An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Figgy's Funk -- Getting Over The Loss of a Dog

Dear Greyce, I am Figaro -- a four-year old, black female who lives indoors but goes outside. I deal with my household on my own terms; I have never been affectionate with most of its members -- two adults and their three children (ranging in age from 16 to 20) along with a rabbit and two rats. However I did have a soft spot for our Bull Terrier whom I'd known since I was a kitten. We developed a strong, mutual understanding; and although I was never as demonstrative as that rambunctious and cheerful dog, we loved each other. In the face of her demands for repeated attention, I would respond if and when I pleased. 

If I got locked out of the house at night, my beloved companion would bark until the purrsons would let me inside. When I'd stroll through the door, I'd show my respect for her efforts on my behalf by rubbing against her to mark her -- in acknowledgement of her higher rank in the household.

She died four months ago. Needless to say, I miss her terribly -- as does the rest of the family.

Since her death, my behaviour has changed. Depending on whom you talk to, there are slightly different pictures of what has happened, so I will try to stick to the facts as much as possible: 1) I used to sleep on one of the kid's beds. Now I sleep under the bed. And some believe I sleep more than I used to. 2)Apparently I look 'lost', as if I don't know family members. Some say I growl and hiss at them without provocation (hissing just like I do if someone interrupts me when I'm chattering at the birds outside or chasing other cats away from the yard). Others suggest that I just startle easily. 3) I am not interested in playing. But I am still eating well. And I will sit by the dining table when the family is eating there, in the hope of getting a human food treat.

I like to have control over my purrsonal space. So I have never liked to be touched by humans unless I approach them for the occasional stroke; then I purr. I haven't purred in a long time.

My humans are concerned about these changes and wonder what they could do to help me feel better. And they'd like to get another Bull Terrier and wonder if it would be okay to have a puppy join the household at this time. Would a puppy help me feel better?

Yours, Figaro (but you may call me, Figgy)

Dear Figgy, How kind of you to let me call you by your nickname.

While I am not fond of dogs, I do understand that some cats can develop a fondness for a particular representative of that species. Strong loving bonds -- even those conveyed in dog breath -- are not to be sneezed at, for love is a precious commodity at the best of times. And so please accept my sympathy for your loss.

Figgy, of course you must be very sad and your grief will display itself with uncharacteristic behaviours -- just as it can with humans. My only concern is that it has gone on for many months and thus you and your family need to find a way to help relieve you of your funk.

First I want to explain each of your behavioural changes so that other cats who read this blog will be on the same page as you, so to speak -- or is it, so to read? No matter . . .

As you know, territority is fundamental to one's sense of security and this includes not only the space you occupy in your travels throughout the day but also the beings with whom the space is shared. When a valued member of the space leaves suddenly and permanently, your sense of security can be shattered; this will make you more anxious and in need of extra comfort and extra security. You lose confidence in your world because it is not, and never will be, the same. Known routines (sometimes quite subtle ones) are disrupted.

If you were a people-oriented cat, you'd probably be seeking human attention as a result -- more cuddling, stroking and the like. But you are one who keeps to herself and thus you seek the increased protection, security and comfort that you need from your physical environment, instead. For example, your change of  a prefurred sleeping area from an open space to an enclosed one is signalling an increase in anxiety -- a need for added protection and security which the less accessible and more enclosed space under a bed can give.

The possible increase in the amount you sleep and the decrease in your interest in playing, are classic symptoms of grief -- just like humans who deal with loss by staying in bed and pulling their duvets over their heads. I am pleased, however, that you are still eating well. And it seems as if you still view your human family positively even if that is reduced to sittting near the dining table while they eat -- in the hope of food.

What concerns me most is the difference of opinion about your growling and hissing -- the idea that you look 'lost', as if I don't know family members, growling and hissing at them without provocation, and/or startling easily. Cats in grief can 'look lost' and may not recognize other members of the household for a while -- again just like happens to some humans. But the fact that this appears to be going on for some time suggests something else.

I wonder if the statement that you growl and hiss without provocation is completely true, or if it is a case of the human misreading of your communication signals. Some humans (especially dog lovers, I find) misread feline communication --  because they think of cat behaviour as being similar to that of a dog. You know the classic: You start to switch your tail back and forth to signal rising agitation and the human exclaims with delight that you must be so happy to see him because you are wagging your tail. Seconds latter, when you shred his trouser leg, he wonders what happened! Yes, this particular example probably doesn't apply to your household but that still doesn't mean that everyone there can speak cat!

Your hissing has been described as similar to that when you are interrupted from stalking a bird or chasing away an invading cat. When you are engaged in such activities, your arousal level increases in anticipation.  It lowers when you are successful -- when you have run off your excess, pent up energy through a successful hunt or chase. Should you be interrupted (even inadvertently), you can become so keyed up that you will lash out (verbally or physically) at whatever moves next to you. And if that happens to be a human, so be it. This is called redirected aggression. Could that be the case with you?

The growl is a warning signal to back off (and can be offensive or defensive). The hiss is a sign of defensive aggression -- "back off I say, I don't want to fight but if I have to, I will." How close does the purrson have to be before you growl and hiss? It is one thing to do this with a person who is literally next to you (or within one or two feet), but do you do it when they are even further away? And are you growling and hissing every time someone approaches you, or only with a specific person or under particular circumstances? Under what circumstances are you growling and hissing -- When someone is trying to get you out from under the bed? When someone walks by you? When someone attempts to touch you? You see, Figgy, if you constantly behave in a miserable manner to all of your humans I would venture that you have a medical problem, like hyperthyroidism, whereby many reasonable cats suddenly behave as if they have the world's worst case of PMS. However, if your growls and hisses are reserved largely for a particular person or specific situations, then I think it would largely be a matter of the human misreading of your signals (and thus unknowingly -- and, of course, rudely -- violating your purrsonal space).

And then there is them possibility that you startle easily. Is this a new phenomenon? If so, it suggests either than people are sneaking up on you unawares (in which case they need to take steps to announce their presence), that your hearing or vision are not what they once were, and/or that you are more anxious and 'on edge' than you used to be.

In any event, I am going to recommend a four-step recovery process for you: 1) A veterinary examination. 2) A transition phase. 3) Puppy prep. 4) A new puppy. You can take the first two steps in any order, but BOTH MUST precede the third. Please read the details carefully.

Step One: A Veterinary Examination. "Why should I go to the vet?" you may ask. For two reasons: 1) I'd like to ensure that any aggression you are displaying is behavioural and NOT the result of a medical problem -- like hyperthroidism, sore joints, a slow-healing bite wound, or some such. Let's just make sure that your being easily startled, doesn't have a medical basis either. And 2) you have been stressed by grief. Introducing a puppy to your household (even if it is the most welcome event in your life) will add to your stress load because big changes -- even positive ones -- can tax your ability to adapt. So I would like to rule out any medical problems and ensure that you are in top shape to deal with the upcoming changes in your life.

When I say 'veterinary examination' I don't mean the 'wham-bam, looks-okay-to-me variety. I mean the whole nine yards. And I say so, even though I dread going to the vet myself. I would like you to have a tip-to-tip exam: from the tip of your nose to the tip of your tail and from tips of your ears to the tips of your claws, including all the indignities that this entails: looking at your eyes, the insides of your ears, your teeth, gums and throat, palpating every inch of your body, examining your fur and skin, looking at your paw pads and nails, even under your tail (possibly taking your temperature and feeling your anal glands). It will probably involve getting on the scale. And it may mean -- depending on the vet or the vet's findings --examining your urine, stool and/or blood.

If you usually have a yearly vet exam, then there will be comparative data so your vet will be able to determine any changes that may have transpired. If you haven't had an exam in over a year, then this is the time to get some baseline data for further reference. And if you've just had your yearly check-up then obviously this step has been completed.

Step Two: The Transition This step requires the cooperation of your human family. Tell them to more carefully examine the circumstances that elicit growls and hisses from you. Reading a book like Trevor Warner's "Cat Body Language Phrasebook" (lots of coloured photos with explanations of what the cat is saying) will help. If you live in Edmonton and use the library, then e-mail me because Herself has the book out right now but will return it promptly if she knows your people need it. It is important for them to figure out if it is a case of misreading you -- and rudely invading when they have not been invited to interact such as when you are seated with you tail wrapped around your body, or if they are startling you. Once they can be more specific, you can contact me again with the details and I can suggest solutions.

From what you have told me, you are more anxious than before -- even though you may be hiding it reasonably well. Three good ways to lower your anxiety level are listed below:

1) Interactive play. At your age, you need motion from another being in order to get a work out. If you go outdoors, then the environment and the beings in it will probably take care of that. But if you are also used to playing indoors, then a workout with your humans is in order as well.

I don't know what kind of toys you may have available but I find that a fishing pole toy works wonders for me. Herself is cheap (she would say, frugal) so she made one from a fake bamboo pole (purchased from the garden section of the hardware store), a long strand of fleece from the remnant bin of the local fabric store (it was thick fleece and curled around itself to look like a fat tail), affixed with electrical tape (though my friend's humans have used duct tape with success, as well). To engage me, she drags it behind her while she walks through the house, so I can stalk and pounce. She waves it in the air so I can leap. And she runs it under a mound of tissue paper so I can hunt. I used to get similar results with a laser pointer (NEVER shined in my eyes because of the damage that could do).

A 10 minute or so session, twice a day works well for me -- especially on cold weather days when I am stuck inside.

2) A Feliway diffuser (purchased from your vet or pet supply store) plugged into the electrical outlet of the room in which you hang out the most. Yes, I know I keep mentioning this in so many blog entries that people must think I get a kickback from the company. I don't. I just know it has helped a number of cats to feel more comfortable and secure. And this will be important with the advent of a puppy. Just make sure your humans reads the directions and remember to replenish the supply when it runs out (it lasts about a month). No you won't need this forever; but until you and the puppy are well-used to each other, it would be a good idea to have. But I suggest you start now, to lower you anxiety levels and mellow you out.

3) If you don't already have one, then request a cat tree that is at least three and preferably four feet high with a sturdy base (not wobbly, thank you), and at least two shelves off the ground, with the shelves preferably being low-sided so that you are in less danger of falling off when you are asleep.Such a tree is available from pet supply stores and some farmers' or flea markets. To get an idea of what you might like, consult (If you want to see the tree I have, select Cat Trees and view Short Cat Tree to see the model I use to get a view of the backyard from my dining room.)

This tree should be set up in an area where you and the puppy are likely to interact and where you can have a good view of your surrounding environment --  in a corner of the room, facing out or near a window. The purpose of such a tree is twofold. First, height reduces anxiety in a cat and thus will give you a sense of safety even when you are in the open. Second, it also affords you an escape when you need to get away from a rambunctious puppy. If your household enforces the rule that you are not to be disturbed when you are in your tree, then it will become a valued, safe place for you.

If they find the thought of a cat tree too costly at this time, then they must offer you some hiding spots -- cardboard boxes with a hole cut in the side for viewing out, or shelves or higher areas, in the room(s) in question.

Step Three: Puppy Prep. No doubt everyone in the family will be excited about the prospect of a new puppy. And it will be easy to lose sight of your needs. They need to be mindful that you will respond best to changes that are done slowly -- one at a time, spread over weeks, rather than all at once. So preparations need to be made to secure your food and water dishes (away from a puppy who might interfere with your feeding routines), ditto your litterbox. One possibility is to bar the area in which your litterbox is housed, with a baby gate. (It will help you if they set up a very solid box or a low stool onto which you can jump, when you enter that space from the main area -- unless of course, your litterbox is in the basement. I don't want you soaring over a baby gate only to tumble down the stairs!)

If they are changing the location of any of these items, they must do so a few inches at a time so you can get used to it. (Yes, I know this may sound crazy but it you can give me the location of where your stuff is now and where it needs to be moved, perhaps I can be more helpful.)

They will need to figure out where and how to confine the puppy -- whether by dog crate, baby gates and/or X-pen. Again whatever is used should be set up in advance of the new family member -- one item at a time, over a period of time so that you have a chance to get used to it. They need to understand that each and every one of these items is a new addition to and/or change in your territory which you need to adapt to and integrate into your cognitive map, so that you can successfully manage your new circumstances.

A leash for said canine. Of course!

During this time, they will likely be searching for a new puppy. I am pleased that they will be getting a member of the same breed as your beloved companion. In the best of all possible worlds, I'm sure you'd prefer an adult of the same gender and dogsonality and disposition towards cats, because that is what you were used to. But the right puppy (hopefully same gender and disposition as your beloved friend, possibly exposed to cats before but that may be asking a lot) could work out well, too.
Even though you won't be getting near the puppy to begin with, as a precaution it would be useful to have your nails clipped -- just in case.

Step 4: Getting to Know the New Puppy. I have modelled this step on the recommendations of Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book Think Like A Cat. How to Raise A Well-Adjusted Cat NOT A Sour Puss -- just in case your people want to consult an additional source. Again this available (in Edmonton) from the public library.

During this step, household members should be aware that you need attention as well. In other words, your play sessions should continue -- even though they may be more inclined to fuss over the dog.

They should monitor your behaviour and respond accordingly. If they know the signs of your distress, they can back off or slow down the introduction process. The MUST go at the speed at which you are comfortable. Slow and steady is the prefurred pace. So here goes . . .

Puppies have lots of energy, so before you meet let them take give the puppy a bit of a workout. Then the puppy (and you) deserve a snack. Full tummies slow everyone down.

Your first introduction should be from across the room. I don't know if the puppy will be in a crate or on a leash. I assume you may be curious enough to venture into the area to see what is happening. Otherwise, your purrsons may choose to put you in your cat carrier for the first introduction (and puppy either in a crate or on a leash). They should NOT hold you because of the risk of injury (to themselves).

Under no circumstances should the puppy be allowed to get close to you of his own accord. If you choose to get closer to the puppy, that is your business and your choice. It will be important to keep puppy calm and that will depend on your people. The need to talk in soothing tones to the puppy -- like a really mellowed out, slow voice that you'd hear on a new age massage tape -- so that puppy gets the cue that this is a mellow, calm time. (Baby talk, high pitches, etc. will get set puppy (and likely you) off! ) They should NOT pet puppy on the head or back (which will excite him or her). Instead, LONG strokes on the CHEST will be calming.

They should take their cue from you. If you show any sign of distress (or wishing to leave the room) then the session is over. And they should then take the puppy to a safe, confined area so you can have the run of the house. In any event, such sessions should be brief to start with (say, five minutes and slowly increasing as you get used to it). This exercise needs to be repeated, several times a day, at a pace you can stand, until the two of you get used to each other.

You have a larger purrsonal space than puppy, so you get to determine both when and how much of your space your will allow puppy to share. If you have started the intro process with puppy in the crate, then once you are used to each other puppy needs to be put on a leash instead. Puppy can be put closer to you but needs to learn not to run at or lunge at you. If puppy approaches you slowly then the leash can slacken; if he quickens, he gets a correction. Each time he behaves well he should be immediately rewarded with a small treat. (And you deserve a treat if you are reacting calmly.)

The biggest mistake people make is to let puppy off leash too soon. So take this part slowly and repeatedly until you are completely comfortable with each other. Ater that, your purrsons should continue to supervise you when you are together, and keep puppy separated or confined when your interactions cannot be supervised.

Whether or not you become friends is up to the two of you. However if your people introduce you properly, you should become comfortable enough with each other than you can live together. Given your history, I will hope for the best of all possible outcomes -- that with the proper introduction you will have a new best friend. Do keep in touch, Figgy, and let me know how it goes.