Life Science

COVID-19 made me reconsider my cats’ housebound lives

Under pandemic lockdown, those lucky enough to stay home got a taste of pets’ confinement

August 18, 2021
A very cute cat walks outside among bushes and grass. He is wearing a harness and leash, and looking back over his shoulder.
Animal welfare and behavior experts encourage people to enrich their companion animals’ lives with outdoor time and social interaction. [Credit: Delger Erdenesanaa]

Each afternoon my family’s cat Birdy gets up from a nap and slinks over to the back door. As soon as a human makes eye contact, she appeals to go outside, first with a mew and then with increasingly agitated yowls. Once someone gives in — usually me — our younger cat Boo runs up and we all go into the backyard. There the cats roll around, stalk the yard’s perimeter, watch birds and occasionally try to escape.

I have no idea what the cats normally did during this hour, before I moved home to suburban Massachusetts to attend graduate school over Zoom. But early in our stay-at-home year, someone (a sister, a friend or maybe just a Twitter stranger) remarked that pets spend their entire lives in a kind of quarantine. While I don’t remember the context of that comment, I clearly remember my surge of empathy for Birdy and Boo. 

During their kittenhood they went outdoors supervised every so often, when the weather was nice or when they seemed bored. But this year, “every so often” snowballed into every day.

The pandemic forced millions (if not billions) of people into lives strikingly similar to those of domestic animals. Across the ocean, the U.K. entered a strict lockdown in March 2020, when everyone who could work from home did and people were only allowed out to exercise for one hour a day. 

During that time Jo Hockenhull, an animal welfare researcher at the University of Bristol in England, saw memes comparing people in lockdown to rabbits in hutches and horses in stables circulating on her social media feeds. Intrigued by this mass realization, Hockenhull, who specializes in horses, ended up writing a whole paper assessing past equine welfare research and urging owners to keep their horses in freer conditions.

Of course, these insights on my part, on Hockenhull’s part and on the part of her meme-posters came from a position of enormous privilege. Many people never had the choice to stay home during the pandemic. Many animals — and humans — are confined to institutions like laboratories, zoos and prisons in far worse environments. This year, residents of some of these settings were also uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus infection.

The pandemic has been “an opportunity to reflect on what it means to live under limited conditions,” says Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy and animal studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She urged empathy for not just our pets (whom she and other animal ethicists more respectfully call companion animals), but also for people who are incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized. 

We’ve all had our lives limited this year, not being able to go out whenever or wherever we want, to see a variety of people or to have a full range of experiences and opportunities. Seeing the toll even this mild confinement has had, maybe the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity to rethink the whole spectrum of captivity, from incarceration all the way down to the relatively cushy version that my Birdy and Boo experience.

Even benevolent captivity has its consequences

Like humans staying home during the pandemic, the argument for keeping cats inside rests on safety. The Humane Society contends that allowing cats to roam outside puts them in danger from cars, other animals and even infectious diseases. There’s also the much-publicized danger our little hunters pose to birds

A 2007 survey of 256 U.S. households found that only 17% let their cats roam freely, while half kept their cats indoors all the time. The rest, like Birdy and Boo, had some restricted outdoor access. And other domestic animals are even less free. Few dogs are allowed outside by themselves, except in fenced yards. Smaller pets like hamsters or lizards might spend their whole lives in cages and tanks.

Our pets are captives “of a certain sort,” says Gruen. “We decide when they go out, where they go out, when they eat, what they eat, who they socialize with.”

There can be real health consequences to this circumscribed life. For example, the typical U.K. horse lives in a stable that Hockenhull likens to a “gilded cage.” Common practices like long periods of confinement to stables, monotonous diets and limited social interaction can give horses — herd animals that naturally travel huge distances — significant stress and frustration, she says. 

Researchers have measured this response through horses’ hormone levels, as well as through behavior. Domestic horses will sometimes bite, kick or guard resources (like their water troughs) in displays of aggression rarely seen in the wild. Hockenhull explains in her paper that these behaviors are likely related to the horses’ living conditions.

My pandemic living conditions certainly gave me a share of stress, frustration and weird new behaviors. While there was no biting or kicking, I did hoard resources like groceries, hand sanitizer and, of course, toilet paper.

“Whether or not we have been literally held captive, it sure feels to many people that we have,” says Alexandra Horowitz, a professor of psychology at Barnard College in New York City who specializes in dog cognition, over email. 

That novel feeling alone may help us understand our pets better. Horowitz worked from home before the pandemic, and was “pretty aware of the day-to-day life of the dogs in our family.” But now, through a dearth of social interaction herself, she appreciates even more the importance of dogs’ interactions with other dogs and people outside their household. 

New empathy for our companion animals

The more I researched, the more dismayed I became about my relationship with Birdy and Boo. I felt that maybe I needed to stage a household intervention. So I approached Jackson Galaxy, a feline behavior expert who hosts the Animal Planet show My Cat From Hell. On the show, he counsels people whose relationships with their cats have reached breaking points (for reasons usually having more to do with the humans).

Galaxy encourages people to “catify” their homes in ways that allow cats to exercise their territorial natures, and hopefully, be happier. Outside, the cats in any given area would work out a system where each individual claims certain territory. “Indoors, it becomes just as important, if not more important,” to give cats spaces they can make their own, he explains.

Even with this need for territory, Galaxy doesn’t let his own cats loose outdoors. “We should first explore how we can enrich their lives without exposing them to the inherent dangers,” he says. Instead, he recommends that people give their cats lots of vertical space to climb, and that they take cats outside on leashes, or within the more airy confines of a “catio.”

Of course, for pets, sharing space with their humans during the pandemic has the benefit of more attention to needs like play time. Now with vaccines widely available in the U.S. and one chapter of the pandemic closing, I’m worried about Birdy and Boo’s transition to lonelier daytime life. So is Gruen, who says that when we go out again, we should be “mindful of how that might impact animals who are now used to having us around.”

That mindfulness will be easier now that I’ve experienced some version of Boo and Birdy’s lives. We’ve started catifying their home environment. Each Amazon delivery is now an opportunity for the cats to play in a freshly unfolded box. Each window, a place to put a high perch. And while we still don’t let them roam free — we live next to a busy road where cars hit plenty of humans, let alone cats — we’ve been spending more time outside with them. 

“When our own freedoms are restricted,” Gruen says, “we can start focusing on the ways that others’ freedoms are restricted.”

I think the inverse is also true. Many days this year, taking the cats outside was my only time out of the house, too. For a while, their freedom was my freedom. I can’t know exactly what Birdy and Boo feel in the moments after I open the back door and they burst out, running down the stairs with their tails held comically aloft. But I can guess, because what I felt was pure relief.

About the Author

Delger Erdenesanaa

Delger is a science journalist based in Massachusetts and New York. She writes about climate change, ecology, agriculture and the outdoors. Before becoming a journalist she worked in environmental policy and studied Earth science.

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