Many people don’t realize that animals grieve the loss of companions and family members. There are also many pet parents who recognize that their cats are grieving but then make the mistake of rushing out to find another companion cat to ease the emotional pain. To ignore that animals do grieve or to attempt to bypass the grieving process by rushing out to find a replacement pet can have disastrous effects on the surviving pet, and ultimately, everyone in the family.
Even if two companion cats had a very hostile relationship, the surviving cat may still grieve the loss. There is confusion about where the other cat has gone. The two cats, regardless of whether they were close or not, had negotiated territories within the household and now the surviving kitty has to figure out whether to risk crossing onto the other cat’s turf.
The Household Dynamic
To add to the initial grief of the surviving cat, there’s the fact that human family members are acting distraught. Cats are creatures of habit and they depend on their owners to behave the same way each day. As the owner grieves the loss of a pet, the household dynamic changes and the grieving cat picks up on the elevated stress level. When the cat sees the owner crying and stressed out, it sends a red flag that everything in his world has turned upside down. During our own grieving time, we also are more at risk of neglecting normal routines so mealtime may end up being late, pets don’t get played with as often, and general interaction with surviving pets can become tense. You may clutch and hold onto your cat so desperately as you grieve. The message that gets sent to the cat is one of restraint and confusion and not affection and love.
Bringing in Another Companion Pet
In an effort to prevent the cat from being lonely, or to try to ease family members’ pain, the owner may bring home another cat. This becomes a recipe for disaster. The grieving cat is not emotionally ready to handle the intrusion of an unfamiliar animal in his home. Territorial aggression will rear its head up in a big way. Cat introductions, under the best of circumstances, require spot-on timing and positive associations. If the resident cat is in the middle of grieving for a lost companion, it puts the newcomer kitty in a no-win situation.
Don’t rush to fill an empty space left by the cat who recently passed away. The best thing you can do for your surviving cat is to offer time with you in a casual, normal way. He doesn’t need to be held so tightly while you cry. He needs his normal routine. He needs to know that not everything in his world has turned upside down. He needs to know that much of his daily routine is normal. He needs to be with you but in the form of playtime, interaction with family members, petting, grooming, all the things you normally would do. Make sure the environment provides stimulation and activity for the cat to keep his mind focused on positive activities. He needs to remain physically and mentally active.
Monitor Your Cat’s Routine
Observe your cat’s eating and litter box habits. It’s not unusual for a grieving cat to stop eating or to experience a change in litter box habits. If you notice either of these, contact your veterinarian. It’s very dangerous for a cat to go two days without eating because of the very serious risk of liver damage. Watch that your cat doesn’t fall into a depression. Stay in contact with your veterinarian if you’re at all in doubt about how your cat is handling the loss of his companion.
After allowing for a time of grieving, you may then determine that your surviving cat would benefit from the addition of another companion animal. It’s then that you can begin the gradual, positive introduction. Don’t rush to get to this point though. Take your cues from your cat.
Need More Help?
For more specifics on cat behavior and training, refer to Pam’s books, including Think Like a Cat.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.