Downtime

America’s Pets Can’t Take Quarantine Anymore

The problem: you.

A dog peeks out of a doghouse that has a "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging over it.
Strong sign skills for a dog.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Up until a few weeks ago, Hirow Peralta’s cat, Karban, was used to having the house to herself. Peralta, a singer-songwriter in Charleston, South Carolina, might leave at 7 in the morning on a typical day and not come back until 6 or 7 at night.

Evidently, Karban liked it that way.

“One day, my neighbor texted me at like 11 p.m,” Peralta told Slate. “She was like, ‘Hey, I saw your cat on the roof.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about.” Karban had always been an indoor cat, and Peralta didn’t think she had any way of accessing the roof. It was right about then that he saw her, through his window, a puff of white fur casually strolling by. Peralta started filming the jailbreak on his phone. When he posted the video to Twitter, he wrote, “she so tired of me being home she became a outside cat.”

Karban, who had found a way out through a boarded-up window, had spent plenty of time in that room before and never tried to escape. But something about quarantine had driven her to make a break for it. “She doesn’t leave the roof now. She stays up there,” Peralta said. “You can tell when she’s like, ‘OK, I’ve had too much attention. I’m gonna go hide.’ ” She might not know about the coronavirus, but “I’m sure she’s wondering. She’s like, ‘Damn. Y’all are here every day.’ ”

Karban is just one of millions of American pets whose routines have changed drastically in recent weeks. Where they once had the run of the house, now they’re sharing space full time, and things are getting a little crowded.

For the human species, there were few illusions going into quarantine: It was going to suck. But pets, blissfully unaware of the tragic circumstances, could be forgiven for thinking this isolation thing didn’t seem half-bad: Finally, they’d get all the quality time with their people they ever wanted. Midday belly rubs. Fetch at all hours. Constant attention.

Be careful what you woof for. A few weeks in, some pets are finding that, actually, they miss their alone time. They, too, wouldn’t mind a little social distancing.

Take Remus, Jerin Henderson’s blue heeler/collie mix in Portland, Texas. “By the end of the night, she’s just kind of over being together,” Henderson said. “She usually always sleeps on my bed with me, but lately, the past couple nights, she’s been sleeping underneath the bed.”

How the stay-at-home directive might affect her dog initially “didn’t even cross my mind with everything that was happening,” said Henderson, who works as a customer representative for an insurance company. “All my time and energy was focused on how I was going to be able to work and take care of our customers. Things were getting crazier by the minute, and then having to learn to work remotely was very challenging.” It was only a few days in, she said, that she started to notice that Remus had some negative feedback to share about the new setup. “She is mad I’m not playing with her, so she talks and whines a lot,” Henderson said.

In Philadelphia, Carly Gove can relate. She has two kittens, Smudge and Marmalade, and they would like their peace and quiet back, too. “Since this last week when we’ve gotten really settled into being around constantly, they’re getting more annoyed at how much we’re trying to interact with them because it’s stopped being a novelty for everyone involved,” Gove said. “I’m working upstairs. My boyfriend’s working downstairs. Normally there wouldn’t be anyone in all these separate rooms in the apartment, but now there’s always a presence. They have less space to spread out.”

As for how they’re making their displeasure known: “They’re walking away from me,” Gove said. “I’m flopping down next to them to try and play with them, and they’ll get up and move to the other couch very grumpily. They are not having it at all.”

This disaffection is widespread. Jason Young, a photographer who lives in Southern California with his German shepherd, Ziva, is also getting the cold shoulder—or cold paw? “She’ll give me side eye and grunt,” he said of Ziva in an email. Aysie, a high school student in Belgium, said her cat, Zeytin, has started acting not unlike a celebrity besieged by the paparazzi: “I think my cat misses not being photographed a lot because of every move he makes,” she said. “If he looks really cute or sassy, I snap a picture of him.” Ashes DiMaria, a barista in Georgia, said of her dog, Gypsy, “I think another thing she misses is missing me. I would leave for six to nine hours at a time for work. She would always light up when I walked in the door. I feel like since she’s by my side, that excitement is mostly gone.”

Zazie Todd, an animal psychologist and the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, isn’t surprised that pets are clamoring for their independence. Were they not the original creatures of habit? “If you’re wanting to cuddle on the settee with your rabbit every day and they’re not used to it, then that might be a bit much,” she said.

In addition to other changes to pets’ routines, Todd added, “If children are at home a lot more, then that might be a bit stressful for pets because sometimes children can be a bit loud or they can be a bit full-on in their interactions with pets, which pets aren’t always so keen on.”

Jennifer Verdolin, an animal behavior expert and the author of Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics, recommended that owners be sensitive to the possibility that this is a hard time for pets as well as humans. “We tend to think of how lucky we are that we have pets and they’re helping us cope, but I think we need also flip it around and go, ‘How can we help them cope?’ ” she said.

Indeed, owners might prefer annoyed pets to pets that are just plain bummed out. Clara Longo de Freitas is a sophomore at the University of Maryland and the owner of Curumim, a Brittany spaniel who’s almost 4. “It’s kind of as if he picked up that there’s something going on,” Longo de Freitas said. “He picked up just the tension and anxiety in the house. He has been so much quieter than usual. He keeps to himself. He’s just not playing as much anymore.”

“Before this whole thing happened, he would always go to my bedroom in the morning, and he would jump on my bed and lick my face to wake me up, especially because he knows he’s not supposed to do that,” she went on. “But now he doesn’t really do that anymore. He’s definitely a little like, ‘Give me some space.’ He’s kind of social distancing a little bit. I think it just got old quickly for him. He used to be alone from 8 to 6, and he would sleep and do his thing. And now we’re all there, we’re all kind of bothering him.”

The changes might be especially hard on younger animals. Greg Dee, a meteorologist in Tampa, Florida, was about three weeks into training his puppy, Cookie, when all of this started. “It just really kind of messed things up, because we were really doing good on training her, getting her accustomed to her new surroundings, and then everything changed,” Dee said. “It feels like we’ve reverted back to when we first got her. She’s had accidents in the house.”

Cookie might get tired of her owners at times, but she also misses playing with other dogs. “She’s a very social dog. She’s always in the middle of all the action. Not having that, she’s been trying to chase squirrels and cats. … It’s just not the same.”

Not that it’s all bad, of course—far from it. Pets are finding that there are still some benefits to having an eager human around. As Carly Gove said of her cats, “They get a ton more treats now, just ’cause I’m trying to bribe them to hang out with me more.”