Vicky Halls offers advice on helping your cat handle the death of its companion.
In my book, Cat Confidential, I published the results of an owner survey on the changing behaviour of cats as they got older, part of which related to how cats respond to the death of a cat companion.
I received information about 1134 cats in total, the owners of 271 of these cats reported theirs had outlived a cat companion. While the majority (60%) of the 271 cats were said to be unaffected, fifty-five of them, in their owners’ opinion, showed positive and fifty of them negative responses. When you see the words used to describe what the owners think they are seeing, it is interesting that they are attributing very specific human thoughts and feelings to their cats (this is referred to as anthropomorphism).
The owners’ positive words and phrases included:
- ‘Became top cat’
- ‘Happy to be the only cat’
Negative words included:
For many of the negative reactions, owners reported that they were temporary, lasting from a matter of days to several months. Many of the cats considered to respond negatively were Siamese and other Oriental breeds, this may be a reflection of their apparent predisposition to form over-attachments.
It is unlikely that cats experience the loss of a companion in a way that we would, but for some, it certainly represents a massive change – owners behave differently, routines change and a familiar part of the social unit is missing. Under these circumstances, it is probably more surprising that a significant number of owners reported no response whatsoever from the surviving cat.
It is difficult to generalise about the process of adjustment that cats go through but in the various reports received as part of the elderly cat survey, and in other anecdotal reporting, there appear to be three stages that may be seen. Initially, the cat may vocalise excessively, pace and appear to search for the other cat. The second stage is a more passive one where the cat becomes withdrawn and inactive.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. This seems to herald a transition, as some owners reported that permanent ‘character changes’ become evident at this time. Some cats became more friendly and attentive to their owners. Others appeared to ‘blossom’ on the demise of their companions, possibly showing how they had previously suppressed their behaviour in the presence of a more assertive individual. Sometimes we only really appreciate the nature of our cats’ relationship with each other when they are no longer together.
However, just like people, there is no standard way for cats to respond to the death of a companion so any concerns you have about changes in your cat’s behaviour should be discussed with your veterinarian.
Tips to help your cat through the period of adjustment
- Maintain the general routines of the household as much as possible; predictability is important for cats 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.
- If your cat goes off its food, appears withdrawn or lethargic do not automatically assume this is purely an emotional response that will pass with time. The stress that the loss of a companion may cause, irrespective of the perceived quality of the relationship, can make your cat more susceptible to disease, particularly if they are elderly. Get your cat checked out by your veterinarian if the problem persists for more than a couple of days.
- Take care that your desire to provide comfort is appreciated by your cat. If you focus attention on the remaining cat because you feel they need to be consoled 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 the cat to initiate social contact.
- If multiple cats remain after a death then there can be quite an evident upheaval as the relationship between them shifts, particularly if the deceased cat played a significant role in the group. This is another complex part of the process and it is probably best to leave them to achieve stability again without human intervention.
- If your cats have access outdoors and the deceased cat was territorial then you may start to see more strange cats nearby. This could be stressful for your remaining cat if they are unlikely to patrol territory and keep others at bay. Make sure you have everything your cat needs indoors, including a litter tray, so they can choose whether or not to go outdoors in the future.