Future Tense

Why Won’t My Cat Stay Away From My Laptop?

A kitten stands on the keyboard of a laptop.
Hard at work. Emilija Randjelovic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Since tens of millions of Americans began working from home earlier this year, many have discovered what experienced telecommuters knew already: The cat wants to be on your laptop. It wants to be right on the keyboard, its fluffy butt blocking 90 percent of your screen, while you’re trying to read the news. It wants to send an email full of garbage to your most important business contact. If gently removed, scolded, or pleaded with to make itself comfortable elsewhere, the cat will nonetheless find its way back.

I’m a longtime freelancer, so my cat, Zadie, is an advanced practitioner of laptop disruption—she will even sometimes slam the whole thing shut with her paw. I’ve always interpreted this as resenting the competition for my attention. Other cat owners suspect that their animal friends are trying to mirror their humans’ behavior by sticking their paws where our paws usually go. It’s on this theory that some stuck-at-home workers, desperate to reduce distraction, have given their cats decoy laptops to sit on. They report that these auxiliary computers keep their meddlesome kitties out of the way for a while so that they can get some work done.

As delightful as it is to think that Zadie secretly yearns for an office job, I was skeptical that mirroring is the real reason she regularly invades my workspace. People may unconsciously imitate each other’s speech patterns, gestures, and behaviors as they bond with each other, but cats aren’t social animals the same way we are, as anyone who has tried to bond with a cat knows. There must be another reason some cats are attracted to our laptops and therefore to decoys—and another way to achieve cat removal if you don’t have a spare laptop lying around. Are laptops just warm? Are cats interested in them because you’re interested in them? Or maybe the laptop really does matter, but the reason has nothing to do with imitating you—what if cats are trying to steal our credit card information and order freeze-dried salmon snacks online?

Clearly, the only way to answer these questions was to perform some vaguely scientific experiments with Zadie. Because we just moved and our lives have been in more disarray than usual, I recruited some more stable friends—with more cats at their disposal—to collect data as well. My new research assistants formed hypotheses. Amanda thought her cats, Baxter and Sno-Cone, might potentially be interested in a decoy laptop because they love to sit on anything. My friend Clarissa doubted the trick would work on her cats, Elvira and Elston: “They just want to be where your hands are, because your hands are what pet them,” she said.

Before we set out, I consulted with Mikel Delgado, an animal behaviorist and postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. Delgado has studied cats and worked with their owners to resolve behavior problems for about 20 years and currently operates out of a home office in the company of Coriander, Ruby, and Professor Scribbles. She immediately threw cold water on the cats mirroring humans hypothesis. “We’re very drawn to our companion animals behaving like us because we’re self-obsessed,” she said, but “with any behavior, the question is really: What is the function for the cat?”

A gray-and-white cat sits on the keyboard part of an open laptop.
The author’s cat, Zadie, interrupting work. Mara Grunbaum

When cats creep onto our laptops, Delgado explained, they’re probably looking for one of three things: heat, height, or attention. Powered-up laptops are warm and have an interesting texture, which are two of the qualities cats most appreciate in a resting spot. A computer on a desk or table also provides a good vantage point, which helps cats keep an eye on their surroundings for any interesting goings-on or potential threats. Finally, a laptop gets a lot of attention, especially if you’re suddenly working on it at home all day. “Your cat probably wants some of that attention, and they know that the best way to get it is to come between you and your screen,” Delgado said.

OK, so mirroring isn’t the answer, but it seems like a decoy laptop could still be a good tool to lure cats away from our own screens. To test whether it would work on Zadie, I spent a day working with my boyfriend’s old computer sitting open next to mine. Pretty soon after I set it up, Zadie wandered over to that side of the desk. But that was about as close as she ever got to falling for the fake-out computer. Though she must have at least noticed it, she didn’t give any indication that she even registered its presence.

But she also didn’t sit on my real laptop or climb into my lap at all that day. With all the new rooms for her to explore and unpacked boxes for her to climb into, my experiment clearly wasn’t very well-controlled. What about my work-from-home friends whose regular routines—for better or worse—had been relatively unchanged for months at a time? Did decoy laptops give them a break from their cats’ pestersome interruptions or make any difference at all?

In a word: no. Clarissa’s cats also didn’t sit on the decoy laptop, and Elvira seemed to actively avoid it. Amanda, who used two spare laptops and kept a time-stamped log of her cats’ activities, reported similar nonresults. “There was some minor interest in the laptops, because they were new to the landscape,” she said. But the computers were ignored otherwise, and Sno-Cone still jumped onto Amanda’s desk during meetings and wedged himself between her arms as she took notes.

An orange-and-white cat sits on the floor next to an open laptop.
Sno-Cone did not fall for the decoy laptop. Amanda Chudnow

That doesn’t surprise Delgado. “If you put something new on the floor, it’s not unusual for a cat to go inspect it,” she said, but “whether or not that will be sustained depends on what is rewarding about the experience.” And there’s nothing that particularly distinguishes a laptop from any other interesting object. If it does work, it’s probably because it’s a rectangle, not because it looks just like yours.

The good news: That means you don’t have to buy an extra computer (or a cardboard imitation) to get your cat friend to stop bothering you while you’re working. The bad news: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will put an end to it with every cat. If you want to reduce the frequency of interruptions, Delgado suggests trying to narrow down what your own cat gets out of laptop-sitting. If it’s warmth, a heated bed might keep them happy. If it’s elevation, a cat tree by the window could provide an enticing alternative. If they just want company, make sure you pet them and play with them throughout the day. Unless you know your cat pretty well, this process might take some trial and error, but figuring out what they want and how else you can provide it should help keep their noses off your webcam screen.

But above all, says Delgado, have some sympathy for your cats during these trying times. If they were once accustomed to having the place to themselves during the day, their past routines have been disrupted this year too. As far as they know, any time you’re in the same place is fair game for them to try to hang out with you. “Cats are not going to understand office hours,” Delgado said.

My unscientific advice? Next time your cat wanders over to your laptop, consider just taking a break and letting it happen. Will it hinder your productivity? Maybe. Will it close all your browser tabs? It could. Will it send a Slack message to your boss that just says “swf64k,,,,,i8p’[——=“? Sure, probably. But it’s been a rough year. With more uncertainty on the horizon, we could all probably stand to close our screens for a minute and spend some quality time engaging in low-stakes chaos with our furry friends.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.