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First it was climate change. Then it was gun violence. Now it’s an honest-to-God pandemic that has wormed its way into our communities and our psyches— leaving us stuttering, babbling, and mumbling, yet again, trying for the right words to explain this terrible thing to our cats.
Whether you consider yourself a “pet owner,” a “human guardian,” or a “cat custodian,” you may feel unsure of how much to say about COVID-19 to your furry, feckless friend. This post gives you guidance all the way through the process.
Though cats often seem to ignore humans entirely, they are actually quite sensitive and perceptive. They can detect our anxiety, and this affects them more than you might realize. For example, if you suddenly shout, “I CAN’T TAKE ANOTHER MINUTE IN THIS COFFIN-LIKE BAY AREA DOLLHOUSE!” you shouldn’t be surprised if little Snowflake runs under the couch to hide.
It’s also important not to let your mood become your kitty’s problem. As annoying as it is to see your darling (but shedding) little friend napping for six hours straight on your cream-colored sofa, it’s never appropriate to yell, “How can you lounge around like this when the WHOLE WORLD IS MELTING THE FUCK DOWN?!”
Here’s an analogy. Say you’re on an airplane and, after severe turbulence, it pitches nose-down and begins falling to earth. The last thing you’d want in this situation is for your flight attendant to forget your ginger ale. Your cat is the same way. She doesn’t care how anxious you may feel about complete respiratory failure. She wants her dinner. On time. Actually, right now.
These are difficult times for all of us, even pets. Well, most pets. Goldfish are probably oblivious, frankly. But your cat surely realizes something is up, and may act out in frustrating ways. She might sharpen her claws on your beautiful cream-colored sofa. Or maybe she is suddenly missing the litter box by six feet or more. Or she’s walking on your face at 4:00 a.m., or shooting heroin. Yes, it may be she has always done these things, but her behavior might also be a cry for help. What are you to do?
First of all, forgive her. That cream-colored sofa probably wasn’t the wisest choice to begin with, and it’s not like your children haven’t spilled tea on it anyway. Drape a colorful tapestry over the back, and your guests will think you were just going for a splash of color. And when Fluffy disrupts your hard-won sleep—waking you up fifteen minutes after you spent three hours tossing and turning and trying not to think—well, you just have to chuckle and grind your teeth some more. It’s not appropriate to berate your pet in these situations. She won’t understand.
Second, try to alleviate her anxiety. Remind her that cats can’t get COVID-19, so far as we know, and that the worst thing that could happen to her is that her entire family could die and nobody would be around to feed her. Point out that eventually somebody would come around and bust the door in, and until then, she can feast on the corpses.
Share with your cat how you deal with your own stress so that he can learn from you how to cope. You might ground yourself by connecting more with family members. Maybe you take advantage of the “new, shitty normal” by wearing pajamas 24x7. Perhaps you split two bottles of wine with your husband, even if he only has a glass or two. Or you might stare at a TV or laptop screen continuously while twirling your hair or chewing your nails and occasionally sharing the latest bad news with anyone in earshot. You may even hurl profanities at the answering machine when a Robocaller leaves a seemingly endless message. All these behaviors are signs of an impending mental breakdown, and they’re perfectly normal. Your cat will watch, and wait, and wonder when it’s mealtime.
Sometimes we count on our cats to help us feel better. Isn’t this what pets are for, after all? After a stressful workday, when your employer is in the throes of a downturn, and your stressed-out boss takes it out on you, it could be that closing the lid on your laptop and taking to the La-Z-Boy armchair with a magazine and your furry friend is the perfect way to unwind—if only Stripe would actually stay put, tuck in his paws, and purr. You know, do his fucking job. But instead he forsakes you and bails from your lap. Don’t be mad! Your cat is social-distancing!
Be honest and forthright
Provide information that is honest and tailored to your cat’s age and developmental level. While cats are quite smart, they probably won’t understand the finer points of lengthy editorials, like “How is this a novel coronavirus? It’s getting so fucking old already!” You need to keep the message simple, but don’t sugarcoat it by pretending COVID-19 isn’t a big deal. Just about any cat, and even some Republicans, naturally recognize that this virus is real and that it could infect any of us.
It’s useful to find out what your cat already knows. It’s okay to ask. You might inquire, “What are you hearing? Did you ever eat a bat? Does my skin feel oddly warm to you? Did it seem like mama had an awfully dry cough last night? Who are you working for?” Granted, you may not get many answers. Your cat may just stare at you. But if she does that thing where she closes her eyes very slowly, seeming to regard you contemptuously through slitted eyelids, she knows something. You can tell.
You can be reassuring and candid at the same time. There really are lots of reasons to be hopeful. For example, when the current trend—denial—gives way to the next one—abject panic—people will finally start wearing masks and staying away from each other. And one day there will be a vaccine, so we can turn our rage away from this invisible virus and turn it on the medical industry bureaucrats who can’t or won’t deliver the vaccine at scale. You know … the devil we know.
Help your cat feel “in control”
Give your cat specific things she can do to feel “in control.” Getting lots of sleep and washing are both great ways to stay healthy, and your cat is already doing them! Praise your cat whenever you see these behaviors. “Oh, you’re such a fooly-foo!” you might tell him. “Who’s a little fur-face? Who’s a little fluffernutter? What a galoo-foo!” All of this will reinforce your cat’s good behavior.
Speaking of behavior, actions speak louder than words. So telling your cat how to stay safe, or even encouraging him verbally when he assiduously scrubs his butthole with his tongue, is well and good, but sometimes it’s even better to just go over and bury your face in his fur and make murmuring sounds. Just don’t let him lick you.
Another way to empower your cat and give her a sense of control is to actually relent and feed her at 3 a.m. when she walks on your face, instead of banishing her to the garage. And when she walks across your desk, knocking your coffee over on your keyboard causing you to forget yourself and cuss up a blue streak during a videoconference with your boss, just let her. In times like these, your family needs to come before your career.
It’s natural to forget your cat altogether when you’re focused on trying to figure out how you could possibly survive this pandemic when your teenagers wear their masks around their necks and seem congenitally incapable of washing their hands, and when their version of “six feet away” doesn’t preclude actual physical contact. In the context of your darling children suddenly being recast as oblivious, unstoppable killing machines, a pet can seem pretty insignificant. But cats are people too, and need to be reassured during these dangerous times, even if they seem like asocial predators with no ambition other than to kill, eat, and sleep.
In light of this, keep an eye out for “reassurance seeking.” This may look like a cat saying the same thing, such as “meow,” over and over again while staring up at you or threading his way around your feet, practically tripping you, as you carry a giant platter of food. This ceaseless repetition of “meow, meow, meow, meow, meow” ad infinitum might actually annoy you, but remember, little Whiskers could be suffering severe anxiety. If this continues or is pronounced, you might consider asking your cat’s veterinarian about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, otherwise known as CBT (not to be confused with CBD—a mistake many humans make to their own great detriment).
You should also watch for signs of declining mental health. If your cat sleeps more than 18 hours a day, she might be depressed (though this can also be a symptom of being a cat). Or, if she’s listless, refusing to play with her cat toys, a ball of yarn, or even a roll of toilet paper, she might be having some kind of emotional crisis (though it may be a sign that she’s no longer a kitten).
Take care of yourself!
It’s hard to model calm behavior and “be there” for your cat if you let yourself fall apart. Ironically, one way around this is to invert the natural order and look to your cat as a role model. Does she get enough sleep? Check. Does she know when to turn off the news and put away the smartphone? Clearly. Does she practice mindfulness? Probably—it’s not clear what else could be happening inside that tiny skull. And does she do yoga? Well, yeah! Hell, cats practically invented yoga!
But don’t take it too far … remember, you’re not a cat. You may have your own way of coping. You might distract yourself with books or videos. You might stockpile toilet paper. Maybe you gorge yourself on animal flesh while you still can, while the stockyards and meatpacking plants are still operational. Maybe you binge shop online for clothes that probably won’t fit and that you may never have the opportunity to wear. Or you might relax your body and mind with a miracle elixir like Drake’s Denogginizer Double IPA. All of these are perfectly valid ways of coping, so long as you remember to also clean out the litter box from time to time.
Other reading on the pandemic