We’ve all heard of the stereotypical ‘grumpy cat’ who just wants to be left alone, despite her owner’s ardent pleas for affection.
“My cat is very much ‘I want to be near you, but I want to be doing my own thing,” Reddit user Catsdrinkingbeer tells Inverse.
As pet owners spend more time working at home during the pandemic, it’s natural to wonder whether your cat’s excessive grumpiness or irritability is a direct result of spending hours on end in close proximity to your feline.
Inverse spoke with three pet experts to answer the question gnawing at the back of many pet owners’ minds: does my cat want to be left alone? The question speaks to a deeper fear: Do our cats really love us as much or need us as much as we need them?
As it turns out, your cats might not need as much alone time as you think, and they may value your company in ways you don’t fully appreciate.
“As we have spent more time at home, many cat parents have noticed their cats appear to be unhappy or exhibit behaviors they believe to be indicative of stress,” Rachel Geller, a certified cat behaviorist with Wellness Natural Pet Food, tells Inverse.
Geller adds, “This leaves many wondering if their cat would prefer to be left alone, but this often is not the case.”
Do cats want to be left alone?
In general: cats actually like spending time with their humans — more than we give them credit for.
“It’s a myth that cats are solitary creatures. In fact, cats strongly love their humans and want to be with us,” Geller says. But it’s important to remember that cats — like humans — are individual creatures. Some want more playtime and affection, while others crave their alone time.
“Some cats are very needy, and other cats are a bit more independent,” Mikel Delgado, a cat expert at Feline Minds and a postdoctoral fellow School of Veterinary Medicine at University of California, Davis, tells Inverse.
Delgado adds, “It's hard to make a blanket statement as to whether they want to be left alone.”
Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, agrees. “Unlike dogs and people who are primarily social, cats have a flexible social structure, meaning they can be more independent as well as social,” Pankratz tells Inverse.
If you’re uncertain whether your cat wants to be left alone, pay closer attention to their body language.
“Your cat may sit near you or choose a napping spot that is in the same room where you are sitting to feel more connected,” Geller says.
Delgado adds, “Probably the place most people go wrong is overhandling their cats. Some cats might want to interact with you, but they may not want to be picked up or petted a lot.”
If your cat is displaying any of the following behaviors, they probably need some alone time, according to Delgado:
- Struggling to get away from your grasp
- Leaving during an interaction
- Overstimulation during petting (tail swishing, head turns, cranky meows, biting and scratching, etc.)
If your cat displays these behaviors, “be sure to let them initiate future interactions, and keep petting sessions brief and focused on areas of the body they like to be petted, such as the cheeks and chin,” Delgado stresses.
But if your cat is displaying sudden mood swings or abnormal behavioral changes, it’s best to consult with a veterinarian immediately.
“If a cat's behavior changes, especially if the change occurs abruptly, this could be indicative of a change in their health and it is recommended to reach out to their primary veterinarian,” Pankratz says.
The pros and cons of working from home
“Stress is a cat’s worst enemy.”
Pankratz stresses that there are significant benefits, in addition to disadvantages, of pet owners working from home alongside their cats.
- More social time with their human family
- Increased petting and playtime
- Greater attention to pets’ behavioral needs and changes, leading owners to seek veterinary attention sooner
- More unwanted social interaction (i.e., activity and noise in the home)
- Greater interactions with children and pets who may not respect the cat’s body language
- Disruptions to their usual routine (i.e., naptime)
- The frustration of having an owner physically present but emotionally “inaccessible” because they are working
- The confusion of seeing an owner around more, such as during mealtimes, when they previously weren't around during the daytime
- A potentially less predictable schedule
The big takeaway: working from home may have disrupted the cat’s routine, causing potential stress.
“Cats are creatures of habit that often do best with predictability and consistency,” Pankratz says.
Is working from home making cats depressed?
Joanna Montgomery went viral in August after tweeting a veterinarian’s observation regarding an uptick in depressed cats, possibly due to irritation from owners being home more often during the pandemic.
But according to veterinarians, we’re approaching this question the completely wrong way.
“Working from home isn’t making your cat depressed; rather, it’s the change in schedule that is unsettling,” Geller says.
Delgado agrees. “If you are working from home and that is a big change for your cat, keep in mind that it may be stressful, especially if the house is more active when it used to be quiet,”
She adds that even simple things, like sitting in your feline’s favorite chair, could be upsetting for cats.
If your cat is becoming stressed due to your constant presence at home, there are a few easy ways you can give them space — literally. Delgado recommends “providing them with cat-only spaces” that include cat trees and heated beds.
She adds that “letting them choose when and how much they spend time with you during the day” — rather than forcing cats to spend time with you whenever you want — is crucial.
Geller says that “stress is a cat’s worst enemy,” adding, “This past year has been a lot for our cats, and as we think about how to help them feel more relaxed and at ease, giving them space by simply leaving them alone will never address their underlying stress issues.”
How do I keep my cat occupied while working from home?
Reddit user voltagejim works in an office, but they also occasionally work from home. In a thread posted by Inverse, voltagejim said that when they’re at home, it can feel like doing constant battle with their kitty to get any work done:
“When I am at my computer desk, one will jump up on the desk and lay down right next to my mouse pad. The other will constantly get on his hind legs and paw at me while meowing to be picked up and placed on my lap.”
This behavior is pretty typical behavior for house cats. Your cat isn’t smothering you with affection; rather, they just need to keep their minds and bodies occupied.
“All cats, whether we are working from home or not, need activities to keep them busy during the day,” Delgado says.
But there are a few ways you can keep your cat safely entertained while you work (relatively) distraction-free. Here are a few of our experts’ favorite tips to enrich your cat’s independent playtime.
- Provide opportunities for the cat to “hunt” and “forage” through food puzzles and safe toys so the cat can play on its own. Rotate out the toys so the cat doesn't get bored.
- Provide vertical spaces so the cat can climb and safely observe her environment, such as cat trees or perches. You can even repurpose existing furniture, such as the backs of a sofa or the tops of storage containers, with a cozy blanket or quilt.
- Provide perches near sunny windows so cats can watch the birds and bees
- Offer the cat a “safe haven” to hide with various entrances and textures, including cardboard boxes and fleece blankets
- Allow safe outdoor access or a “catio”
- Enrich and respect a cat’s sense of smell to make them comfortable when you’re busy: “Cats enjoy enriching smells such as catnip and cut grass, but find some detergents, scented litter, and harsh cleaners unpleasant and potentially stressful,” Pankratz says.
Ample access to toys is crucial to keeping your cat occupied. Geller adds, “Keep in mind that play should simulate hunting, which means that keeping toys away from cats creates immeasurable frustration — this is the last thing you want to do.”
But you still need to make some time for one-on-one playtime with your cat, despite a busy work schedule. That playtime can help your feline engage with their natural hunting instincts, and relax when you’re actually working.
“I also recommend being sure to engage in interactive play with your cat EVERY DAY using wand toys, so that they get plenty of exercise, making them more likely to nap when you're on an important zoom call,” Delgado says.
Pankratz advises owners to put the wand and pole toys away when the cat is unsupervised to prevent them from eating the string toy.
Can I leave my cat home alone while at work?
Without reservations, our experts agree that you should generally feel free to leave your kitty at home while you work in person.
“Believe it or not, there was a time when almost all kitties were home alone during the day while their humans were at work!” Delgado says.
It’s up to you to make sure you keep your pet entertained while you’re out (see the previous section for activity suggestions).
“Make sure, though, you prepare your cat for your return to the office and provide her with stimulating activities while you are not home,” Geller says.
If you’ve been working at home recently and are now returning to in-person office work, your cat may become startled by the sudden routine change, especially the reduction in interactions with its owner.
Early preparation and gradual acclimation are key, according to veterinarians.
“If you know your return-to-the-office date, the time to start preparing for that is now,” Geller says.
She adds, “Start leaving the house for a couple of hours at the time you will be leaving to go to work. Get your cat used to the new feeding schedule and let your cat ease into the transition.”
Once your cat sees that the routine change doesn’t harm them, they will not react negatively to your absence. Without adequate preparation, your pet could experience more significant mental health concerns in your absence, such as separation anxiety.
“Although not as extensively studied as the canine counterpart, some cats can develop separation anxiety,” Pankratz says.
If you’re worried about your cat experiencing separation anxiety due to the sudden change in routine, you can leave a video camera at home to record your cat’s behavior while you’re out.
This recording “can be a very valuable tool to diagnose and monitor treatment response for separation anxiety,” Pankratz says.
The Inverse analysis — Although it might seem like your cats want to be left alone, Pankratz stresses that your feline still needs “positive and consistent human interaction” to maintain a sense of well-being.
Above all else, don’t punish your cat if they want to spend more or less time with you than you desire.
“Avoid yelling, squirt bottles, or other forms of punishment as these increase stress and break the trust your cat has in you,” Pankratz says. “Improve your bond with your cat by interacting with your cat at their pace.”
A sudden routine change can make cats nervous, so Geller suggests pet owners “use a controlled approach to present your cat with a lifestyle change.”
Keep up a stable routine, and your feline will probably be fine, regardless of whether you’re working from home or the office.
“Be sure to provide your cat with a stable routine that you can maintain every day, including feeding, cleaning, playtime, and time to cuddle if they enjoy it — routine is more important to most cats than constant attention,” Delgado concludes.