When cats can lock doors and raid food, pet-proofing gets extreme
Most cats are jerks once in a while, but some take it to another level. Here’s how their owners protect both the cats and their homes.
By Courtney Vinopal
March 2, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
In early December, Sarah Burnham and her spouse, Mateus Oliveira, returned from a walk with their dog to discover they were locked out of the house — an especially baffling occurrence, because they rarely worry about security in their small Maine town. “There were a couple of minutes of just being like, ‘How did this even happen?’” Burnham recalls.
Luckily, having grown up in the home, Burnham knew a trick for getting in without a key. She and Oliveira broke in through a screen door to access the back porch, then climbed through a window. Once inside, they found their culprit: Arsène, a fluffy Maine Coon mix, appropriately named for the fictional French thief Arsène Lupin. While they’d been gone, the cat had apparently figured out how to reach up and latch the door.
This wasn’t the only time Arsène proved to be distressingly dexterous. On another occasion, he locked himself in the bedroom, which led to Burnham and Oliveira spending an hour and a half taking apart the doorknob to free the cat. “They’re frustratingly smart,” says Burnham, who has four cats. (Arsène, however, is the sole reason she installed childproof doorknobs throughout the house.)
Cats stir up chaos in the home because they’re natural-born hunters and explorers, say behaviorists who study them. Most of the time, those instincts lead to relatively harmless antics, such as getting stuck in the hamper or knocking over a water glass. But some cats blow past that kind of amateur-hour nonsense to really live on the edge — looting for food inside cabinets, munching on toxic plants, scaling fences and, yes, locking and opening doors. Their lucky owners say keeping the animals and their homes safe is something akin to staying one step ahead of a ludicrously agile toddler.
Several months ago in Sheridan, Ore., Brittany Schiesl heard a commotion in the kitchen and walked in to find that her cat, Bentley, had broken into the microwave, where she’d left some pizza. “Bentley’s on the floor just going to town on eating the leftover pizza,” Schiesl recalls. He’d also attracted the attention of her four other cats, who had gathered in the kitchen to appraise the spoils of his efforts: “The other ones were circled around him like he’s the ringleader.”
Schiesl has since installed a childproof lock on the appliance. But Bentley, whom she suspects to be a Siamese mix, hasn’t given up on trying to get back in, as evidenced by a TikTok video Schiesl posted that went viral. She believes part of Bentley’s interest in food stems from his history of living on the street before moving in with her. “He survived so long not knowing when his next meal was going to be,” she says. As a result, he may think “he has to eat everything, as much as he can.”
All of this is familiar to Burnham, too. Turns out that Arsène isn’t just interested in doors; he and one of Burnham’s other cats, Leo, are also experts at opening kitchen cabinets and pillaging for snacks. As a result, Burnham has outfitted all of hers with child locks. Because Arsène and Leo haven’t had reliable access to food in the past, she says eating is a source of anxiety for them both.
Like humans, cats will take what they’ve learned from previous experiences with overcoming obstacles and “apply that learning to the rest of life moving forward,” says Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist and host of the show “My Cat From Hell” on Animal Planet. If a cat was living on the street, securing food and shelter would have been paramount, he says, and may explain having an obsession with food or seeking out hard-to-reach hiding spots.
Veterinary cardiologist Bruce Kornreich, director of the Feline Health Center at Cornell University, points out that cats were only domesticated within the past several thousand years — with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 9,500 years ago — which is quite recent as far as evolution goes. Having a cat, he says, is “almost like having a wild animal in your house.”
Phoebe Cheong’s brown tabby, Pixel, got in touch with his wild side shortly after he moved into her plant-filled Miami apartment. One day, she came home and smelled poop, then found Pixel playing with a cactus he’d dug up from a succulent bowl. He’d subsequently defecated in the spot where the cactus had been. Fair trade? Cheong didn’t think so.
Nonetheless, she gave him a pass. She believes Pixel lived outside before she adopted him, “so digging soil was probably part of his natural environment.” When Pixel moved to Brooklyn with her, she started thinking of ways to cat-proof her plants. Replacing them is costly, plus, a number of everyday houseplants, such as lilies, are toxic to cats.
On social media and her blog, Welcome to the Jungle Home, Cheong shares tactics to help cats and plants live together in peace. One tip: Place citrus peels in the soil, because felines find their scent fairly repulsive. Putting rocks on top of the dirt can also deter cats from digging. Cheong hangs her more sentimental and expensive plants from the ceiling, though she notes that the cats sometimes swat at them like they’re toys. She grows catnip on her balcony, so Pixel and his two siblings, Terracotta and Achilles, have a nontoxic option to chew on.
In the end, though, you can only play so much defense, Cheong says, so if you have any doubt that you can keep your cats away from your plants, you’ll have to forgo owning the toxic varieties.
When Galaxy advises cat owners on how to adapt their home for their pets, he tells them that “cats are like toddlers who can reach the ceiling.” He recommends starting with the assumption that a cat can get anywhere it wants if it’s determined enough. There are many products that can be used to cat-proof a home. Galaxy recommends cord protectors, which he says are effective at keeping cats from biting into electrical wires. Blockers designed to keep toys from going under couches may also dissuade cats from hiding there, and putty can be used to anchor breakable objects to shelves or the mantel.
Owners of particularly active cats may consider putting a “catio” outside if they have the space, Kornreich suggests. These fenced-in structures allow cats to safely observe birds and other parts of nature.
Chanel Driscoll Rosenberg took it a step further, cat-proofing the entire backyard of her home in Fort Smith, Ark. After researching “cat-proof fence” inspiration on Pinterest, she installed netting around the perimeter of her fence to give it more height, using L-brackets, a drill and a staple gun. She also added perches along the fence, so the cats can jump to and from different levels.
All together, the project cost a few hundred dollars, she says, and has allowed her pets more freedom to roam. “I don’t know of anyone else who has done this,” she says, “or gone to the lengths I’ve gone to for my cats.”
Courtney Vinopal is a freelance journalist based in New York City.
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