Can Cats Experience Grief?

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

Posted: April 11 2008 2 a.m. EDT

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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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Reader Comments

CatChannelEditor    Irvine, CA

1/30/2012 2:57:06 PM

Annie -- This is such a difficult situation. Please accept our condolences. Harley has a lot of changes to deal with -- the loss of his favorite human, the move, a change in environment. This will take patience. Give Harley attention and engage in interactive play with him before bedtime. Also, please keep your cats indoors, but provide toys, perches and feeding puzzles to keep your cats stimulated. Reward Harley with positive reinforcement for not howling. If you'd like more advice, please reach out to our cat behaviorist Marilyn Krieger by emailing her through the link on her landing page. LINK Good luck

Annie    Sebastian, FL

1/28/2012 6:27:57 PM

Kitties DO experience grief, after many trips to my veterinary clinic I was told that meds (kitty prozac, actually) is often used. Harley LOVES me, always has. But Randy was his human, and he still looks for him to come thru the door. (so do I, even after 6 months) I believe that the HOWLING must be an expression of profound grief. they have no other way to express themselves. I feel so bad for BOTH my kitties, their lives got turned upside-down just like mine was. I cry, Maggie is an emotional eater, and Harley HOWLS. we all express our grief in different ways I guess.

Annie    Sebastian, FL

1/28/2012 6:19:27 PM

I have 2 cats. They've always had a love/hate relationship, but that is not our issue. 6 months ago, we lost Randy, my husband (and Harley's 'human') very suddenly. So cats & I moved 1/2 way across the country so that I could be closer to my family (it was where we'd planned to retire to, so I went ahead with the plan a few years earlier & just me & the cats). It was very traumatic for all of us. Harley has always had 'separation anxiety' issues but not as bad as they are now. Harley had stress-induced urinary tract issues,AND we also had an issue of wildlife living in the attic. (we had to get a baby raccoon cut out of the wall that fell down, and Momma Raccoon continued to search for the baby (relocated to a wildlife preserve, because we could never catch momma) AND we had an episode where the momma 'coon came through a bedroom window & had an altercation with Harley. (many $$$, x-rays, etc, Harley is fine)but now he has an issue of HOWLING to go outside on the screen patio, even in the middle of the night. I usually try to keep the patio doors open so both cats can enjoy the outside (they both loove being Florida kitties after being inner-city, urban apt- dwellers their whole lives) BUT I am afraid that Harley's howling (day & night is going to invoke the neighbors, wrath. It is extremely annoying, even to me. fyi both kitties get MAD when I make them come inside. Harley has always been "special" but I am at my wits' end with him. I'd like to get a nights' sleep without him HOWLING because he wants to go out. A cat-door is out of the question because the neighbors would surely complain. Or maybe even try to poison them, as they are of questionable morals, etc. NEED ADVICE!!!

Dennis    Cleveland, OH

11/18/2011 7:11:13 PM

Thank You, for your input about a cat with grief I have 2 female cats,and the oldest had to be put to sleep the older one wakes up at two,and three in the morning howling and would not stop until we told her to keep quite,now I see we have to spend more time with her,so I want to say Thank You for writing this down to let us know how to handle it.

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