In 2019, millions of people trekked off to the office, leaving their cats largely to their own inscrutable devices. The ravenous balls of fluff were alone and free to snooze in sinks, scratch furniture, and generally skulk around.
Now, millions of people have made their home an office thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But no one stopped to ask if that was OK with the cats.
The internet has been abuzz with stories from people who have settled into work-from-home routines under the glare of their felines, who appear confused and/or annoyed that their owner is looming large during the day in addition to the evening. This is a serious disruption to many cats' routine, and Fluffy isn't having it.
“It’s not that cats don’t want us around, it’s that they are highly reactive to change and therefore prone to get stressed,” Rachel Geller, Ed.D., a cat behaviorist with Wellness Natural Pet Food, tells Mental Floss. “Working from home is a change, and a change in schedule that can be unsettling to cats ... Whether it’s sleeping later, having a different meal schedule, setting up the house differently to accommodate a home office, receiving more deliveries throughout the day, or even something as little as different light patterns, cats are reactive to these changes even if they seem small to humans.”
The reason for their disgruntlement comes down to habit. Cats like the familiar, and when a human schedule is revised, so is theirs. “Most cats have a set pattern they follow every day that typically matches up with our schedules and routine, and this routine-driven life helps cats feel safe and confident, meaning pet parents will want their cat’s routine to be as consistent as possible,” Geller says.
That’s become harder as a result of the explosion of home office arrangements. A staggering 21 percent of the American workforce was telecommuting as of March 2021. While down from a high of 35 percent in May 2020, it’s still enough to make an untold number of cats feel displaced and anxious. Some become more emotionally demanding; others use the opportunity to beg for food. Really troubled cats can urinate outside the litter box, chew excessively, engage in destructive behavior, or groom obsessively. (Dog lovers, take note: Canines seem to be coping better, but can still exhibit needy behavior.)
If you’re home with kids, the increased commotion and noise can be a stressor, too. Even a Zoom call can prove problematic.
“Cats pick up on the emotions and tone of our voices, so now they are being exposed to these things that they weren’t before when we were at the office,” Geller says. “If you had a stressful Zoom meeting or call, or are working on a project under deadline, your cat will pick up on this, and may become just as flustered as you.”
So how can owners avoid stepping in cat puddles or finding their favorite sweater reduced to a ball of yarn? The key, Geller says, is in engaging them to release their stress. “One way to do this is with an interactive play session with a fishing pole-type toy that helps build confidence in your cat because they can ‘hunt’ and ‘conquer’ the toy successfully,” she says. “Interactive play sessions create good feelings, positive associations, and feelings of success, all while releasing tension.”
Vertical spaces are always useful, too. Cats, after all, like to survey their fiefdoms. “Elevated spaces give a cat safety and security and cats love the ability to survey their home from a secure vantage point,” Geller says. “Climbing and jumping up to elevated spaces and then watching the world go by prevents anxiety and stress, and boredom. Vertical space allows the cat to pretend they are navigating to faraway places and having fun journeys, all while keeping them busy and active.”
The second strategy is to retain as much of their old routine as possible. “Feed your cat at the same time, have regularly scheduled play sessions, and maintain a consistent daily schedule, the best you can,” Geller advises.
Cats also benefit from not being isolated. While closing yourself off to get your head into the workday is intuitive for humans, it might upset the emotionally vulnerable cat in your space: “If you can, try not to close the door and lock your cat out of your home workspace or office.”
Be mindful, however, that cats do need their own private space. Keeping a room or area open where they can retreat gives the cat a place to decompress from their busy and stressful lives.
The good news? Given enough time, cats can grow familiar with their new normal. “When the new situation doesn't harm your cat or have any negative consequences, the cat will stop reacting over time,” Geller says. “Cats don't forget about the new situation. Instead, they actively learn not to react to it over time. In other words, they get used to it as long as proper time and patience is given.”
Paradoxically, cats may get upset a second time—if and when their owners decide to return to the office. “If you know your return to the office date, the time to start preparing for that is now. Start leaving the house for a couple of hours at the time you will be leaving to go to work. Get up at the time you will need to get out of bed when you return to the office and start back in with your normal routine—showering in the morning, eating breakfast and so forth. Get your cat used to the new feeding schedule. Let your cat ease into the transition. When your cat has the opportunity to learn that the new schedule and routine doesn’t harm her or have any consequences, he or she will not react negatively.”
Exercise, comfort, and routines—cats do best with all three. And so do humans.