Paws to Listen Service Supports Cat Owners Through Grief

With National Grief Awareness Week running from 2-8 December, charity Cats Protection wishes to highlight its support service for grieving cat owners.

Now in its fifth year, Paws to Listen is there for anyone facing the heartbreak of losing their cat, struggling with issues like euthanasia, or whose cat has gone missing. Supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, it is a free and confidential service, connecting callers with a volunteer listener over the telephone or via email.

Gail Allen, who also works for the charity, explains how the service helped her when she lost her beloved cat Buttons earlier this year. The two shared a close bond, ever since Gail adopted Buttons and his brother Butch in 2012, and she says of their first meeting: “I just knew these were my boys. It was love at first sight.”

The feline pair were also constant, loving companions to Gail when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “Buttons was my constant shadow, joining me on many video calls throughout the first two lockdowns,” she adds.

Sadly, on 10 February 2021, Buttons passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Gail says: “It was very quick, and over before he knew what was happening. I was distraught like never before, and in such shock. He wasn’t ill or old. It was 9pm on a Wednesday evening so my neighbour took me and Buttons to the nearest 24-hour vets. Throughout the whole journey I was convincing myself that he was ok, he had to be ok. The nurse didn’t even really have to look at him to know he was gone.

“I got a post mortem and toxicology report done, because I felt I had to know what the cause of death was, that somehow this would help me. Nothing showed up and the vets think it was most likely a blood clot that came out of nowhere. It’s called ‘sudden death’.

“Needless to say, I struggled a lot with the sudden unexpected loss of my boy. I needed some time off work, and it was during this time that I contacted our Paws to Listen service. It’s difficult to put into words how much it helped me to talk to someone who really understood what I was going through. So many people, family members included, said or acted like Buttons was ‘just a cat’. But he was my family, my boy, and had been so close to me for seven years.

“The Paws to Listen service was able to help me make sense of what had happened and to stop feeling so guilty. I had convinced myself it was somehow my fault and I’d been a bad mum to Buttons. But now I know that he had the best life possible with me and I did everything I could for him, for both of my boys. You only need to look at photos to see the love in his eyes.

“It made such a difference working for Cats Protection and dealing with my grief for Buttons. My colleagues have been so understanding and have really helped me through this year. Sadly, my year of grief snowballed as I lost my Dad in March, equally unexpectedly and suddenly. But what I learned from the Paws to Listen service has really helped me through both losses. I think the most valuable thing I have learned is that “grief is the price we pay for love”. I feel such powerful grief because I have been lucky enough to feel equally powerful loves in my life. The pain will never go away, but it becomes easier to bear, and easier to call upon good memories that fill you with love and warmth.”

Entrepreneur and TV Personality Deborah Meaden is also a supporter of the Paws to Listen service, saying: “I lost a very dear cat and it amazed me quite how devastated I was, and for just how long I was devastated. I think it’s really important that people recognise that grief, and there is actually somewhere to go with it. Sometimes you feel a little bit silly talking about your cat and your grief so I feel that the Cats Protection Paws to Listen service is important, because it means you can pick the phone up to somebody who understands and who can offer you some support and be sympathetic with the way that you feel.”

Susan Anthony is a volunteer listener on Cats Protection’s Paws to Listen service who understands the pain of losing a much-loved cat and says that it can very rewarding to be able to help others who are going through this type of loss. A retired stockbroker, Susan started volunteering for the service in 2017 when she was made redundant and found herself looking for something worthwhile to do in her spare time.

Susan says: “I was looking at the Cats Protection website for job opportunities as I had recently been made redundant and was half-heartedly investigating areas completely outside the financial world. Having seen the opportunity to provide support for people grieving for their cats, I knew immediately that it was something I was drawn to and I thought I could be good at.

“Most of the time our callers are looking for someone who understands how devastated they may be and doesn’t dismiss the loss of a cat as something pretty insignificant. Many of them don’t want to burden friends and family too much or are unwilling to reveal just how distressed they are.

“A lot of people are anxious that what they are feeling is so peculiar and inexplicable and I think they find it helpful to learn that many others share their feelings and emotions and that these are a typical, albeit not inevitable, part of the grieving process, for which there is no timetable and no predictable path.

“We never judge, and callers appreciate that. We also recognise that we are not trained counsellors so, where applicable, we do signpost some people to other resources, including GPs, counselling, Samaritans or other grief support services.

“Not everyone recognises how close a bond people can develop with their cats. The constant companionship that a much-loved cat can provide cannot be overstated and, for many, they are the reason to get up in the morning and carry on, particularly during hard times and, of course, during the Covid lockdowns.

“People who have enjoyed the non-judgemental comfort of a cat during emotional turmoil, or the loss of other loved ones, often become inconsolable when they lose their little friend, whether as the result of an illness or an accident or because they have gone missing – perhaps the hardest loss to bear, given the uncertainty and mix of hope and dread.

“It always seems extraordinary to me the number of callers who say that even well-meaning friends or acquaintances have advised them to “get another cat”, or who say “it’s just a cat”, implying they should get over it and move on. There is now certainly more media coverage about the important role pets can play in people’s lives but, even so, I think a fairly widely held view is that a dog can be man’s best friend but a cat is an independent soul, not someone with whom a human can form a close bond, which is obviously untrue.

“I am also sure that few people really appreciate how long it can take someone who is grieving to come to terms with the loss of a cherished cat, which can make them feel very isolated.

“Paws to Listen provides a valuable service to many of those grieving for their cats and although some of the calls are hard and can be distressing, to know that you have helped someone in pain even a little bit is very rewarding.

“Cats Protection is very aware of the need for its volunteers to look after themselves, too, so it is comforting to know that we can contact our team leader for support and backup whenever the need arises, for example if we take a particularly challenging or upsetting call. Having been a volunteer listener for the service now for more than four years, I can still say that it gives me a real sense of achievement which, now I am retired, I might otherwise have struggled to find.”

Cats Protection’s Paws to Listen phone line is open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays) and can be reached on 0800 024 94 94. Alternatively, people can get in touch via an online form at www.cats.org.uk/grief

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