Cat Behaviour - coping with cat bereavement

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Registered Veterinary Nurse, Gary Rutland reports on Portia, a 12 year old cat suffering from bereavement after her two cat family members died and the introduction of two kittens.

Pet's Name: Portia; Breed: Domestic Short-hair; Age: 12 yrs; Gender: Female

History:

Portia first came to the practice to see Robin Creighton for her usual check up appointment. Portia has hyperthyroidism so regularly sees the vet for blood testing and medication checks. On her visit in January, Portia’s owner expressed concerns about a change in behaviour. Portia had become more attached to her owner in particular at night. Her owner reported that as soon as she went to bed Portia would appear on her bed wanting fuss and would not leave her alone until she got it. This behaviour would happen all night, initially it was accepted but as time went on her owner was getting less and less sleep.

Assessment:

Robin refereed Portia to me to see if there was anything more that could be done.

It is important with all behavioural issues that we ensure that there isn’t a medical cause. I spoke to Robin regarding her hyperthyroidism condition. He confirmed that she was stable and that all blood tests were normal and that Portia was in good health.

I then called Portia's owner for a telephone consultation to gather information about Portia's environment and behaviours. Portia has originally been one of 3 cats in the house; these were a socially cohesive group sharing the same environment and resources. In the last 12 months the other 2 cats had passed away, leaving Portia as a lone cat. Cats are solitary animals and prefer to hunt and eat alone so in some cases cats are unaffected by the death of another cat, if the cats are not socially bonded. There is however anecdotal evidence that cats will go through a grieving process. Moreover they are susceptible to changes in our behaviours. (For further information on cat bereavement click here.) Some cats will become more friendly and attentive to their owners, as in the case of Portia.

Cats are a very clever species and are exceptionally good at getting what they want from their owners. In this case Portia sees the client going to bed as an opportunity to get comfy and have some one on one time and probably a nice warm body to lie on. It’s quite common for cat owners (I am as guilty as the any) to give into the demands of our cats, often sleeping on the edge of the bed whilst our cats spread out in luxury. We are all entitled to our sleep and one of the reasons Portia was continuing to pester her owner was because unfortunately the behaviour had been allowed, as the owner believed this would help her grieving.

On further investigation Portia’s owner had recently aquired two new kittens. This added a whole new element to Portia’s change in behaviour. It is common to think that we need to help our cats by providing new feline companionship. However replacing a long term bond between two cats with a boisterous kitten can sometimes do more harm than good. Portia’s owner had been considerate of this by keeping the new kitten’s downstairs allowing Portia free reign to the upstairs; however she would have been able to smell their scent on her owner’s clothes so her nose would have most certainly been put out of place as her environment would have been disturbed.

Behavioural Modification:

  • Firstly I wanted to look at how Portia’s owner normally interacts with her. Was the night time in bed the only time Portia has attention or asked for it? I suggested that her owner make time in the evening to allow Portia to come to her for attention. We should never enforce our attention onto our cats but by sitting in a quiet room, away from the kittens, reading a book would allow Portia if she chose, to come to her owner for attention outside of the bedroom.
  • One of the most obvious solutions would be to shut the bedroom door, this was not appropriate for Portia. Seasoned cat owners will know as soon as you shut a door the cat immediately wants to be on the otherside. The owner had tried this and created a new issue of vocalising and scratching causing Portia to become more stressed. I suggested that Portia be given a bed of her own in the room. This should include a jumper or piece of clothing from the owner that has a familiar scent. This will help Portia feel more settled. I initially suggested having this by the bed so that she was still close by, but enabled the owner to get some sleep.
  • The next issue was that of the kittens. When we introduce kittens to an already existing resident cat we have to be careful about how we do this. Cats do not like face to face confrontation and will do their best to avoid this. This is why scent is such a strong communicating tool it enables cats to communicate without ever having to meet. I suggested to Portia’s owner that if she grooms or strokes the kittens on a favorite jumper and vice versa and then switch these with the other cats, then the scents from each cat can be introduced without them having to meet. Furthermore I ensured that Portia had all the necessary resources i.e. food, water, rest and toilet facilities away from the kittens so there was no competition for resources. (For further information about integrating kittens click here)

Outcome:

I’m glad to say that Portia is a very happy cat now and sleeps in her own bed every night. Moreover her owner is now able to sleep at night. She is getting used to the new kittens slowly but is making progress.

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