Owner Loss and the Human-Feline Bond Revisited

After revisiting the subject of the human-canine bond and owner loss last month, I knew revisiting owner loss and the human-feline bond also had value. Since the original article appeared in 2002, two changes make this material even more relevant today:

  1. Less knowledgeable of what constitutes normal feline behavior. If we don’t know normal is, it’s a lot harder to determine what isn’t.
  2. Increased emphasis on emotion-based symbolism applied to cats in general. When owner loss occurs, any additional emotion linked to the owner’s loss imposed on the cat by the new caregiver may interfere with the cat’s acceptance of any changes.


Baby Bam turns my work space into          a  playground

Regardless of the specific feline qualities that endear a particular cat to a particular person, human-feline relationships can be pretty intense. And because the more intense the relationship, the greater the pet’s sense of loss when separated from that person, it’s important to understand why and how this occurs.

Many domestic cats can and do form quite complex social relationships with others. However,  this doesn’t erase the fact that their physiology and behavior reflects the successful evolution of a small, solitary, nocturnal predator over thousands and thousands of years. Though we may choose to deny the presence of those roots, they can and do effect how cats relate to us.

Because of these influences, kittens often come into our lives with a combination of seemingly insatiable curiosity and a desire to learn. It’s one of the reasons we love them. Second, like their wild ancestors and cousins, the lessons they learn when young tend to be deeply entrenched and resistant to change.  Confronted with this high-energy, fur-covered learning machine we often come up with all kinds of games and rituals to channel all this potential. While we may say we do this to enrich their environment, we also may do it to keep them from getting into trouble or driving us mad.

But  while most puppies will receive at least some kind of basic training and go on daily walks and car rides that  build the animal’s confidence, many times we don’t give building our house-bound feline friend’s confidence a second-thought. Instead, we  become so captivated by this little ball of fur who finds so much of what we do fascinating that sometimes it’s easy to create a little world that includes just the two of us.

Image courtesy of Gerhard Gellinger pixaby.com

For example, deliberately or unwittingly, some owners create complex feeding rituals with their cats. These involve what they feed their pets, but also how, when, and where. Often cat and person enjoy these very much. But what will happen when that person no longer is around? Who will cut up Sergei’s food into the tiniest little pieces, warm them in the microwave just so, and serve them on his special plate placed in that special spot on the kitchen counter? If he’s lucky, his owner will have ensured that someone will do exactly that in her absence. Regardless how long she’s gone. If she didn’t, it may take his new owner months to figure out that the cat’s poor appetite results from how or where he’s being fed, not what. If his new owner doesn’t, Sergei may never feel completely comfortable when he eats.

Other times cats suffer more when owner loss occurs because all their play was owner-dependent. Because Sparkle always played with her owner, she never gained the confidence-building and comfort that comes from learning to play by herself. When separated from that person, she had no way to comfort or amuse herself. Worse, her future happiness may depend on her new owner’s willingness to duplicate the games she used to play with her owner. If her original owner didn’t make provisions for her that included describing any play rituals for a new or surviving owner, Sparkle will need to adjust to this as well as everything else.

Will living with other cats or an animal of a different species help a cat cope with owner loss? That  depends on the relationships between those animals; some animals get along better together and others don’t. If the cat has a favorite companion, did the owner make provisions for those animals to be rehomed together? If not, those willing to take one animal may not want to take two or more. Bereaved friends and family may be more concerned with getting the all the animals placed in new homes than keeping certain ones together. When owners fail to make such provisions, those who adopt or inherit their cats once again may need to figure out the cat’s needs by trial-and-error. This takes time.

Even the most social cat may revert to solitary behavior when stressed, so don’t rush things if you adopt a cat whose owner has died. Provide the cat with a secure space to which he can retreat, and give him time to become accustomed to any new routines or environmental changes. Above all, don’t feel frustrated or guilty about your inability fulfill any cat-related rituals that the previous owner may have created. You can’t change what happened, and feeling frustrated or guilty will only undermine the message of confidence and support the cat needs from you at this time. Things we do out of frustration or guilt instead of based on solid knowledge of that animal’s behavioral and physical needs have a way of back-firing.

As mentioned in the discussion of dogs and owner loss, don’t excuse or dismiss animal medical or behavioral problems that arise following owner loss owner by saying, “Fluffy just misses her owner.” Owner loss is a stress and different animals handle stress in different ways. If you’re not sure what’s going on, get help from someone who does. If you grieve for the loss of the cat’s owner yourself, don’t see your own behavior as the standard for the cat. Their superior sensory abilities permit them to live in a reality far different from ours, one in which our definitions of “here” and “gone” or “life” and “death” may have little meaning. While we all like the comfort that comes from believing that our pets share our feelings, we also must respect and accept that their ways of accepting loss may differ from our own. We must seek to fulfill their needs as well as our own when owner loss occurs.


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