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Let's Talk: How Do Your Cats React to a Death in the Household?

How do your cats respond when there’s a sudden vacancy in your feline family?

 |  Apr 25th 2012  |   92 Contributions


This has been an incredibly difficult few weeks for me. I moved to a new city in the beginning of April, and three days later I was rushing my youngest cat, Dahlia, to the emergency vet clinic because she could barely breathe and was wild-eyed with panic and pain. A week of specialty vet visits, chest taps, and biopsies later, I learned that she had a form of cancer with a very poor prognosis, and that the kindest thing I could do for was to release her from her suffering.

I don’t want to go into a lot of details about it right now because the whole thing is still pretty overwhelming. If you want to read the back story, you can visit part one and part two of the story on my personal blog (tissue alert, obviously).

Thomas (right) and Dahlia were best buddies from the day I brought her home. Photo by JaneA Kelley

The reason I brought this all up was not to bum you out, but because I want to talk about the phenomenon of the Kitty Shuffle.

You’ve probably seen it yourself: When a cat leaves your family, in whatever way, the remaining cats kind of meander around at loose ends for a few days. If the departure involved death, as Dahlia’s did, there’s grieving to do, too. Here's how it all shook out in my family.

For a couple of days, Thomas, who was the most closely bonded with Dahlia, clung to me with every fiber of his being. I couldn’t be anywhere in my home without my feline shadow. When I opened closets, Thomas kept poking his head inside as if looking for his sweet girl. 

Siouxsie grieved, too: even though she always used to growl and hiss at Dahlia and give her the stink-eye, Siouxsie loved her. We all comforted each other in our grief.

Siouxsie (left) woke up to find Dahlia next to her. She was NOT impressed. Photo by JaneA Kelley

Now that a week and a half has gone by since Dahlia’s passing, Siouxsie and Thomas are settling into their new routines. Nature abhors a vacuum, so the two of them are determining who is Top Cat. I’ve been surprised to find that they seem to be sharing the role: they take turns sitting next to my head when I’m watching TV or sitting on my lap while I’m at the computer. I’ve been even more surprised how little hissing and spitting has been done in the course of these negotiations.

And the most shocking development of all? Deniable snuggling!

Siouxsie is one of those cats who never much liked to share space with her feline housemates. But just two days ago, I went into my bedroom to find this:

What's this? Deniable snuggling? And both of them actually seem HAPPY about it! Photo by JaneA Kelley

I just about fell over.

But there’s one very strange thing going on. A while back, I bought this gorgeous cat bed, which I had originally meant to be a throne for Siouxsie. Of course, Thomas and Dahlia decided it was really their throne … well, except for when Siouxsie wanted to sit in it, of course.

Anyhow: Dahlia spent most of her last week in this bed, where she could stay as warm and comfortable as possible. Now, neither Siouxsie nor Thomas will go near it.

Dahlia spent most of the last week of her life in the throne (surrounded by my pajamas, which you can see at right -- oops!). Photo by JaneA Kelley

I tried to move Siouxsie off my chest and into the throne when I had to get up after watching a movie, and Siouxsie stiffened up and flew out of my arms. She wouldn’t even touch it.

For all I know, maybe Dahlia’s ghost is still hanging out there watching TV with us. Or maybe I’ve been watching too many episodes of The Haunted and I really just need to wash the bed cover and Siouxsie and Thomas will get right back to enjoying their soft fleecy throne.

Of course, Dahlia spent a lot of time on my bed, too, and that hasn’t stopped them from sitting in the very same spots where Dahlia spent another good portion of her last days.

Dahlia also spent a lot of time on my bed, but nobody's freaking out about that! Photo by JaneA Kelley

What happens in your multicat household when a vacancy arises? Is your kitty shuffle a peaceful transition or all-out war? How have you helped your cats manage the upheaval in their lives? If the vacancy was caused by a death in the family, how did you support each other through your grief?

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