How to Help a Grieving Cat

Some animal behaviorists claim that cats don't mourn the passing of their friends because they aren't social (i.e.-pack) animals.  Well, we're here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth!  Cats are extremely social creatures who build complex social networks during their lives.  It's sad that even some misguided industry professionals continue to perpetuate the myth of feline aloofness despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.  Unfortunately, many veterinarians and so-called animal behaviorists haven't kept up with modern studies on feline behavior!  We definitely need more high-quality studies of cat behavior in general, and of feline society in particular.

Which brings us to the question of how a concerned human can help a cherished cat get through the grieving process.  Stevie R. writes:

Maud’s sister was killed by a car. They are nine months old. I’m sure Maud is grief stricken and I’m not sure what to do to help her. She is so sad it is heartbreaking. On top of that I’m thinking of keeping her in the house from now on. She is nine months old and has been allowed out since she was six months old. Magpie, her sister, was killed right outside my house and I’m not sure how safe the street is anymore.

Stevie, grief is a process all of us have to get through on our own terms.  We're sure that you've done your share of grieving over Magpie's death, yourself, so you know it isn't easy.  It also depends on how close the two cats were.

Generally speaking, cats go through three stages of grief when a close companion dies: distress (pacing and vocalizing, as if looking for their friend), depression (becoming lethargic and losing appetite), and acceptance (becoming social again).  This process seems to take longer if the companion cat simply disappeared and the remaining kitty didn't witness his or her death.  One might think of this as a period of anticipating the friend's return only to be disappointed again and again.

So how can you help?  The best response is a gentle, caring response.  Keep up Maud's routine as much as she'll allow you to.  Be there for her and let her know you care but don't force her to process this big change any faster than she's able to.  That can add additional stress that she simply can't deal with right now.  Let her set the pace while being very aware of your own emotional state.  Yes, she'll pick up on it if you're still grieving too. 

You may be tempted to remove toys and bedding that Magpie loved, but you need to resist that urge.  It may actually comfort Maud to have Magpie's scent on the things that surround her.  The scent will diminish slowly to be replaced with Maud's own smell.  If you see Maud lounging in one of Magpie's favorite spots, take a moment to comfort her and to rub your hands over Maude and the bedding.  Spreading communal scents is a primary way that cat communities are defined and most cats draw tremendous comfort from the process of intermingling smells.

Just as you need time to process this tragedy, Stevie, Maud needs time too.  Allow her the time she needs and be a comforting lap for her when she's ready.  She'll let you know.  In the meantime, periodically look in on her throughout the day and rub her cheek gently just to let her know you're there for her when she's ready.

One last thing - this is not the time to adopt a new friend for Maud.  It may seem like the logical thing to do, but Maud is in no state to accept such a major change in her life.  Doing so would be a disservice to both Maud and to the new kitty.  Wait until Maud tells you that she's accepted Magpie's absence in your lives before you even consider a new adoption.

As to the question of keeping Maud inside, we heartily approve.  We encourage all cat caregivers to make their feline friends indoor-only cats.  Maud will undoubtedly live a longer, healthier life indoors, and you can always take her out on a leash for some outdoor fun.  At her age, you should be able to harness train her easily.

With a little patience and a lot of love, we feel certain that you'll be able to help Maud through this terribly difficult time.  We wish both of you all the best!