How can I help my grieving cat?


Editor's Picks
It is often mistakenly assumed that because of cats' more independent personalities and solitary nature they do not experience grief, read on to find out how to help your cat through the loss of an owner or companion.


Content continues after advertisements

My cat is grieving their owner

Coming to terms with the death of an owner can be hard for a cat, as Cynthia Smith found when she took on her aunt's grieving feline. Behaviourist Peter Neville steps in to offer some advice.

Cynthia says: "I have inherited a very timid eight-year-old cat from my aunt who recently passed away. Molly has been in our house for four days and still won't come out from under the bed. She hasn't made any attempt to befriend anyone in the house - I am really concerned that she is grieving and not adjusting to her new home.

"Is there anything we can do to help her settle in? She was extremely attached to my aunt and used to be such a sweet cat."

Peter's view

Many pets mourn the loss of a loved one, and probably experience the same feelings of loss and confusion as us humans. For Molly, losing her best friend was extremely upsetting and then the unavoidable trauma of moving into a new environment made life even more stressful for her. She did what cats usually do when they are feeling very vulnerable - she hid.

Cynthia's Aunt Jane had lived alone with Molly, who was an indoor cat. She rescued Molly when she was just six weeks old and the pair became inseparable. When Jane became bedbound, Molly remained her constant companion and would only leave her side to use the litter tray and eat. When visitors came, Molly would happily engage with anyone, though she's never been very fond of being picked up by other people.

After Jane passed away, Molly came to live with Cynthia, her husband Marcus and their elderly dog Bubbles.

As their property has secure fencing they decided to allow Molly the freedom of the house and garden if she so wished. However, much to their surprise Molly seemed to prefer the space under the bed in the guest room. Cynthia had to push her food under the bed for her, and the litter tray would be used if it was nearby, but only if no one was in sight.

Meeting Molly

When I first met Molly, all I could see was a pair of eyes peering out from the bed. After 25 minutes of us chatting quietly, Molly decided to investigate. She slowly climbed out from under the bed and sniffed me thoroughly. I was really pleased when she bunted my fingertips and allowed me to stroke her. She wandered over to Cynthia to repeat the investigation. I wanted to see exactly how relaxed she was without scaring her, so I offered her a fishing-rod style toy to play with. At first she wasn't really convinced, but she did look at it intently so there was definitely an opportunity for play. We spent another half an hour with her before she decided it was a long enough visit and retreated back under the bed.

I explained to Cynthia that Molly was really unsettled and upset by the loss of her beloved companion and change of home. I could see that this cat had no idea where she was or why she was there. She was also left alone for long periods of time, something she had no experience of. All of this resulted in a depressed, worried cat who simply needed some help to settle into her new home and bond with her new owners. I explained it would take time and that patience would be required - this programme would run at the pace Molly set, or it wouldn't work at all.

Settling in

I suggested that Cynthia fetch cat beds, scratch posts, food bowls and a pillow or two from Jane's house. I recommended installing a baby gate across the open doorway of the guest room to keep the dog out as he was taking a keen interest in Molly's litter tray and food bowls. Molly wasn't afraid of him, but I didn't want her stressed any more than necessary. I wanted the guest room to be her safe space, without isolating her.

I also asked Cynthia to buy some feline pheromone sprays and plug-ins to use around the house. This synthetic equivalent of the facial pheromones of a cat can be very useful to help identify areas as 'safe'.

Molly needed to learn to feel secure with Cynthia and Marcus, so I suggested hand-feeding her instead of pushing her bowl under the bed. We had to encourage her to want to leave the safety of the bed and interact with humans, and this couldn't happen while she had everything she needed under the bed. It would of course take time, but I wanted both new owners to spend as much time in the room with her as possible. The couple could read or sit and chat in there while giving Molly time to adjust to their presence. When she chose to come out, they could hand-feed or stroke her if she allowed them to.

I asked Marcus and Cynthia to do this for one week, for at least two hours a day and to then report back.

Building bonds

Molly initially took up to 30 minutes to come out from under the bed. After five days, she started miaowing as soon as someone walked into the room, and after only five minutes would come out from under the bed to take her meals from their hands. During my visit a week later she appeared after a short time, and when I offered her a toy, she even took a swipe at it.

Cynthia reported that Molly seemed a lot less anxious since they brought back her belongings and the duvet from Jane's house. The duvet was now on the guest room bed, and Molly spent quite a lot of time sleeping on the spot she used to when Jane was still alive.

Cynthia and Marcus's next step for Molly's rehabilitation was to encourage her to play using all her favourite toys. We left the 'alone time' toys (such as balls, catnip-stuffed mice and soft toy mice) scattered around the room for Molly to find and play with, but the interactive toys (fishing-rod style) were to be used when Marcus and Cynthia were playing with her. I also asked them to groom her - something apparently Molly used to enjoy a lot.

Great progress

Ten days after my initial visit, Molly had stopped hiding under the bed and started to sit at the baby gate observing what was going on in the rest of the house.

After two weeks, Molly jumped over the gate to investigate the lounge where Cynthia, Marcus and Bubbles were sitting at the time. She then joined Cynthia on the couch and gingerly curled up in a ball close by. She allowed Cynthia to stroke her and to her delight, Molly began to purr. This quickly became the new routine and Marcus was soon Molly's favourite play companion.

What happened next?

Cynthia says: "We are so thankful for your guidance in this matter, Peter. Without your step-by-step help, I don't think we would have made such wonderful progress with Molly.

"It was breaking my heart to think that I wasn't keeping my promise to my aunt, but by helping us overcome the mountains between us you have helped us all. Thank you!"

My cat is grieving their companion

Does your cat seem down after the death of another pet? He could also be grieving their loss.

Reader's question: My cat seems to be grieving for our other cat who recently died. I always thought he was a bit of a loner but he is really missing him. He cries all the time and follows me everywhere. I've tried tempting him with different foods, giving him treats, lots of time and love, but he's not getting any better. I've also taken him to the vets for a check-up. Is there anything else I should be doing? I thought about getting another cat but I'm worried that might upset him even more.

Pet bereavement counsellor Sue Dawson advises: It is often mistakenly assumed that because of cats' more independent personalities and solitary nature they do not experience grief following the loss of other cats in the household. Suddenly becoming the only cat will involve an adjustment process for your cat. The grief process is exactly this - an adjustment to loss. Your cat may be still be searching for his feline friend and need more time to adjust to him not being around.

You did exactly the right thing in seeking veterinary advice as it's important to make sure that there is no underlying physiological reason for this. It may be helpful to minimise change in your cat's environment as much as possible for the short-term to reduce stress and anxiety. If his appetite has lessened, try warming his food or adding some non-salty gravy, although it's wise to avoid radical changes in diet. Encourage play as much as possible and try to spend more time grooming and stroking him.

I wouldn't advise getting another feline companion straight away - your cat is in a transitional state of flux and needs, for now, to have some sense of continuity. However, with the passage of time you and he may be ready to integrate a new feline family member.