Do cats grieve? Some undergo drastic changes in behaviour on the loss of a companion
Little attention is paid to the subject of bereavement in cats, probably largely because cats are often seen as independent animals which retain much of their 'wild' nature. But cats do exhibit behavioural changes after the loss of another cat, and sometimes these can be difficult to understand.
When animals are closely bonded they are more likely to be upset by the loss of their companion. Even cats that constantly fight can grieve the loss of a feuding partner. While no-one will ever know if a cat understands death, they certainly know that a fellow housemate is missing and that something has changed in the house. The owner ' s distress at the loss of a pet may also be communicated to the cat, adding to the confusion it may be feeling.
Signs of grief
There is really no way to predict how a cat is likely to behave when a companion is lost. Some cats seem completely unaffected and, indeed, a few may even seem to be positively happy when their housemate disappears. Others may stop eating and lose interest in their surroundings, simply sitting and staring; they seem to become depressed. A few cats undergo personality or behavioural changes when a companion is lost. In extreme cases, like the case of Honey given here, the cat's behaviour can become a problem.
While there has been no major research on the subject of feline bereavement, a survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that cats ate less, slept more and became more vocal after the death of a companion cat. But encouraging in the 160 households surveyed, all pets that lost a companion were behaving normally within six months.
How can we help?
There are a number of things you can do to help a grieving cat to overcome the loss. Minimising change gives the cat time to come to terms with the loss of a companion cat. Keep the cat ' s routine the same. Changes in feeding times or even simply moving furniture around can cause further stress.
A grieving cat may go off its food. A cat that goes off its food for several days is in danger of a potentially fatal liver disease called hepatic lipidosis. Encourage eating by warming food slightly or putting water or meat juice or it. Sit with your cat during meal times to provide reassurance. Don't be tempted to change diets to stimulate appetite as this may cause digestive upsets. If the cat does not eat for three days seek veterinary advice.
Spend more time with the cat grooming, stroking and playing. This will give a positive feel to any changes in the house that the cat senses.
Don't attempt to replace a lost cat immediately. While your remaining cat may be missing a long term companion, she is unlikely to welcome a stranger when she is still unsettled about the loss. A new cat at this time simply provides an extra source of stress.
Like many species, time spent sniffing and nuzzling the dead body of their companion may be a necessary part of the grieving process. It can therefore be helpful to bring the body of a euthanased cat home rather than have it cremated at the vet's.
Whenever dramatic changes in behaviour occur, the cat should always be checked by a vet for any underlying physical problem. Unresolved behavioural problems can be referred onto animal behaviourists.
The story of Jazz
By Mrs Ruth Trebilcock
Six years ago I adopted Mojo and Jazz. Although they were from different litters, they had lived together for a year and a half from kittenhood. My husband is in the army and the cats had travelled with us to mainland Europe, Cornwall and Belfast . They were always together at home or on their visits to the boarding cattery.
The cats had very different characters. Mojo was the outgoing, friendly lap cat, content to squat wherever she wanted. Nicknamed 'the loafing lizard', she thoroughly enjoyed lounging all over the house and got on extremely well with children. Her idea of heaven was to be stroked constantly and talked to a lot. She hardly ever went outside.
Jazz on the other hand could sometimes be quite nasty. If you approached her and she was not in the mood she would lash out at you. She disliked children and always remained hidden away upstairs when they were around. Always avoiding people — even me — she was constantly outside prowling and hunting. When she was inside she vigorously guarded her domain by jumping on your head as you came upstairs. The only bed she slept on was mine, and that was only if my husband was asleep. If he was awake she would bite his feet and sit on his head!
A couple of months after being relocated to Salisbury from Belfast , Mojo was knocked down by a car and killed. I took her body upstairs while we dug a grave to allow Jazz to say goodbye to her friend.
Uncharacteristically, Jazz was sitting waiting quietly for me at the top of the stairs — something she had never done the entire time I had known her. I stroked her as she sniffed Mojo. She prodded her and jumped on her, before quickly backing off. By the time my husband had started to bury Mojo, Jazz had hidden upstairs in the airing cupboard. I called her down for tea as was the routine and let her out for her evening hunt and toileting. She was nowhere to be seen. Later I found her sitting on Mojo's grave in the back garden. She sat on Mojo's grave every day for about a week — rain, hail or shine; and refused to eat. She would drink a little before returning to her vigil as if she was guarding Mojo's grave.
After a week or so Jazz came back inside, but she was nothing like the old Jazz. She would inspect all Mojo's favourite places. It became a ritual for her. She never went upstairs without a member of the family being up there too, and spent much of her time sat downstairs underneath the coffee table.
She only went to bed when we did, and wouldn't go into my room. Although her eating habits slowly returned to normal Jazz then developed the habit of yowelling on Mojo ' s grave and scratching on it. In anticipation of having to move house again we dug up Mojo's body and had her cremated so that she could always be with us. As soon as we did this Jazz stopped sitting on the grave. Jazz ' s old traits of avoiding people have been reversed; she is constantly around my feet and wanting to be picked up. From never coming within five feet of a human being Jazz will now sit on your knee to be stroked whenever possible. When we have visitors she is always there to be stroked and cuddled. Even though she doesn't hang round long, the difference compared with her previous behaviour is astonishing.
Honey: a case-study of feline bereavement
By Hilary Schrafft
Honey had been a very friendly family cat. Her behaviour changed when her 14-yearold black and white male companion, Marmite, was euthanased. He was in the last stages of kidney disease. From the day Marmite never came home, Honey sat by Marmite's favourite tree at the front of the house. The only time she would come inside was when she was brought inside for meals. She seemed nervous and kept looking around the house. After a while she started growling whenever her owner came near. Honey was examined by the vet to make sure there was nothing else wrong with her. The vet suggested she might be lonely following the loss of Marmite, and suggested that the family adopt a male kitten.
Honey was initially curious but then totally rejected the kitten. The family got another kitten to keep the first one occupied and take the pressure off Honey. At first this seemed to work, but after about two weeks Honey was spending all of her time outside, even in wet, wintry conditions. The vet suggested contacting Lorraine Spencer; a veterinary nurse who runs the cat rescue centre, Devizes Kats and Kits, for advice. Lorraine suggested that the owner set aside special times dedicated to bonding with Honey on a one-to-one basis. Despite following this advice, Honey's behaviour did not improve. It was suggested that rehoming might help her.
Honey was re-homed into my household, where there was one existing cat, a young black and white female. Significantly, Honey never seemed to purr or to make any vocalisations for several months. She also didn't like being handled, although she liked to be in close proximity to myself or my partner. However, taking into account her nervous disposition she seemed to settle in relatively well. Although the two cats tolerated each other, they didn't form any attachment.
The situation changed when, four months later, we adopted another two cats. Immediately Honey formed a very strong attachment to Max, a black and white male, who seemed to have become a substitute for Marmite. They spent a lot of time together; play-fighting and sleeping next to each other. Unfortunately her aggressive behaviour was repeated with Bonnie, the other cat. One and-a-half years later, Honey seems much more content. The bullying behaviour still takes place, but it is far less serious and she seems more secure. She is also more affectionate towards humans, and purrs and vocalises quite often.
PET LOSS SUPPORT
Helping your cat to overcome grief can be especially difficult if you are having trouble coming to terms with the loss of your cat yourself. Sometimes it helps to share your feelings with someone who knows from personal experience just how distressing the loss of a pet can be.
The Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS) offers confidential telephone and email support for anyone who is experiencing or anticipating the loss of a pet as a result of death, illness, loss and theft, enforced separation or an accident. Emotional support and practical information is provided by trained volunteers. The service is run by The Blue Cross and the Society for Companion Animal Studies.
The Support Line is open daily 8.30am to 8.30pm. The service is free and confidential. Some mobile phone networks may charge.
0800 096 6606