We all know what it is like to lose a loved one and grieve for them. It can surprise some people to learn that sometimes cats can experience grief too – for the loss of an much-loved owner, a human member of their family, a family dog, or another cat to whom they were particularly close. So how can you know if your cat is grieving? And what should you do about it?
Many years ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea of a cat grieving; even vets might have felt that way. But we know better now, especially those of us who have been close to a cat which has lost someone it cared about. In fact, in 1996 some research was done on this particular subject. The researchers found that about half of cats ate less after the loss of another cat which they were close to, many were more vocal, affectionate, or clingy, and some slept more or slept in strange places. Many of them showed four or more changes after the death, which strongly suggests that this was not just a coincidence.
Not all cats grieve, and not in all cases of loss. I had one cat who appeared to be delighted when the other cat in the household was killed on the road; he had always wanted to be the only cat, and now he was. Cats are all different.
So would you know if your own cat was grieving? I think you would. One of my cats refused to eat after she lost her lifelong companion. And I am a volunteer for a cat charity which sometimes takes in cats whose owners have died. I have seen how these cats look – sad, lost, and as though they had lost the will to live. You will certainly know! But what can you do about it?
Cats are happiest when their routine is not disturbed, so try to keep things in the house much the same as they have always been, so as not to add extra stress to your already disturbed cat. You may be grieving yourself and find it hard to do this. If a person has died, you may have many things to do, such as preparing for a funeral. But try to feed your cat at the same times, be there if she wants you, and be at home at the same times as you always have in the past.
Give your sad cat lots of love and affection, but only if that is what she wants. Cats show their grief in different ways. Some want lots of affection, while others prefer to mourn in private. Try to be there for your cat if she wants you, but respect her need to be alone if she prefers that. It could help to show the cat the body of her friend, as a way of explaining what has happened. Some cats appear to understand this; who knows, but it certainly can't do any harm. It may even prevent the heartbreaking sight of a cat which looks everywhere for its missing companion, and some cats will do this, not understanding where the loved one has gone.
Cats need to drink frequently, and if they don't eat for a few days they run the risk of getting a potentially fatal illness called hepatic lipidosis. So try to persuade your sad cat to eat at least a little, and tempt her with foods she really likes. If that doesn't work, consult your vet to see how you can persuade her to start eating again.
There are some herbal remedies which can help with grief. There is a Bach flower remedy called Star of Bethlehem which is designed for this. There is also a homeopathic remedy called Ignatia which is specific for grief. Both of these are harmless to cats, and can be obtained from some health food stores and chemists, or online. The herb St John's Wort may also help, but this can be harmful in some instances and you should check first with your vet. Your vet could also prescriber anti-depressants, but only if the grief goes on abnormally long and turns to depression.
Some people think getting another cat will help their cat with its grief, particularly if it is a feline companion which has been lost. A new kitten, they reason, will make their cat feel much better!Occasionally this can work, but it is just as likely to make things worse. Think about it...if you lose a much loved companion, will another person – any person – make you feel better? It could, but it might well be the last thing you need. So even if you are planning to get another cat anyway, wait a while. You need to allow things to settle in the household, and leave time for your cat to go through its grieving process and recover, before you introduce any drastic changes, let alone a new pet.
All of us grieve when we lose someone we love, and that applies to cats too. This is a natural process, and we need time to go through it and re-adjust to life without the loved one. It is known that people go through stages in the grief process - denial, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. This is quite natural, and there is nothing wrong with it, however painful it may be. It is unlikely that cats do this in quite the same way; I cannot see them bargaining in quite the way humans are said to do. But they may well go through a somewhat similar process. So give your cat time to get used to things. She is likely to grieve just as much as she needs to, and then recover and get on with life – just as we all do.