Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Beast Mode,
For eight years we had two female cats. They always got along fine, but I wouldn’t describe them as devoted to each other. They had occasional spats, but never any real fights. Maybe that is what devotion between cats looks like?
Recently, one of the cats became suddenly and seriously ill and died. Our surviving cat is a bit needier than usual but otherwise seems OK. While none of us humans are quite ready to look for a new kitty just yet, we enjoyed having two pets and likely will want to add to the family at some point.
Our cat is approximately 13 to 14 years old. My husband is convinced she’s terribly lonely and that we should adopt again soon, but I worry that she may be happy on her own and we would ruin her remaining years by making her adjust to a new pet whom she may or may not click with.
Are there any clues from her we could be looking for to help us decide?
—Three’s Not a Crowd
Dear Three’s Not a Crowd,
Grief is odd, right? It’s not a singular emotion, but a cocktail of memories and doubts and stomach aches and the occasional burst of random laughter. I think that’s why people say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” You’re not going to solve anything, so it’s easiest to just issue a blanket apology. Now, allow me to offer two apologies: I’m sorry for your loss, and I am sorry I can’t think of anything more comforting to say.
I understand where your husband’s coming from. If you put yourself in the cat’s shoes, this loss must feel tectonic. Her entire universe exists within your home, and the cat population was just halved in one fell swoop. I mean, being the last person on Earth is a terrifying thought. That’s why it’s such a popular trope in science fiction: Loneliness is universal. That’s in regards to humans, though. Cats don’t read or write sci-fi.
To better understand the feline grieving process, I called certified cat behaviorist Ingrid Johnson and told her about your situation. “This is a super common misconception of humans,” she says. “The cat might be missing her housemate, but it doesn’t mean that she wants another cat.”
It’s one thing if she was howling, refusing to eat, or otherwise acting strangely in response to the loss. But, by the sounds of it, she’s doing great. What you see as “neediness” is probably just her living her best life. “Sometimes when there’s a pair, one is a little more outgoing and steals the show,” Johnson says. “Then that one dies and the other one is like, ‘Oh, this is fantastic.’ It can be pretty fun for them. They finally have the limelight.” Your cat isn’t Tom Hanks in Cast Away; she’s Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and her life is now “Old Time Rock and Roll” on a loop. Do you really want to shut off the Seger?
The cat may be fine, but you guys can grieve her old companion any way you want. This includes adopting another one, but you should make this decision carefully to avoid ruining your current cat’s renaissance.
Johnson says that you have three options when it comes to adoption: “another old codger, a pair of kittens, or nothing at all.” A senior female cat will be well-matched, behaviorally, as they will both be content to keep to themselves. A pair of kittens, meanwhile, will have each other to play with so they won’t have to bug their older roommate for attention. “This allows her to watch them like kitty TV and babysit them if she’d like,” Johnson says, “but she also can remove herself if she’s not feeling it.” Or there’s the simple solution: Keep the current situation going.
Whatever your decision may be, don’t rush into it. We’re not cats; we need time to adjust.