorder called hepatic lipidosis. Decreased water consumption may result in crystal formation in the urinary tract, which can cause dangerous obstructions, especially for males. It may help to encourage your cat to eat by offering tastier canned foods along with dry food. In time, your cat should once again show interest in food on her own.
- Changes in the social dynamics of your home can be confusing and may result in aggression between the remaining cats. In some cases cats may begin to urinate and defecate outside the litter box or even to spray urine--both commonly seen consequences of social upheaval or anxiety. Keep tabs on relationships, and monitor litter box usage to spot any potential problems before they become serious. If necessary, add extra litter boxes--especially if your cat is hiding or sequestering herself more than she previously did.
- Take your cat to be examined by a vet if you observe any of the above signs. It's best to rule out any medical issues to establish that it is, in fact, grief.
- Try to stick to your cat's normal routine as much as possible. The grieving was already caused by a big change, so it's best not to compound it. For example, stick to the same feeding routine, try not to have a lot of strangers around or go on any extended trips.
- During this time of emotional distress, it is probably wise to avoid adding new pets to your home for at least several months. Even though your cat was closely bonded with the pet that died, he may not accept the arrival of a "replacement"--now or in the future.
- Shower your cat with extra love, attention and cuddling. If your cat has a favorite toy, break it out and start playing. It's best to try and keep your cat stimulated and occupied.
- Cats are resilient creatures. Given time to adapt to the loss of a companion, they will develop new rituals and regain the contentment they once enjoyed.
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