Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
When our younger son was two, we adopted a calico kitten and named her Honey. At first we had to teach him to be gentle with her but, eventually, through his constant attention, Honey bonded with him and only him. It’s kind of beautiful the way she follows him around, jumps in his lap when he sits down, waits at the door from him to come home, and sleeps in his bed. Honey is 16 years old now and, after a recent health scare that was successfully addresses with a change in diet and weekly B12 shots, still going strong. But here’s the issue: our son, now 18, will go off to college in September. We’re concerned that Honey will be miserable with our son’s long absences and would like to know how we might prepare her before, and treat her during that time. Any advice or guidance will be highly appreciated.
Siouxsie: Oh, Michael, it’s so kind of you to think about Honey’s feelings and how to help her cope with your son’s departure for college.
Thomas: This is going to be a big change, not just for Honey but for everybody in the family. Fortunately, we have some ideas on how you can get Honey through this big change.
Bella: First of all, this might seem silly to you, but it’s really important that you and your son talk to Honey and tell her what’s going to happen. Your son especially.
Siouxsie: When you talk to her, reassure her that everything’s going to be okay and that your son still loves her even though he won’t be around much.
Thomas: You and your son should also get her used to doing some interactive play. We know Honey’s pretty old, but she’s probably still quite capable of some mild play with a feather toy or something like that.
Bella: If you all play with her regularly, she’ll start associating play with the happiness of being with her favorite person … and perhaps even add some favorite people to her list.
Siouxsie: Then, after your son leaves, you’ll need to continue playing with her at least once a day. Play will not only help her exercise and keep her mind young, it will help her to feel more confident even though her favorite person isn’t around.
Thomas: Another thing you should do is keep some of your son’s smell around. Maybe he can leave a set of used pajamas or clothing on his bed — or in Honey’s favorite bed — to keep his scent nearby.
Bella: And when he comes home for weekend visits or school breaks, make sure he spends time with her and leaves a fresh set of used clothes.
Siouxsie: Having your son leave his smell around will help Honey feel like her favorite person is still there, even if he’s not physically in the house.
Thomas: Michael, you and the other members of the family will need to take on more of Honey’s care. You all will need to feed her, groom her, clean her litter box, and encourage her to spend time with you.
Bella: If Honey becomes more bonded with the rest of you, she’s less likely to become depressed when your son leaves.
Siouxsie: She’ll still miss your son, for sure, but she may not lapse into full-fledged grief and pining.
Thomas: If Honey starts becoming depressed, you’re going to have to work harder to bring her out and get her involved in life again. Signs of depression and grief in cats include excessive sleeping (yes, cats sleep a lot, but even cats can sleep too much), not eating, vocalizing at night, and behavior changes.
Bella: But a lot of these issues can be signs of illness, too, and it’s very dangerous for a cat not to eat.
Siouxsie: So do keep track of her behavior, and her input and output. If you have even the slightest concern that something may be wrong, we’d encourage you to call the vet.
Thomas: We have faith that your Honey will be okay as long as you explain what’s going to happen, get her more involved with other members of the family, and keep an eye on her to make sure her health stays good.
Bella: Good luck, Michael. And good luck to your son as he starts this new chapter in his life.