Feline bereavement

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The death of a cat companion has a profound impact on a household - grieving humans, changes of routine and the absence of a familiar part of the social unit.

In anecdotal reports, positive and negative responses are seen in cats that lose a companion and an equally significant number of owners report no response whatsoever from the surviving cat.

This may be unpalatable for grieving owners but it is probably a normal consequence for cats that live in the same place without forming any particular bond.

What signs should I look out for?

The flexibility of the cat’s social structure makes it difficult to generalise about the grieving process but from the information gleaned as part of surveys and in other anecdotal reporting, if the remaining cat shows a reaction, there appear to be three stages commonly described. The first is relatively short-term and manifests itself in excessive vocalising, pacing and searching. This appears to be an active phase as the cat attempts to find the missing individual. Cats may be observed looking out of windows or sniffing while going from room to room.

The second stage is a more passive one where the cat becomes withdrawn and inactive. Some more sensitive breeds like the Siamese and Burmese may lose their appetite and appear quite unwell for several weeks during this part of the process, often needing veterinary intervention to stimulate a return to normal eating habits. This stage tends in most to decrease with time until the cat emerges into the third and final stage, that of acceptance.

This often heralds a period of transition as it is commonly reported that permanent “character changes” become evident at this time. Some cats will become more friendly and attentive towards their owners. Others will appear to ‘blossom’ on the demise of their companions and become more vocal and generally more active.

There does not appear to be a standard way to respond to the loss of a companion or even a set time over which to do so. Some cats will go through the process in a matter of days, others will skip the withdrawn, depressed phase and a few may show signs of disturbance for several weeks or even months. As mentioned previously, some cats will show no response whatsoever.

Should I contact my vet at any time while my cat is ‘grieving’?

If your cat has stopped eating or is showing any signs of illness then, certainly, contact your veterinarian. It would be wrong to assume that any signs are purely due to emotional causes.

Will a new kitten help my cat get over the loss of a companion?

Those cats that express grief in a demonstrative way can take anything from days to months to adjust to the change. You may be keen to comfort your apparently inconsolable cat and a new kitten may seem like a good solution. These introductions however do not always go to plan as replacing a familiar long-term and predictable companion with a young, boisterous kitten is hardly an appropriate substitute. However there are always exceptions to this rule and many anecdotal reports suggest that certain individuals benefit from the stimulation of ‘young blood’ in the home. Others may benefit if they are prone to forming dependent relationships with other cats although they too can reject a newcomer, craving instead the company of the familiar.

How can I help my cat through the grieving process?

Losing a pet can be very distressing but the way it impacts on your emotional state and behaviour may in turn affect your cat. It would be helpful to maintain the general routines of the household as much as possible; predictability is important at any time but particularly so now. Don’t be too hasty in removing the deceased cat’s favourite bedding and other personal effects. The gradually fading scent will confirm that individual is no longer around.

Take care that your desire to provide comfort to the remaining cat is appreciated - if you focus on loving and consoling it may have stressful consequences if that level of attention is unusual or undesired. It is best at this time to make yourself available but allow your cat to initiate social contact.

Often the impact of the death of a cat is not only felt within the household. If the deceased cat was active in the territory outside then other neighbourhood cats may start to encroach into previously defended space. This may have serious repercussions for any remaining cats if they had historically relied on their companion to deal with territorial matters, so be vigilant if you feel that this scenario may apply to you. Your cat may become reluctant to go outdoors so it would be helpful to provide indoor litter facilities for safe toileting if you haven’t already done so.

If you have a number of cats remaining then there can be quite evident upheaval as the relationship between them shifts depending on the role played by the deceased. This is another complex part of the grieving process and it is probably best to leave them to achieve stability again without your intervention.

Is it helpful for cats to see the body of the deceased?

If there is no specific risk of disease transmission (and the death occurred under circumstances that make it practical) then there is certainly no harm in doing so but some cats can respond negatively to any foreign or challenging smells on the body.

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