How Do You Know Your Cat Loves You? Finding The Answer In An Unexpected Place

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There is debate about whether cats and other animals can experience love like we do as humans. While we can’t directly ask cats if they love us or about their experience of love (or whatever similar cat emotion they feel), we can look for signs in their behavior that indicate there’s some love equivalent emotion going on and that our cats bond with us even if they see it differently than how we bond with them.

Today is Zoloft’s Gotcha Day. Six years ago today, he moved in with me and nothing was quite the same. It’s also, unfortunately, the first Gotcha Day since Zoloft passed in August. I want to share a very personal, very challenging story about our relationships with our cats and how I realized that on some level, he cared about me too. As a warning, I do discuss some of the challenging parts of the end of Zoloft’s life.

Reflecting On Your Relationship With Your Cat

While pet loss is often not seen as being equivalent to other types of losses, I make it no secret that I haven’t had an easy time losing Zoloft. The last 7 months have been filled with volatile emotions. Sometimes I feel grateful for our time together and other times it feels like the darkness has consumed me completely. Some days I feel like I can function like a normal person and other days even minor tasks are too much to handle.

In order to cope with the loss, I participated in a pet loss support group over the winter. It was extremely helpful as sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who has struggled this much with the loss of a beloved cat. During one week of the group, we were encouraged to reflect back on what made our relationship special with the pet we lost and how we were excellent pet parents to them.

Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t a great cat dad to Zoloft. I have a lot of guilt surrounding deciding to do a second surgery for his cancer despite making the best decision I could at the time. He did not recover from the surgery before he passed a week later. I was very scared at the end and was impatient with him at times as a manifestation of that fear especially when he just wouldn’t eat. Those not so great memories and the ones of the last few times I saw him are, unfortunately, the most recent memories I have of my time with him.

The End Doesn’t Define The Relationship

Thinking back on my time with Zoloft, there were plenty of things that provided evidence of our bond. There was the way I was able to understand when he was hungry and asking for food. I accidentally trained him to scream at the refrigerator to let me know he wanted a snack! There was all the fun we had with clicker training and how fun it was to see him make progress with training. There were all the fun toys and Churu and all the other things I bought for him. Heck, there was the fact that I started a cat business because of him. Clearly, our relationship was about more than the ending.

Joey Lusvardi, a male human, and Zoloft, a lynx point Siamese cat, looking up in the same direction like two peas in a pod
One of my favorite pictures of us from early in our time together.

Still, none of this felt like it overshadowed how bad I felt about the end as I reflected on what defined our relationship. It was hard to see past how sick he was the last few days of his life. I had hoped that we’d be able to say goodbye peacefully at home. Instead, he was in the ICU when he passed and I wasn’t there as it happened very suddenly. The guilt about it not being a comfortable ending to his life and me not being with him is tremendous.

As both reflected on our life together and beat myself up for failing him, it dawned on me. Even in that tragic situation, there was one very clear sign of our special bond.

Signs Of Trust

The day before Zoloft passed, I went to visit him as he was hospitalized. Despite him needing a feeding tube, we had a very special morning. He was doing better compared to when I had dropped him off a few days earlier and we had some great snuggles in a quiet room near the ICU. He seemed to be improving until suddenly that night, his vitals inexplicably became unstable. His vet recommended I come in so my mom and I rushed over to the hospital to be with him.

Reduced Fear, Reduced Bites

Zoloft had a bit of a reputation for trying to chomp at anyone who came near him at the vet following one particular incident. When the COVID pandemic struck, he began having some unusual symptoms while we were still in the initial lockdown and I had to take him to the vet in order to see what was happening. It felt like it was risking my life as we still didn’t know exactly how COVID was transmitted, but to take care of him, it was worth it. At the time it was curbside only so I dropped him off and waited in my car to hear why he was having such unusual symptoms.

It turned out it was his thyroid and I just needed to adjust his medication. Unfortunately, during that appointment, he ended up biting one of the techs. While he had never bitten anyone at the vet before, he was known to hiss and display signs of stress when he was there. After that episode, he ended up not needing to go back in again until I was allowed to accompany him into the clinic again. He did great at every vet visit he had after that.

What was the difference? I was there for all the other vet visits. Zoloft never loved going to the vet despite the fact that they absolutely adored him, but when I was there, he did much better.

Providing Comfort

When I arrived to the hospital that terrible night, Zoloft was in an oxygen chamber. He was breathing heavily and seemed uncomfortable and agitated. I was warned that it would likely be challenging to see him, especially as he had looked so different just 12 hours earlier.

As soon as I got to the ICU and found him, I greeted him. “Hi, bug. Your daddy is here.”

With in a few moments of me saying those words, his breathing slowed down. He became less wiggly. He displayed signs of being calmer. Even his veterinarian commented on the change. This was the calmest he had been in a long time. I gave him some pets and his breathing seemed to even out a bit more. He had physiological signs of being less upset from hearing my voice.

We went to a private room to discuss what made the most sense to do next. Ultimately, he got a fluid bolus and seemed to show some signs of improvement so we elected to give him some time, but I was prepared to have to make a tough decision the next day if needed. I went back to say goodbye, knowing that it may be the last time I saw him alive. While he had responded to the fluids, they said he was still seeming upset.

His rapid breathing slowed down and he was calmed once as soon as I showed up. He had noticeable, positive changes to his breathing and behavior simply by me talking to him. Me petting him. Just by me being there near him. Zoloft was in a lot of distress and not doing well, but me being there comforted him just like it had in less awful circumstances at the vet before.

Signs Of Love (Or Something Similar)

While I could have reflected on any of the numerous other parts of our relationship, when going around the pet loss support group that night, I chose to share the story of the last time I saw him before he passed. Despite us having much happier memories, I think it is what best reflects our relationship.

Zoloft was comforted, even though he was in pain and his body was in the process of wrapping up his precious life, by me. It was observable to others and he had objective signs of being comforted by me being there. I feel terrible about a lot of things that happened at the end, but that was truly special.

What Did It Mean?

Was this a sign of him loving me? I guess I can never truly know for sure. I know from me, I could write a whole anthology filled with the signs that I loved him. Even if he didn’t love me in the same way I loved him because cats think differently, it was pretty clear we had a special bond. I was a source of comfort that helped him, for at least a little while, experience some peace. While I wasn’t able to be there when his time ended, I provided him with comfort and relieved some of his distress.

If that’s not a form of love, I don’t know what is.

Zoloft, a lynx point Siamese cat, sits on a black cat tower perch. He has his paws crossed. He paws have white fur on them.
Zoloft was so very loved… and he still is.

Looking For Love In Unexpected Situations

While this may seem like just a reflection on my own loss and a small piece of Zoloft’s story, ultimately I hope that you can reflect back on your time with your cats both past and present. Whether you recently lost a cat or are just tryin to figure out if your cat feels the same way about you, sometimes you have to look in the places that you don’t think of as being filled with love.

It isn’t always the happiest moments that show how special your relationship with your cat is and how important you are to them. It’s not the bedtime snuggles or fun games you play with your cat. Sometimes it’s in the most challenging moments of our time with them that the special bond we share with our cats shines brighter than all the light in the entire universe.

The end of Zoloft’s life didn’t define our relationship. Still, buried somewhere in that messy, awful time were the strongest signs that what we shared was so special. If you’re asking how to tell if your cat loves you, you may not want to look in the moments where things have been going well. Sometimes it’s in the unexpected, uncomfortable, and even tragic places that you’ll find your answer.

Six years ago today both our lives changed for the better right up until the very end. Happy Gotcha Day, Zoloft. I’m glad we were able to build something special together.

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!