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Working from home can be tricky enough without having to worry about returning to a furry belly laying across your keyboard every time you get up for a coffee break. Now, that’s not to say your cat isn’t an excellent co-worker. They likely are — offering you mental breaks in the form of play time and reminding you to eat three (okay, maybe two) square meals per day. However, they can also be quite disruptive, and when it comes to keyboards, it doesn’t take much to attract a curious cat. No matter if you’re in the middle of an important assignment or signing on to a Zoom meeting, if your computer is all fired up and warm, chances are your cat is going to make it their number one priority to insert themself into the situation. While the TikTok life hack of giving your cat their own mini laptop is admittedly tempting, we decided to first ask an expert — cat behaviorist Cristin Tamburo — why cats love laptops and how to keep their paws off yours.
Why are cats so interested in laptops?
Cats like to be near their humans and a lot of cats do things that are attention seeking because they would like to have our undivided attention all the time. Usually, now that we’ve been working from home, the majority of our day is spent either staring at a computer screen or our cellphone or something to that extent. Laptops are usually warm and toasty and cats like to be warm and cozy, so I think that’s a secondary part of it, as well. They get to be warm and by their humans.
It can be frustrating for pet parents when your cat wants to plop down on your keyboard in the middle of the work day. Do you have any tips for how to remedy this?
The more mentally and physically active and stimulated we can keep our cats, the less likely they are to be bothering us for our attention all the time. Nothing is going to replace the human-animal bond and us needing to play with our cats, but if you can get them some interactive toys and things like that — the busier we can keep them during the day, while we’re trying to work, the better.
Do you have any personal experience in this area that you can impart to other cat owners?
I have seven cats. When you have seven, they basically win all of the time. A couple of the things that I do that help: I have a couple of cat towers by my desk; I have an iPad set up to my right that was playing some aquarium videos for one of my cats earlier today; I have a blanket on my desk that one cat was sleeping on that’s next to a cat tower that a third cat was sleeping on. Then, my boy bear is basically always on my lap.
Keeping them busy and away from the desk is great, but if you have cats who are more insistent and still want to be close, you can make an area for them that is close to you, but a compromise. Basically anything with cats is “Nope, you can’t do that.” So, what can we do that is acceptable? Giving them an area that’s near you without necessarily being on our keyboard is a good way to meet in the middle.
How would you suggest people encourage positive behaviors without scolding their cats? That way they aren’t being pushed off of keyboards.
Anything that we do with cats — there’s no punishment, really. They don’t understand punishment so to speak. All the things that we do with them is about positive reinforcement. Sometimes it’s harder to reward that positive behavior. If they finally left your computer and you go after them, they’re going to be like “Oh wait, mom’s going to give me attention now.”
If you’re able to toss a treat in their direction that’s away from you without having to go get them, I think that’s good. There’s some automatic treat or food dispensers that can be controlled from your phone. That’s also a way to kind of help get them away from the desk to begin with if you drop a treat or two in another room. If they are still staying close, but not sitting on the keyboard or not disrupting your work, it’s important to give them positive reinforcement.
What’s the best way to try that with your own cat?
All cats are motivated by different things. Some like treats, some like pets, some like play. For a lot of cats, if they’re happy with pets then that’s probably what they’re trying to get while they’re on your computer. I mentioned I have a little cat tower near my desk and workstation. If they go over to that tower, you can give them pets, but make sure you’re completely ignoring them whenever they’re in the area that you don’t want them to be spending time in.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done when you’re trying to work and they’re trampling on your keyboard, of course. I don’t like to call cats manipulative, but they are very crafty and they know just what buttons to push that will help us do exactly what they want. The more we can ignore their disruptive and unwanted behaviors, the more they realize that it doesn’t earn them what they’re trying to get.
They literally know what buttons to push. Is there a psychological element to this? Perhaps they’re trying to reclaim quality time now that we’re returning to the office?
Just like humans, a lot of animals [cats included] do experience separation anxiety. I work for a veterinary pharmacy and I’ve been working with my clients to ease their pets back into the transition of us going back to work. Especially with cats, anything we do, we need to do it in small baby steps. So, while we might not be able to leave the house for eight hours a day, at least if we can leave for an hour or two here or there so they get used to us not being home all the time that helps to ease them into it. Instead of just, “Okay guys, bye! I’m gone for eight hours a day now. See you later!”
Going back to keeping them mentally and physically active and stimulated, it’s even more important when we do leave the home to make sure that they have the appropriate enrichment and outlets to be cats (and be dogs, for that matter) — things to keep them busy. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to sit in an apartment all day with no noises, just quiet, boring stuff.
Placing a cat tree or post in a room only, uh, scratches the surface of solving this problem.
The meow is coming from inside the house.
Avery is a writer and producer. She has written for numerous publications, including Refinery29, BuzzFeed, and V Magazine. When she’s not at her computer, you can find her reading, practicing her Greek on Duolingo, and delving into the Sex and the City discourse. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their cat, Chicken, who rules with an iron fist.