Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
I have two cats who are brothers and about 2 years old. My husband died unexpectedly last month. There were just the two of us and the two cats living in this old house, so his death was a significant change in their lives.
One of the cats seems to not notice that anything is different. He’s fine. The other is clearly feeling that something is going on. First, he has begun sleeping on my chest or shoulder almost every night. This is something he never did before. The second change is more worrying: He randomly bites or claws me repeatedly. He’s never done that before, either. He’ll be sleeping peacefully at the end of the bed, and then get up and dig his claws deeply into my feet or lower legs and bite me on the feet, ankles, elbows, or arms. How do I get him to stop doing this?
—A Cat’s Grief
Dear A Cat’s Grief,
Asking for advice during difficult times is a form of generosity, and so I want to thank you for your question. Loss itself is not a thing that can be solved, but it brings with it enough problems and tasks to keep us busy in unforeseeable ways. These sometimes serve as welcome distractions, but they can also be extremely overwhelming. If I were to guess, getting clawed and bitten by your cat in the middle of the night falls in the latter camp. Either way, it always feels good to take something off your plate, so let’s see if we can find you guys a solution.
We can’t know for sure how pets process loss, but your cats are proof that it doesn’t follow a specific pattern. “Cats certainly can mourn, whether it’s a pet companion or a human companion,” certified feline behaviorist Ingrid Johnson tells me. Beast Mode has answered a question about a cat grieving its feline friend before, but this is a wholly different scenario. “I actually think that in some cases they might mourn the loss of a human companion more if they were really bonded,” Johnson says. “They get really close to us, and it can rock their world.”
Whether or not your cat is grieving or simply acting out, he is doing so in reaction to change. “Cats thrive on predictability and routine,” Johnson says. “Losing their favorite person is a really big deal.” By sleeping on your chest, he’s likely trying to remind you that his life is different. “I think that is a direct manifestation of him being really needy. It’s resulting in extra desperation for affection and attention.” The scratching and biting is probably born from a similar source: “If the cat is bored and not getting attention or playtime, then it’s starting to manifest its negative behaviors.” I’m sure you already play with the little guy, but your husband probably did too, and he’s a play buddy the cat has lost.
We all grieve differently. I’m just sorry your cat is grieving like a jerk. Pets are little paradoxes. They provide us with unconditional love and companionship, but can be quite selfish while they’re at it. However, they are often gracious in that they have no qualms about being blunt. He’s behaving poorly because he wants to play, and you can fix this by giving in to his needs. “I’m sure the last thing you want to do is pick up a freaking wand toy and play with the cat,” Johnson says, “but we have to make an extra effort to ramp up the fun and ramp up positives. You might have a big catnip party. Or get him some other sensory enrichment items to distract him from his loss. A new cat condo, scratching post, all that kind of stuff.”
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about this having an adverse effect on the cat who’s managed to stay calm in the wake of everything. “Novel change can be exciting and fun and create curiosity,” Johnson says, and this applies to cats that are already happy and adjusted to their quotidian existence.
One thing to keep an eye on is your pet’s diet. “When cats don’t feel well, or if they get depressed, they often stop eating,” Johnson says. “That can lead to fatty liver disease, so it’s very important that cats eat every single day.”
Besides ratcheting up the play, there are other things that may help placate your cat. “It could be nice to provide some scent-saturated items that the cats can seek out,” Johnson suggests. If you’ve kept any of your husband’s clothes (say, a T-shirt), and you’re comfortable using it in this manner, you can keep it out for the cats’ benefit. Again, feel free to skip this step if it feels like it could be hard for you. Increased exercise and play should start to show results on their own.
“I do find that this always passes,” Johnson says. “Cats start to develop a new normal. They will move on.” Sometimes, they’ll ask for some help in getting there. That’s a good thing.