When one cat dies, owners will often notice some changes in the pets that are left behind. They may become aloof or lethargic. Some may stop eating or become clingy. Others may be more vocal – walking around meowing as though looking for their companion. Based on these outward signs, it appears that cats do grieve when their feline companion dies.
Because our pets cannot speak, we don’t really know what is going through their minds or what they are thinking. We must base our interpretations of their emotional state on their behavior – what they do in certain situations and under specific circumstances.
When a person experiences the death of a human loved one, we may know he feels grief based on what he says. Very often, however, it is how he reacts or what he does that tells us he is suffering. He loses his focus, becomes listless and disoriented, doesn’t eat and becomes disinterested in what is happening around him. The person may cry or go without sleep or sleep more than usual.
An animal that is experiencing the loss of another animal companion may react similarly. “Some animals can actually become depressed when they lose a loved one,” says Monique D. Chretien, MSc, AHT, Animal Behavior Consultant. “They show symptoms similar to humans such as loss of interest in their favorite activities and sleeping more than usual. However, sometimes pets may distance themselves from the family and sleep more than usual when they are ill, so you should consult with your veterinarian before seeing a behaviorist if your pet exhibits symptoms such as these.”
Your cat may lose her appetite, become disoriented, or become more clingy. If the deceased cat was taken to a veterinarian to be euthanized, the grieving cat may sit at the window for days watching for her return. Animal behaviorists commonly call this emotional state separation anxiety. On the surface, the pet’s behavior is similar to that of a person experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project in 1996. The study found that 36 percent of dogs ate less than usual after the death of another canine companion. About 11 percent actually stopped eating completely. About 63 percent of dogs vocalized more than normal or became more quiet. Study respondents indicated that surviving dogs changed the quantity and location of sleep. More than half the surviving pets became more affectionate and clingy with their caregivers. Overall, the study revealed that 66 percent of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after losing a pet companion. We expect that there are very similar findings in cats.
If your cat shows signs that she is grieving the loss of an animal or human family member, provide her with more attention and affection. “Try to take her mind off it by engaging her in a favorite activity,” says Chretien. If she enjoys human company, invite friends that she likes to visit and spend time with her. Use environmental enrichment techniques such as toys to help keep her busy. Hide toys or treats at her favorite spots for her to find during the day.
If your cat is too depressed over the loss, she may not respond to extra activity right away. The old saying, “Time heals all wounds,” has meaning for your cat, too. “Time is one thing that may help,” says Chretien. Based on the results of the ASPCA study, most dogs returned to normal after about two weeks but some took up to six months to fully recover.
If your cat is vocalizing more or howling, don’t give her treats to distract her or you might unintentionally reinforce the howling. “Giving attention during any behavior will help to reinforce it so be sure you are not reinforcing a behavior that you don’t like,” says Chretien. “Give attention at a time when your cat is engaging in behaviors that you do like, such as when she is resting quietly or watching the squirrels. As the pain of the loss begins to subside, so should the vocalizing, as long as it is related to the grieving process.”
You may also want to consult with your veterinarian regarding drug therapy to help decrease your cat’s anxiety, advises Chretien.
If you are thinking about adding another cat, wait until you and your surviving cat have adjusted to the loss. Forcing your cat to get to know a newcomer will only add stress to her already anxiety-ridden emotional state. And be patient. Your cat may miss her canine companion as much as you do.