Our 15 year-old cat Sabrina recently passed away. It’s been hard on our entire family, but one family member in particular seems to be suffering the most and we just don’t know what to do. That’s Sabrina’s brother Chester (they were littermates and have never been apart since they were born).
The first day or two, he seemed okay. But in the weeks since, he’s changed. He wanders around the house yowling for seemingly no reason, and sometimes is even aggressive with us (so unlike him). More alarmingly, he’s started to lose some of his hair, doesn’t always finish his meals (also so unlike him!), and never wants to play anymore.
Our vet did a full exam and found nothing wrong; she said he might simply be grieving. Is that true? He can’t talk to us about his feelings, obviously, so we just don’t know what he needs or how to help him. Should we get another cat so he has a companion again? What can we do?
Signed, Moxie's Mom
First off, I am so sorry for your loss. Truly, I have no words (and not just because I’m a cat who technically can’t talk either). My heart goes out to all of you.
Great job taking Chester in for a vet check right away – you’re clearly primo kitty parents. Since physical issues have been ruled out, I think your vet is right that Chester is grieving, and yes, not only do cats grieve, but they do it in ways fairly similar to the way you humans do. I mean, I may gripe about the Unholy Terror (AKA my adopted brother), but if he were to suddenly up and disappear, I would miss him just like Chester misses Sabrina. When a cat loses a buddy, even a buddy as obnoxious as the Unholy T., all kinds of things get thrown out of kilter. Not only has Chester lost his sister and closest companion, but cats are hierarchical by nature, and his entire hierarchy has become unbalanced and confused.
In addition to the signs you have noted, grief in cats can lead to changes in sleep, withdrawal, and depression or anxiety. Because loss is stressful, stress hormones are also being released in Chester’s system, which could explain the hair loss (another possibility there is stress-induced overgrooming), as well as things like weight loss, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Because you’ve already ruled out a health problem for Chester, let’s explore some ways you can help him through the grieving process. On average, this stage can take between 2 weeks to 6 months in kitties, according to an article entitled When Cats Grieve by Sarah Hartwell*. During this time, you should try to reassure and comfort Chester as much as you can. Don’t force him to interact with you if he doesn’t want to, but consider stepping up the praise, treats, catnip, new toys, and affection. Dote on your boy, in other words.
Many people wonder if it might help to get a new companion for their grieving kitty right away. This is a gamble, in my opinion. For a really sociable kitty, it might be just the thing. But other cats may see the new cat as an invader to their territory, which is already in a state of major upheaval. For that reason, I’d suggest giving Chester a little more time to adjust before adopting a new friend for him.
When you feel Chester’s ready, I’d suggest talking to one of the amazing, knowledgeable adoption counselors at Purrfect Pals – not only can they help you find the right new feline family member, but they have hearts of gold, to boot, ready with heaps of compassion and respect for the loss you have all suffered. If you do decide you’re ready to adopt, be sure to go extra-slowly with the introductions for Chester, giving him plenty of time to adjust (for more on introducing a new cat to your family, see Dear Tabby in the Summer 2014 issue of The Purr: https://purrfectpals.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Purr-Summer-2014.pdf).
In the meantime, give your little furball lots of love and patience, and keep a close eye on him for any signs of worsening anxiety or depression. If he isn’t getting better, zip him back to your vet for more professional assistance. Sometimes medications can help, as can over-the-counter stress-relieving products like Feliway, which we use at Purrfect Pals.
I’m so sorry about your loss, so moved by the capacity of human love for us kitties, and so happy you found both your furbabies when you did. I have no doubt Sabrina had a truly wonderful life. Give Chester, and yourselves, an extra scritch behind the ears from me.
*Sarah Hartwell’s article “When Cats Grieve” is available online at http://www.sterlingvets.com/uploads/Feline_Grief_.pdf.