Thursday, June 23, 2011

Do Cats Mourn?

Do Cats Mourn?

Do cats mourn their cat companions when they die? Do cats miss people who go away?


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After all, we have no doubt that cats can love us, and each other. With love, there is also the recognition of loss.

It was a long time ago now, when I picked up a cat magazine and read a letter from a woman who was confused and troubled. She had taken in her daughter’s pet cat after the daughter’s death. She asked about care; she had never had a cat before.

But in her questions about taking proper care of the cat was a bigger one; why did the cat hang around the boxes of her daughter’s things that she had stacked in her child’s old room, as yet unable to do anything about them?

When, moved by her loss, she had laid out her daughter’s favorite skirt on the bed; the cat had claimed it and spent a lot of time lying on it.

The magazine counseled sensible cat care tips; and suggested that the cat associated the familiar smells of the daughter’s things with comforting memories of their former home. Just as unspoken was what both the letter writer and the letter answerer knew was true; yet hesitated to put into words.

That the cat missed the daughter profoundly, and longed to be with her again. Very much as the mother did.

As someone with both academic training in psychology, and long experience observing cats, I understand when I make myself vulnerable to criticism for too much anthropomorphism. This is the practice of attributing human characteristics to animals; and is severely frowned upon by science.

It is true that this outlook can lead us down the wrong path; we can hesitate to alter our cats, decide to let them roam unsupervised, and be reluctant to interfere in how our cats shape their relationships with each other. All from a misplaced sense of how we would feel about having our reproductive, recreational, and relationship activities curtailed in such a way.

This is the wrong side of anthropomorphism; as wrong as wanting our cats to wear clothes or drive cars. Cats handled their own affairs in the wild. But they are not in the wild now. When they live with us, they are both happier and better cared for when we remove their hormonal influences, take steps to safeguard them in a World They Did Not Make, and monitor their cat companionship options for maximum harmony.

It might not be how the cat would decide in a theoretical perfect world. But in our present, imperfect world, these steps balance our cat’s autonomy with their happiness. As we all do.

So when I describe a cat’s actions as stemming from insecurity or grief, this is a simple observation that is just as supported as describing a cat’s actions from fear or panic; emotions scientists will attribute to animals without feeling that they are anthropromorphizing. They feel scientific about fear in animals because it is observable and the animal’s actions conform to a fear reaction.

So when I say cats feel grief, I’m doing the same thing. Cats seek out shared objects or experiences that remind them of the lost individual, they show signs of unhappiness after a loss, and they display distress when the passed on being’s name is mentioned.

Just as we do.

Cats don’t drive cars to find prey, or get upset about losing equipment they are not aware they have; such concerns are outside of the cat’s conceptual experience. While such speculations are funny in cat cartoons, it is because it is not normal for cats to think such things. It is a juxtaposition that is funny because it is absurd.

But some situations and feelings are shared by both cats and humans. Love, and loss, are two sides of the same coin. My concept of proper cat care is based on such “shared emotional money.”

Respect, consideration, empathy, intelligence, and how cause and effect work; these might be expressed differently by cats and humans, but they are concepts that are also shared by cats and humans.

So when we lose someone from the household, we should recognize that cats also feel it. Searching for the gone one when their name is mentioned, having digestive upsets, pacing and wailing, and lying around in a depressed funk are all ways cats express their grief.

We should discuss the situation with the cat as we would with a small child; simple expressions of how much we also miss the gone one, how circumstances made them unable to remain in the body we knew them in, and explaining how they might continue on in whatever way we believe to be so. We can tell our grieving cat that we love them and that we, and they, are not going to go away because of it.

Just as with a child, they might not understand everything we are saying. But they feel comforted by the effort we make towards reassurance.

Because it is reassurance, and grief is easier when it is shared. We don’t need to worry about whether they “understand.”

Because, after all, how well do we understand it, ourselves?

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