Can Cats Experience Grief?

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger, CCBC, explains how cats deal with the loss of a companion.

Q: I recently had to have my 16-year-old cat, Max, put to sleep. My other cat, Morgan, also 16, has started howling. Does she miss him? They never seemed to be all that close and Max was always more affectionate. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Before determining that Morgan is reacting to Max’s passing, it is important to take Morgan to the veterinarian for a geriatric exam to rule out any possible medical conditions that could be contributing to the howling. That being said, it does sound like Morgan is feeling the loss of Max.

Though Morgan and Max didn’t appear to be close to each other, they still were companions for many years. It is not surprising that Morgan is responding to Max’s absence through howling. Cats respond to the loss of a companion or a person in a variety of ways. Some cats don’t appear to be affected by the loss; others howl, pace or cry.

One case I was called out on involved a cat who had lost her lifelong cat buddy. Her reaction was to howl and stop eating. After observing her and other cats suffering a loss, I believe that cats experience and feel the loss of a companion. For lack of a better word, I will label their experience grief.

You can help Morgan through this rough time in several ways. Stability and consistency are very important. If there are established feeding times, stick to them. If you free feed, make sure to feed her meals and special treats at the same times every day. Engage Morgan in activities she loves on a consistent basis. If she loves to be groomed, then choose a time and a place to groom her every day. If she loves to play, make sure she has special designated play times every day.

Clicker training works wonders as well. It will focus her on you, increase the cat-human bond and mentally stimulate her. It is important to schedule a couple of clicker training sessions at the same times every day. (*Read more about clicker training in the March issue of Cat Fancy, or check out the clicker training videos.

Keeping a consistent schedule with her is important. Cats need that consistency, and she will look forward to the positive interactions that she will have with you.

Monitor Morgan’s eating. If she misses a meal, entice her to eat with food that is delicious and appealing. If she misses a couple of meals, consult with your veterinarian.

I do not recommend bringing in a new cat at this stage. Introducing cats is always a very stressful experience for a cat, and right now Morgan is distressed from the death of her buddy. Another cat at this point could stress her more and add to her anxiety. Now is the time for Morgan to form a closer bond with you. Give Morgan and yourself at least a few months before considering a new friend.

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