How does your cat really feel about you being quarantined at home with her?
This would probably be a completely different blog post if I were writing about how dogs feel about you being home 24/7 during the coronavirus quarantine. I have two dogs and they couldn’t be happier to have me around every second of the day, feeding them treats, taking them for walks, and petting them. Quarantine is giving your dogs everything they ever wanted from their relationship with you.
Your cats, on the other hand, are probably not faring quite as well as their canine comrades-in-arms during this COVID-19 lockdown.
Cats don't do well when their environment changes
It’s not that they don’t like having you around, or, as some of the memes going around suggest, that you’re interrupting their peculiar kitty schedule. It’s that they don’t do well when things are different.
We’re not talking about cats being their finicky feline selves. We’re not talking about your cat’s personal preferences for alone time. It’s much more serious than that: cats, it turns out, are biologically hardwired to do poorly when anything in their environment shifts, even slightly.
Even healthy cats get sick when their routine changes
A 2011 study conducted by Ohio State University and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed how easily even healthy cats can get sick when they experience minor shifts in their daily routines.
The conclusion of the study about cats’ intolerance of change wasn’t something the researchers started out looking for. They were actually studying a particular chronic disease called interstitial cystitis (IC). IC causes bladder pain in cats, and cats suffering from IC pee more frequently than normal.
Owners of cats with this persistent problem were struggling to deal with the illness: their cats were vomiting, not eating, and peeing and pooping outside of their litter boxes. Many of the owners were considering euthanasia because there are no good treatments for the disease.
Ohio State took in 20 of these IC cats, plus 12 other healthy cats. Responsibility for caring for the cats fell to one particular researcher, a doctoral candidate named Judi Stella. She wanted to make sure the cats were happy and getting their needs met, so she set up an enriched indoor environment for them and established a strict feeding/cleaning/play schedule.
And after a while she noticed that all the sick cats started to look well. Their coats were shiny and their eyes were clear. They stopped vomiting and missing the litter box.
Stella continued to care for the cats for almost a year and a half. During that time, some things changed due to circumstance: for example, if Stella went on vacation the cats got fed by another caretaker. Sometimes the researchers changed something on purpose, like feeding the cats at a later time.
What they noticed was that when the cats’ routine changed, sick and healthy cats had an almost equal number of incidents of vomiting, refusing to eat, or litter-box problems. In other words, no cats – not sick cats, not healthy cats – do well when things in their environment change.
Tony Buffington, professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State, and author of the study said that what we tend to think of as “normal” for cats is not normal, like frequently vomiting hairballs. “There is not another mammal on the planet that wouldn’t be hospitalized for throwing up once a week,” he said. He was effectively saying that behaviors we’ve come to expect from our cats are a result of stress.
What stresses your cat out
According to the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, a “life stressor” for a cat is any event or change in your cat’s environment. Even something as simple as rearranging the furniture can be stressful for some cats. But cats endure uncomfortable changes throughout their lives with us: a new baby joining the family, a family member going (and coming and going) to college, dinner guests, vacations, deaths, and new pets are all life stressors.
Cats respond in a variety of different ways to life stressors, from becoming fearful to getting sick. Some cats can develop behavioral problems, such as aggression from life stressors.
Quarantine is a "life stressor" for your cat
This period of quarantine is most definitely a “life stressor” for your cat. And there isn’t much you can do about changing that.
The best we can do is to try to reduce our cats’ stress and make them more comfortable under this new set of circumstances.
Keep your cat's routine as normal as possible
Try to keep your cat’s routine as normal as possible and as consistent as possible. Establish a schedule that your cat can count on: feed at the same time each day, clean or change the litter at the same time each day, and have regular playtimes your cat can rely on.
Make sure, too, that you have a place for your cat to escape: a quiet room with a box to hide in is the perfect kind of refuge for a cat that is still adjusting to our new way of living.
Ohio State study: Even healthy cats act sick when their routine is disrupted. 2020. Ohio State Study: Even Healthy Cats Act Sick When Their Routine Is Disrupted. [online] Available at: <https://news.osu.edu/ohio-state-study-even-healthy-cats-act-sick-when-their-routine-is-disrupted/> [Accessed 14 April 2020].