Phoenix, my male Abyssinian, lay on top of the bookcase in my office.
After a long battle, his kidneys had all but shut down, and we were making that last trip to the vet’s together later in the day.
Chief cat Phoebe sat beside him. On some level, she seemed to sense that her friend was transitioning, and she was keeping vigil with him, giving him what moral support she could. A hospice nurse couldn’t have been more caring and compassionate.
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Beware of Generalizations
Cats, I used to believe, would turn their backs — figuratively and sometimes literally — on feline compatriots who were sick or dying.
In all probability, it was an atavistic response, dating back to when they all lived in the wild and the presence of a sick cat could’ve led a predator to the colony. Having seen so many of our domestic cats act this way, I was sure I was on to something.
The truth is a lot more complicated. “In a multi-cat house, healthy cats may behave in various ways toward the sick cat,” observes Debra Levy. “Some may pick up on their parent’s emotional distress and become upset as well. Some may appear withdrawn and depressed, and may even cry out or try to entice the sick cat to engage in activity. Some cats may seem not to care about the sick cats, while others may even seem happy and desire even more affection from their parents.”
In other words, feline reactions to sickness and death among their own kind can be as varied as ours are, as the stories show. When Derv Sr., our 19-year-old patriarch, was dying, Keisha the tortie kept watch and chased the other cats away from his food and water. Star the Siamese smacked Woody, her significant other; he was in the last stages of kidney disease and had just come back from the vet, but his seal point honey reacted with anger instead of grief. It was almost as though she, like many humans, found anger easier.
Dr. Arnold Plotnick of the Manhattan Cat Specialists still remembers a grief-stricken cat he met many years ago. Sarah had seen her littermate killed by a neighbor’s dog and was “huddled on the exam table, disinterested, inconsolable. … I am often asked whether I think cats grieve or mourn the loss of a feline companion. I certainly feel that they do, but cats cannot speak, and we can only guess at what their true emotions might be at any given time.”
Such behaviors are more easily observed in a multi-cat household. You have a certain number of cats interacting — or sometimes not interacting — with one another. They’re aware of you and they love you, but let’s face it: You’re often on the periphery of their feline dramas.
In some ways, the multi-cat household runs along the same lines as a feral cat colony. We know now that feral cats are much more social than they’ve been given credit for. Their “[r]elationships are complex, with stronger affiliative relationships between some cats and less affiliation with others,” notes International Cat Care (ICC).
Within a colony, there are “preferred associates,” or close-knit friends. These cats “spend more time with each other,” veterinary behaviorist Sharon L. Crowell-Davis writes. “Preferred associates can be found together not only at sites of desirable resources, such as good resting places, but also at various locations and times throughout the day.”
The cats in these friendships, she adds, are frequently related to and highly familiar with each other.
Watch this caring kitty help comfort an ailing dog friend:
Felines in multi-cat households can and do strike up similar friendships. Being related to one another is less a part of the equation; one cat may come from a rescue or shelter, and another from a relative’s farm, and still a third may simply show up on the doorstep.
As a result, the cats may “not form one single cohesive group,” according to the ICC. “Once cats mature, they can form sub-groups — pairs, factions of 3 or more and singletons. These individual groups then cohabit within the territory, making every effort to avoid other groups and remain at a distance.”
Sometimes the pairings and groupings make sense. Our original group of Abys was a tightly knit bunch. But then you have fluffy gray Phoebe with grown-up foster children ranging from 2 tabbies to a snowshoe Siamese. Tansy, a ruddy Aby, regards coal-black Freya as her big sister and can often be found napping with her.
The bonds are strong in a multi-cat household. This came home to me last spring, when Hawkeye was dying. Phoebe, his “missus,” brought him into the study, their favorite hangout. They sat on the computer table together; Phoebe licked the top of his head and then accompanied him out of the room. He died just a few days later.
You might just call these groups and pairings “families of choice.” And, as such, they look after each other.
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