Dear Beast Mode,
My boyfriend’s cat, who is also now sort of my cat because we live together, immediately starts scratching at any door that’s closed. Am I doomed to go to the bathroom with the door open for the rest of time?
—Living With a Peeping Tomcat
Dear Living With a Peeping Tomcat,
Moving in with a significant other is a big step, and your boyfriend’s frustratingly intrusive cat is actually helping you get accustomed to an unavoidable truth about cohabitation. Privacy is a luxury reserved for those who can afford guest cottages or backyard yoga chalets. For everyone else, home life is an anarchic and borderless free for all. At least the cat is upfront about it.
I don’t mean to scare you. There are great things about living with someone. For example, you got a cat out of the deal, which is pretty cool. I assume this is your first cat, though, as the behavior you describe is relatively common.
“Cats do what cats are going to do,” Nicholas Dodman tells me over the phone. Dodman is professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the author of The Cat Who Cried for Help. “The immediate solution,” he says, “is don’t shut the door.”
Dodman doesn’t look at this as a cat problem. The real issue, he argues, is that you’re being too bashful. “There’s no reason a cat shouldn’t be in a bedroom or even the bathroom. It’s just our peculiar sensitivities. We’re actually being very anthropomorphic and transmitting our own concerns,” he says. “The cat doesn’t want to see what you’re doing. He just wants to be with you.”
In sum, your cat may seem like a voyeuristic pervert, but he’s actually just expressing himself as a sensitive family man. (This is a defense that only works on pets and not, say, congressmen.)
Dodman practices what he preaches with his own dog and cat. “No door is ever closed in my house,” he says. “[My pets] never have any reason to scratch or bark or whatever with any door because they can go wherever they want any time.”
Commune life isn’t for everyone, though, and I understand that a 100 percent open-door policy might be tough as you and your boyfriend get acclimated to your shared living situation. Dodman also understands (well, kind of), and he offers a solution. “If it so happens that these people are puritans and just can’t live with the thought that those amber eyes looking at them might be taking in things they don’t want them to be taking in, they can easily solve the problem by taking a piece of plexiglass and putting it on the back of the door. When the cat goes to scratch, there’s no damage.”
A plexiglass (or plastic) panel will also greatly reduce the noise to help you ignore the cat’s desperate clawing. This is key, as you cannot give in when trying to condition the cat. “If you intermittently reinforce the cat by opening the door, you will get more scratching,” Dodman says.
The plexiglass doesn’t have to be a permanent design fixture in your house, in case you are worried about home decor. After a few months, the cat should understand that there’s no hope in scratching on that particular door, and you can remove the protective slab and pee in peace.
Just as your cat doesn’t have any lurid motivations for barging in on you in the bathroom, he won’t be offended if you take the steps to keep him out. “[Cats] won’t hold a grudge,” Dodman says. “Well, sometimes they’ll hold a grudge, but they won’t hold a grudge over that.”
In scratching at the bathroom door, your cat is doing more than just warning you about the pitfalls of cohabitation; he’s also reminding you about why you’re giving it a shot in the first place. Remember, you’re the new member of the family here, and the cat has welcomed you with open paws. “That this cat wants to be with them when they’re on the toilet is the sign of a good bond,” Dodman says. “I would take it as a compliment.”