Do pets feel the loss of a mate or littermate? Are we sure they do not feel the mental pain of loss? A recent experience may shed some light on this subject.
Little more than two years ago, our momma cat gave birth to her first litter of six kittens. Shortly after weaning, she was killed by a predator of unknown origin. Thus, I took on the primary role of feeding and caring for the energetic group of adventuresome felines. Half of them did not survive the year, as predators, mostly feral male cats, eliminated all young males in the litter. I managed to stop the slaughter by eliminating the threat. Such is the reality, of life or death, and survival.
Of the three survivors of the cat holocaust, two were males and one female. The males went on sabbatical to a local veterinary clinic, received the precursory treatment—a snip’n tuck, plus vaccination—and thus Casper and Tigger began their new life as resident rodent control experts.
A routine both cats enjoyed was to snuggle up in my arms and place their head between my arms and rib cage. It was their way of feeling safe. We had bonded, much like they would have done with their mother.
As siblings, they played and fought, but when an external threat was present, they were united as one.
Casper was the livelier, daring and engaging of the two, though Tigger developed his own unique routine when vying for attention. Also known for his long and all white fur, and one dark spot by his right ear, when I would call to Casper, he would run to me, roll on the ground while making sounds as if he were saying, “I really missed you!” and leap into my arms, his loud purring never ceasing. Then he would snuggle and lay there for as long as I let him.
Tigger, a grey and black striped, short hair, was more subdued, but he had his own routine—sneaking up, surprising me as he jumped onto my back while announcing his arrival. His routine also included snuggling, but not as long as Casper. He had many things to do and explore.
Two weeks ago, everything changed. Casper, the two year old cat who loved to stay out at night and roam the farmstead, did not greet me one morning. One day later, I discovered his remains. He was likely a victim of an attack by a large Owl I had seen earlier that morning. Though a stray male cat made his appearance later that day, my observations concluded his presence was merely coincidental. Injuries related to a feline cat fight were non-existent, as far as I could tell. Rather, it seemed he suffered from a fall from dizzying heights, one perpetrated by a winged predator whose wingspan was more than five feet across.
A day later, Tigger began to display unusual behavior. Wherever I went, he tried to stop me from walking further. His verbal communication indicated he was in great distress. When I would go in another direction, he would again try to stop me. This continued for a second day. Sensing something was definitely wrong, I picked him up, and he immediately began to snuggle and remained still. After a half hour of this, he returned to his normal behavioral pattern.
Tigger appeared to be grieving for his litter mate. I made the connection and gave him access to the only safe place he had in common with Casper.
In humans, there are seven stages of grief everyone will experience as we move through death or separation of a loved one. Taken from recover-from-grief.com, the first stage is shock and denial. We will react to learning of loss through numbed disbelief. We want to avoid the reality and pain of it.
The second stage is pain and guilt. The shock is replaced by unbelievable suffering and pain. We hate pain, but we must go through it and experience it. Otherwise, healing cannot begin.
Feelings of guilt and remorse follow. We believe there are things we should have done differently. Life feels chaotic and scary. We feel out of control.
The third phase is anger and bargaining. We may lash out and lay the blame of someone, though perhaps unwarranted. This is where permanent damage is possible in relationships. This is the time for the release of bottled up emotion, which must be under control if we are to succeed.
The fourth phase is depression, reflection and loneliness. Just when friends think you should get on with your life, a period of sad reflection may overtake you. Do not be “talked out of it.” Such encouragement from others is not helpful at this stage.
The fifth stage is the upward turn. As we adjust to life and the new reality, physical symptoms lessen and depression may begin to lift somewhat.
The sixth stage, as you become more functional, the mind starts working again. You will start seeking realistic solutions to problems. Reconstruction is now possible.
Stage seven begins with acceptance of the new reality. Though it does not mean instant happiness, the road ahead towards healing is possible. Hope is now possible to imagine a future life. Though you can never return to a carefree and untroubled YOU that existed before the loss, you will find a way forward. Eventually, the anticipation of good times and finding joy again is possible.
Even life—as simple as that of a cat’s like Tigger–is an encouraging reminder we can move on through an enormous loss.