Do Cats Mourn the Loss Of a Companion Human or Animal?
I have been a cat lover/owner for almost all of my life, and like many animal lovers (most, probably) I have tended to view them as having certain human traits. Anyone who is rational, no matter how big an animal lover, will admit that their pets do not have all of the human qualities that we pretend they have, but there are some events that happen in the course of living with pets that signal to us that many animals do share some emotions with humans. What dog owner hasn't seen his or her dog smile, for example? And it is generally accepted that in the bond between human and animal there is something that the animal feels for the human that, for want of a better word, can best be described as "love."
If you search the various websites related to pets you will find a variety of information about pets grieving for a deceased owner, or moving stories about a mother animal's distress over the loss of one of her offspring. The more cynical among us would be inclined to point out that while what we witness may appear to be grief or sadness, that it is really just an innate behavior and not a true emotion. However, those who have been around companion animals and have truly paid attention to the behaviors of those animals know better. This is a story of how I witnessed the grief of a pet over the loss of an animal companion; there is no other explanation I have for what happened.
Overrun With Animals
There was a period of time that I thought our house would be overrun with animals. Thanks largely to the efforts of my wife and daughter, at its high point our pet population included eight cats, a dog, two white rats, four mice, and an untold number of gerbils (somewhere around six, if I recall correctly. In fairness to all involved, the rodents were the remains of my daughter's high school science experiment and not really pets.).
How we wound up with this menagerie is not important here. Just suffice it to say that we had a house full of animals, and every single one of them was an indoors only pet. Fortunately our house, while not huge, was large enough for all to live together comfortably and allowed each to find his or her own space.
Almost all of these pets came to us within a few years of each other, and I knew in the back of my mind that at some point as they aged we would start to lose them one right after another. That began to happen in 2008.
Among our eight cats we had two Siamese who were litter-mates and who had been with us since they were kittens. Tara and Meing were their names, and they were fast friends. In fact, while looking through the photos we had taken of them over the years, I was amazed to notice that we had very few pictures of just one or the other of them--they were always together. When they were young they did almost everything together, to the exclusion of the rest of the cats. They played together, slept together, ate together. They were truly inseparable. This bond continued through the rest of their lives.
In early spring of 2008 when she was 15 years old Tara became ill. We took her to our vet, who, after a battery of tests, decided that her illness was either a serious infection or cancer. After receiving a powerful antibiotic and recovering we assumed the verdict was an infection. Unfortunately in July Tara began to show signs of illness again. My wife took her back to the vet at the beginning of August, where she was given a definitive diagnosis of intestinal cancer. She was humanely euthanized on September 26, 2008.
Meing and Chewbakha
I had worried for some time about how Meing would react should Tara die first. Tara was the prototypical "big sister." She looked after Meing and enjoyed her company, but she also maintained a degree of independence. She liked to curl up with Meing on the couch, but she sometimes insisted on sleeping alone. Whereas Meing liked her human interactions, it was plain that Tara was her main attachment in life. Tara, on the other hand enjoyed her humans every bit as much as she enjoyed her sister. I speculated that Meing would not do well in her sister's absence and would follow her in death soon afterward. Meing would prove me wrong.
One of our other cats was a Ragdoll named Chewbakha (yes, the spelling is different than the Star Wars character). Other than his color, Chewbakha (or "Chewie" as we called him) was very different from Tara. He was small for a Ragdoll but he had many of the Ragdoll traits: He had enormous feet. When you picked him up he would start to roll over in your hands so that by the time you had lifted him to your chest he would be lying on his back. And he was extremely docile. Oh, he had his moments. He was one of the most playful cats we have ever had, and he loved to tumble and wrestle with Boo, our daughter's black cat. But in general he was a relaxed, easy-going friend to all.
Perhaps because of a combination of his docility and his color, Meing soon became almost as attached to him as she had been to Tara. They didn't play together--Meing had ceased to play at all as she had gotten older--but they spent a great deal of time sleeping together. They especially liked to lie in front of the fireplace on chilly winter nights. Many times I watched them sit in front of the fire while Chewie groomed Meing. Sometimes if he felt she needed attention and she didn't particularly want it, he would put one of his huge paws across her shoulders to hold her still while he ministered to her. It was plain that Meing had found a surrogate for her sister and I stopped worrying about her.
Cancer hit our pet population again after Tara died. Not quite a year later our eleven year old calico, Tinkerbell would be diagnosed with a similar cancer. Like Tara, she would be gone in a matter of weeks after the diagnosis. A year later we lost our dog Snookie, but in his case the issue was old age. He was 15 and his health slowly declined over the course of about a year until we had to have him euthanized in August 2010. By this point we had become quite weary of death and dying. While this was exactly what I had anticipated would happen for a number of years, anticipation didn't make it any easier on my psyche.
Our big new year's resolution for 2011 was that we wanted a pet death free year. Unfortunately we were not even a month into the year when we got devastating news about Chewbakha.
One evening in November 2010 Chewie was asleep on the back of a chair. He was apparently quite sound asleep and did not know that I was anywhere around, because when I walked by him and brushed my hand down his body as I liked to do he startled, jumped up, and fell to the floor, landing on his left hip. We noticed a short time later that he was limping and could not bear any weight on his left hind leg. I took him to the vet, where x-rays were done that revealed nothing out of the ordinary. They gave him some pain medication and a steroid to try to help his recovery.
The limp improved for a while, but in early January 2011 it returned. Not long afterwards I noticed that there was a lump on his hip at the head of his femur. We returned to the vet where once again we were given the dreaded diagnosis: bone cancer. Chewie had his left hind leg amputated on Valentine's Day 2011.
Life returned to normal for a few months after Chewie's amputation. Our vet cautioned that a year to 16 months was probably about all we could expect for him to survive, but he adapted well to having three legs and we put cancer out of our minds for a while. Sadly, it would soon be back on our minds.
In June 2011 we noticed another lump on his hip at the amputation site. Chewie had developed a cancerous tumor that was growing like wildfire. His appetite declined and we began to wonder whether we would make it through the year without losing him. We elected to spend the time and money and take him to a nearby veterinary specialty center for treatment. He started on chemotherapy and his condition stabilized, although it did not drastically improve. Still, for most of the next five months he would behave like he felt ok, and his relationship with Meing continued unchanged. He continued to sleep with her, groom her, and let her lay down beside him even on days when it appeared obvious to me that he wasn't feeling well.
Chewbakha had always been our well behaved "handsome man," and even at the end of his life he cooperated with us by hanging in past the end of 2011, allowing us to realize our new year's resolution. But shortly after the beginning of 2012 his condition began to deteriorate rapidly and he was euthanized on January 12, 2012.
Little Girl Lost
By the end of Chewbakha's life our menagerie had dwindled from its high point down to just four cats: Meing, Zoe, Pippin, and Hoover. Three others had passed on and our daughter had moved out and taken Boo with her. Meing had no attachment to any of the remaining cats. Zoe and Pippin are loners who keep their own counsels. Hoover is a big orange tabby who is attached to my wife and myself and has little interest in other cats. Meing actually attempted to get close to Hoover after Chewie died, but she was intimidated by his size. Meing was our smallest cat, Hoover our largest. Since she had never approached him in a social manner before, Hoover was puzzled about what she wanted and gently but firmly rebuffed her attempts to lie next to him and sleep.
Meing was lost without Chewbakha. She refused to get in the bed that they had often shared in the sun or in front of the fireplace. She walked around the house, even going into rooms she usually avoided as if she was looking for him. She paced the floor and occasionally she would stop and call out. We did finally convince her to lie in her bed by putting a small stuffed cat in it, but she would not get in it by herself, and if we put her in she would typically only stay for a little while. This went on for about three weeks after Chewbakha's death.
For the last couple of years of her life Meing suffered from dental problems. She had a couple of bad teeth that needed to be extracted, but she was so old and frail that the vet and we agreed that she would probably not survive the anesthesia necessary to do the dental work. So we managed her dental health as best we could by giving her soft moist food, and occasionally taking her to the vet for an antibiotic.
Shortly after the beginning of February we noticed that she had a tooth that was grinding against another when she ate. On Friday February 17 I fetched the cat carrier from the basement to take her to the vet. When she saw the carrier, which she had watched me place Chewie in so many times for his trips for chemotherapy and the like, she brightened up...brighter than I had seen her in several weeks. It was obvious to me that she was expecting me to sit the carrier down and Chewie would emerge, as he had done so many times over the previous months. When I picked her up and placed her inside, on the same folded towel where he had laid so many times as we traveled to various vets offices, she sniffed a bit and looked at me as if very confused. She let out a little "meow" as if asking a question. I closed the door and said to her "I know, he's gone. I know you don't understand, but he won't be back." I was still struggling with the loss of Chewbakha, who had been one of my favorite cats out of all we have had over the years, and of course I said that mainly for myself.
The vet examined her mouth and discovered that Meing had an infected gum and an abscessed tooth. She ran some blood tests, all of which came back as normal. She gave me another bottle of the antibiotic Orbax which we had used for Meing's mouth problems before, and sent us home, asking that I return with her in two weeks.
Meing continued with her daily routine for the next few days. She continued to eat (She had been doing this with our help for a while...we had to pick up the food in a spoon and let her eat it instead of eating it out of her dish.), and she continued to wander the house as if looking for Chewbakha. About Wednesday of the following week we noticed a change: her appetite began to wane. By Thursday evening we knew that she needed to return to the vet, as her appetite was almost completely gone and she was getting visibly weaker.
I returned to the vet with her the next morning. She was so weak she could barely stand, and felt not much heavier than a piece of paper as I cradled her and rocked her in my arms. I told the technician at the animal hospital that I believed that she was dying of a broken heart. "I have heard of things like that happening before," she responded.
The vet examined her, and when she pulled back her lip Meing's gums were white. "She's dying," she said to me. "It would certainly be acceptable if we went ahead and euthanized her now. Would you like to do that?"
"I can't," I replied. "My wife would want to be here, and maybe my daughter. We'll see what Monday brings."
The vet looked at me and said "I understand that. I think she'll go on her own over the weekend, but if she doesn't, just bring her back on Monday."
I took Meing home and offered her some food. She ate a bit, then I placed her in her bed. She was so weak that this time she stayed there.
We had to go out that evening, and when we got home she was lying on the floor, too weak to move. We wrapped her up and took turns holding her for a while. She lingered on throughout Saturday, eventually becoming too weak to walk. My wife slept with her on the couch, and when I awoke on Sunday morning I expected her to tell me that Meing had passed on. But she was still with us, although we could both see it would only be a matter of hours. She was breathing but was no longer responsive to a voice or a touch. She died just before sunset on Sunday February 26.
I had heard stories about pets grieving and giving up their will to live from time to time over the years, and having lived most of my life with domestic animals around me I believed that they were true. It is my belief that animals have many more things in common with humans than we may realize or choose to admit. Meing was old...she would have been 19 in May...but those who know Siamese cats know that 19 is not particularly old for that breed. Our first Siamese, Thai, lived two months past her 21st birthday. Despite Meing's dental issues, her health was not bad, and her last blood work was largely normal for a geriatric cat.
There may have been something else going on with Meing that wasn't picked up by the blood tests, but anyone who observed the changes in her after Chewbakha died would at least wonder if loneliness was a contributing factor in her death. I will always believe that Meing died a little of old age, a little of illness, and a lot of a broken heart.