Handling the Death of a Cat in a Multi-cat Home

When a cat dies, others within the group do seem to mourn the loss. When the older male brother of two female cats in my home suddenly passed away, the surviving cats howled mournfully in a way that I hadn’t heard before. Finally, depression seemed to set in once they realized their family member was gone. I always wondered if they somehow knew he had died, or if they just thought he had abandoned them and would not return.

In 1996, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted the Companion Animal Mourning Project. It focused solely on dogs, but came to the following conclusions:

  • 36 percent of dogs ate less than usual after another canine friend or relative passed away
  • 11 percent stopped eating altogether after a death
  • 63 percent of dogs changed the way they vocalized after experiencing the death of a companion, becoming either more vocal or more quiet
  • 66 percent of dogs exhibited behavioral changes, including changing their sleeping habits
  • Over 50 percent of dogs latched on to owners more after another pet in the family died.

Cats and dogs are both mammals that bond intensely to humans. Based on the ASPCA study, my own experience and other anecdotal evidence, I do think cats mourn the death of others too. Your 8-year-old female has just suffered a tremendous loss, and her daily routine likely changed as a result of the death.

Try to be more present for her, providing attention and affection whenever you can. If she snoozed with her brother, you might consider buying a warm blanket or heating pad so that she can have the comfort of warmth that she probably previously received from her brother. If your cat is used to regular companionship all day, you might also consider adopting another cat, taking care that the two are well-matched and get along.

How Cats Leave Their Mark

Often you can tell when a cat is in residence by looking at corners of walls, where two walls meet. There, you will frequently find a little brown cat-height mark, letting you know that it has rubbed its head there repeatedly. Some of my curtains even have such a mark, revealing where one of my cats has brushed the curtain open over and over again to peek outside.

The greasy mark is just residue from natural oils on your cat’s fur. This oil is not really what your cat is interested in depositing. Instead, as the Humane Society of the United States reports, cats have scent glands on their cheeks, their flanks and the pads of their paws. These glands release chemicals called pheromones. Consisting of proteins and other compounds, cat pheromones can trigger the behavior of other kitties.

When your cat rubs its head on walls, furniture, you and anything else, it is therefore leaving behind its own unique scent. Like a signature perfume, this odor helps your cat to mark people, other cats and objects. It’s actually a great honor to be head-rubbed by a cat, because it is informing you that you are very valuable. The same thing happens when your cat kneads its claws on you in a very slow, deliberate fashion. With each move, your cat is intentionally marking you with its scent, again because it values you and may want to return to that same comfy spot again someday soon.

In the wild, such scents are meant to communicate information to other cats. Should another cat come up to your wall or to you, it is then informed that you already belong to another kitty. Sometimes that proves irresistible to other cats that want to claim the desirable people or objects too. At other times, the visiting cat gets the message to back off, since this is a claimed human, cozy couch, soft bed or other desired, pre-discovered possession.

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Why Your Cat Acts Stressed and Anxious

Each individual cat has its own unique personality shaped by many different factors. Most of these influences can be categorized as either nature or nurture.

Nature refers to the cat’s genetics and biochemistry. In other words, it’s like the hardwiring for your cat. Several years ago, Dennis Turner, a behaviorist from Switzerland, discovered a paternal effect on cats’ friendliness to people. Turner found that friendly cat fathers tended to produce friendly kittens. Since the feline fathers never even spent time with their kittens, Turner concluded that the connection must be tied to inherited genes.

A similar thing could be at work with your cat that is more anxious and skittish. Your cat might just be more prone to behave this way. Additionally, female cats are sometimes a bit more wary than males, though they can be quite loving and devoted once they grow to trust others. This is because females evolved more protective behaviors to care for kittens.

Nurture, on the other hand, refers more to the life experiences of your cats. This can include everything from how they were raised to what goes on in their lives on a day-to-day basis. Pay attention to how your cats interact. Do they all get along, or do the others often bully your more skittish cat? If your anxious cat is a victim of bullying, you might have to step in to help it out.

Numerous reasons -- including your cat’s genetic history, environment, sex and more -- can therefore help explain why one cat within your trio acts so differently from the others. Since you can affect the nurture aspects, I hope that you can work to de-stress your cat’s life soon.

Lower Your Stress … With a Cat?

Numerous studies conclude that cats reduce the stress levels of their owners. Few things are as soothing as a relaxed cat purring or snoozing on your lap, since we sense those good vibes that can carry over to us.

The process isn’t just mental. Dr. Karen Allen -- a medicine research scientist at the at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York -- and her colleagues studied 48 male and female stockbrokers who were using medication to control high blood pressure. Allen and her team found that those with a pet experienced half the increase in blood pressure under stress as those who did not own a pet.

“The results are dramatic and significant,” says Allen, who measured heart rate and blood pressure responses to mental and physical stress. “We’ve shown over and over that it’s beneficial to be with a pet when you’re under stress.”

Yet another study, conducted by psychologist Sara Staats of The Ohio State University, found that college students could handle stressful situations better if they had a pet.

“We might not think of college students as being lonely, but a lot of freshman and sophomores are in an early transition from living at home to living in dorms or off-campus,” says Staats. “We found that a lot of young adults are choosing to have an animal companion to help get them through these difficult and stressful situations. Many more say that without their pet, they would feel lonely.”

Finally, if you have a cat or another pet, you may enjoy closer relationships with humans, feel more satisfied in marriage and respond better to stresses that can break apart other couples. Allen and her team also found that systolic blood pressure readings of couples with pets were lower at baseline, rose less in response to stress and returned to baseline quicker than they did in couples without pets.

“Many studies have shown that social support is protective of cardiovascular health,” says Allen. “We know that people who have many social interactions are healthier than people who don’t. In this study, people who owned a pet had significantly more interactions with other people than couples who didn’t.”

How to Recognize Feline Non-recognition Aggression

“Feline non-recognition aggression” is a technical term that may be unfamiliar to you. But if you are a cat owner with more than one cat, chances are you have experienced the phenomenon. It usually begins something like this:

You have two or more cats that normally get along well. Whether or not the cats are related, things go smoothly in your household until you take one cat to the veterinarian’s office for a minor procedure. Your cat is feeling OK, if not a little shaken up by the ordeal, and you take it home. That’s when the problem starts.

Your other cat(s) look at the treated cat as if they have never seen it before. They might hiss and shun it, running away. As if your formerly sick cat didn’t have enough problems, it now has this social anxiety to face. The other cats might even try to attack the treated cat.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, founder of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, calls this sort of behavior “feline non-recognition aggression.” Dodman has heard many different explanations for it. Perhaps the cat from the vet is releasing stress hormones, or perhaps it just looks different. The cat could have taken on the scent of something from the clinic, such as anesthesia, iodine, alcohol or even vitamin B, which he says seems to pervade most pet hospitals.

Dodman is not certain what single trigger is responsible for feline non-recognition aggression. It’s possible that many different causes exist and are unique to each cat. The main thing to remember is that if you have a multi-cat household and one cat needs to go to the vet, be sure to supervise kitty reunions upon your return home. It’s been my experience that any surprise shunning by other cats diminishes within a few hours. During that time, however, it is important to allow the recovering cat to rest in peace before dealing with reintroductions.