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April 10, 2020

Helping a Grieving, Elderly Cat Adjust to a New Home

My mom's shoes

My mom’s shoes

I recently inherited Pillow when my mom died. He’s a large, declawed* Maine Coon Cat who spent 13 of his 16 years either decorating a chair in my mom’s kitchen or sleeping in the dog’s bed in the art studio. Pillow, a lovely cat, was always a source of comfort for my mom by just being near her—especially during the last month of her life. Pillow is one of those cats who through the art of non-action, elicits quiet smiles from everyone who meets him. My mom chose right when she named him Pillow.

Before my mom died, we spent hours searching for a perfect home for Pillow’s buddy, Abby the dog. Lynn, A family friend, who adores Abby was thrilled to be chosen as her new mother. Abby and Lynn are a great match—they go everywhere together. We could not have found a better home for Abby.

My mom thought that even though I have my own menagerie of felines, Pillow would be best off with me. I eagerly agreed. My mom left us, knowing that her two beloved companions will always be loved and well cared for.

My resident cats

My cats’ activity levels are 180 degrees away from Pillow’s. I live with four active Bengals and a busy Savannah. Stillness and the Zen of Inaction are not part of their life styles. My cats are always on the move, talkative and active.

Integrating them with Pillow will be interesting.

Grieving cat

Pillow misses my mother. He also misses the kitchen and the art studio where my mom spent most of her waking hours painting. He had grown accustomed to the smells of the paint, the radio tuned to my mom’s favorite talk program, the sound of her footsteps, her voice and smell. He knew where the sun’s rays hit the floor of the studio and where to catch the summer breeze as it wafted through the screen door. Pillow spent 13 happy, comfortable years with my mom, living in her art studio and kitchen.

Pillow is grieving for my mom

Pillow is grieving for my mom

Generally, cats do not easily adjust to change. It is common for cats to stress when they are relocated and when there are changes to their household. Older cats often have more problems than younger ones adjusting to new situations. In addition to a change in venue, Pillow had lost his favorite person. This is a lot for a cat to adapt to in a short time.

Cats display grief in different ways. Pillow became more lethargic than usual. Normally a foodie, he did not show much interest in eating. He ate, but just not as enthusiastically or as much. Some cats walk from room to room yowling, others won’t eat when they are grieving. Pillow showed his feelings by sleeping more and eating less.

Preparing the home for Pillow

Before bringing Pillow home, I prepared an area for him that would help him transition with a minimum of stress to his new digs. His area had to be inaccessible to the other cats while simultaneously located where I spend a lot of time.  Because Pillow had spent 13 years as a kitchen cat, I chose the sunroom and the kitchen as his private suite.

To help Pillow adjust, I outfitted both rooms with the objects he had grown accustomed too. I brought over his favorite dog beds, blankets and chairs and his scratching posts. I bought him a new, large cat carrier and placed a towel in it that had my mom’s scent on it. I kept it at my mom’s house, open for him to go in and out of as he wished. It quickly became his favorite sleeping place.  I placed a few items with my mom’s scent on them in zip lock bags and brought them home. When it is time for Pillow to come to my house, an item with my mom’s scent will be placed where he naps. It will be replaced every day with other scented items from the zip lock bags.

In addition, familiar sounds can help reduce anxieties. Since Pillow had spent 13 years relaxing to my mother’s favorite talk radio show, I made sure the sunroom had a radio, tuned to the Ronn Owen’s show on KGO Radio.

I hoped to make the transition to my home as stress free as possible by bringing in the objects, scents and sounds that he had grown accustomed to in my mom’s house.

One small detail

Baby gates

Baby gates used to keep the cat within specific areas

The kitchen and sunroom were perfect locations for him—but there was one problem. The kitchen has a doorway without a door and it opens into the dining room. Although the other cats don’t hang out in the dining room, I still needed to limit Pillow to a couple of rooms for awhile.

Baby gates are a wonderful invention—especially when used to keep cats in specific areas. I ordered two inexpensive baby gates, placed them on top of each other and wired them together and to a couple of nails I hammered in the door frame. Perfect!

It was time to bring Pillow home.

*He came that way.

Cat Basics: Emotions

When I was a child, people used to tell me that cats are easier to keep as pets then dogs. Dogs needed more attention and they had to be walked and played with every day. People would say that cats only needed food, water and a litter box—they were self-sustaining and indifferent, not needing or wanting attention from their people. Families I knew didn’t bat an eye at leaving their cats alone for the weekend with no one to talk to or anything to do—they would fill their food bowls with dry food, top off the litter box and give them a large bowl of water.

The Emotional Lives of Cats

Although many people are more enlightened today about cats then when I was a child, some misconceptions about them persist. One of these is that cats are aloof, loners and don’t particularly need people except at dinner time and when the litter box needs cleaning. Cat-loving people who share their worlds with cats know this isn’t true. Unfortunately, there are others who, to different degrees, don’t think cats are capable of experiencing strong emotional connections to people.

Cats are intelligent and they experience a wide range of emotions. Cats show their feelings in a number of ways, including through body language, vocalizations and their proximity to people. Many cats bond strongly to their people, following them from room to room, talking to their favorite humans with chirps and soft meows, others favor taking naps, nestled on a lap or in the crook of their human companion’s arm. It is also common for cats to develop strong ties with another resident household animal, napping, grooming and just hanging out together.

Cats Grieve

Cats can also experience separation anxiety and grief when their favorite companion is away for an extended length of time or is permanently separated from them. Cats surrendered to shelters and rescue centers often display these behaviors as well.  Over-grooming, litter box avoidance and depression are a few examples of behaviors that cats can develop when they experience loss.  Sadly, some cats become depressed and stop eating when separated from a bonded companion or removed from their homes. Additionally, stress, grief and anxiety can compromise immune systems which often results in cats becoming ill. There are steps shelters, new adopters and cat parents can take to help cats adjust to their situations.

My next blog installment(s) will provide suggestions on how cat parents and shelters can help cats through times of grief, separation anxiety and adjust to new situations.