Keeping Cats Safe and Stress-free During Home Repairs

two black cats on table
Sunshine and Giuseppe watch while I destroy the basement.

I don’t often have work done on my house, but I could anticipate each of my cats’ responses to the furnace installation this week. Having total strangers here in their safe places, loud noises, doors open, and a good portion of the contents moved from one place and piled into another: Mr. Sunshine would want to help them, Sienna would disappear through some portal to safety for the entire day, and Mimi would run out the door, just for a few examples of their behavior.

My concern was to keep all 10 cats out of the workers’ way and as protected from the noises as possible in this tiny house, as we made our way through my open house with changes and strangers, then removing most of what was in the basement and scraping the walls and waterproofing leading up the big day. I’ll have more to add later, but here are a few ideas for how we made it through and had a peaceful dinner that evening.

Know their habits

Get to know your cats’ “normal”, both their typical daily activities and their reactions to unfamiliar things. Start with tracking environmental changes and reactions. For instance, people are often surprised when their cat acts friendly and affectionate with them, but runs and hides when someone visits, which may extend to seeing people just outside the house as well. Each cat’s individual reactions to noises, smells and other sensory experiences they perceive as potentially threatening can often lead to house soiling, whether the threat is near the litterbox, or they are trying to communicate they are stressed by it no matter where it comes from. They may seem “touchy”, swatty or physically defensive with changes to their environment.

Half of my household, Mimi and the kids, are fully socialized and pretty chill, the other half are former ferals or, in the case of Sienna, a very timid former stray. I take their history into account, though it’s not entirely predictable. I observe them all the time in daily habits, meals, and activities and play. At any given time, when I see a change in any of these, positive or negative, I note it, make modifications if necessary, or discuss it with our vet or a behaviorist and take action if necessary. That way I know what stresses them and may change eating or litterbox habits so that I can distinguish it from what might be a medical need. I know their usual napping places and typical hiding places when they feel frightened or unsafe. I also understand their tolerances for changes in their environment, like loud noises outside or inside, or people in the house, or even my own sometimes erratic work and sleep schedule.

Preparing

The furnace installation would mean several strangers making loud noises for hours in the basement, and also outside, and the basement door would be open while they worked.

The basement is the safe place for all the rescues. But they not only needed to be out of the basement while the work was happening, I couldn’t even let them be in the basement the morning of the installation. I know where all their hiding places are, and I know it can be impossible to extricate them without traumatizing them. I knew each had occasionally run to the second floor when frightening strange humans came to visit and blocked their way to the basement, tucking in under the bed or in the corner of the studio. I trusted they would do this if the basement was unavailable when the noise started.

I planned to block the door to the basement in the morning while they ate breakfast, when all are gathered and preoccupied. I would set a litterbox by the door and another elsewhere in the kitchen. There is already one in the bathroom upstairs where they would likely be hiding. To keep from adding suspicion that morning, I brought the litterboxes and litter upstairs the night before.

The basement door is a bifold with a corner cut out at the bottom so they can access the basement when the door is closed. Even my closing the door would be unusual enough for Hamlet and Bella that they might immediately run downstairs for cover, so I closed the basement door and latched the hook and eye before I even served breakfast, and had the wooden barrier ready to slide over the entire bottom of the door to block the hole and keep them from moving the door in any way. I gave them all a healthy dose of Rescue Remedy in their breakfast too.

They are accustomed to me occasionally tiptoeing around them while they eat, so when I tiptoed over to the door and slid the wood across while looking out the back door at the yard they glanced at me and went back to eating. When they were done I placed the litterbox in front of the door and they all came to look at it and think things over.

five cats by door
What’s this?

I went outdoors to open the basement door and move the last of things out of the way. When the workers came I met them in the driveway, showed them into the basement, and they took it from there. When the old furnace was noisily extricated from the ductwork the five rescued cats ran upstairs and found their hiding places in my bedroom. At one point the workers stepped onto the deck roof on the second floor level to get to the corner of the main roof, which I hadn’t anticipated, and that frightened a few of the cats out of the upstairs momentarily, but they ran back up when the noise was done. And so they all stayed until the afternoon when it was finished.

As soon as we had installed the thermostat and tested the furnace, the workers had already cleaned up and then packed up and left, I checked over the basement for any tools or parts or substances left behind that could harm a cat, anything left open, but it was fine. I opened the basement door, took the litterboxes downstairs and let them down. All but Mariposa and Sienna came down from the second floor within minutes, and only Sienna stayed extra time under the bed.

Other stressors to consider

One of the things I was concerned with was all the activity in the weeks prior to the furnace installation. Stress builds up for cats, as it does for us. A one-day event would be one thing, but other changes in daily activities and environment leading up to that one day can make it far more stressful.

Two weeks prior I prepared for my open house day and night making things, moving things around in my shop area and the rest of the house to accommodate. I also had strangers in to help me in and around the house prepare for both my open house and the furnace installation and waterproofing. At my open house the week prior to the installation I hosted people in the house and also kept working each day and night.

When it was over I immediately began moving things around my shop area again, and clearing space in the basement by carrying things out to my tent in the back yard, at one point locking them out of the basement for an afternoon. All their hiding spaces in the basement except the furnace itself and the ductwork were gone, and the whole house was stacked with unexpected boxes everywhere. Then in the days before, other friends came over to help me move around the last of the things and work on waterproofing.

My cats have become accustomed to my irregular activities, and in fact change seems to energize them. They enjoy exploring the new spaces, especially if they’ve watched me make the changes and find my scent on them, and they are loving all the “new” space in the basement. When furnace day came, they may have just thought it was another of my little games with some strange noises, but they accepted it all with no change in behavior, no extra hiding, no litterbox issues, no appetite or other health changes. A few days later when two friends came to visit, pick up a piece of artwork and shop, the famous five ran to the upstairs instead of the basement, possibly because things aren’t back in place down there as I’m still working on waterproofing. But we got through it all with no injuries or escapes, and daily life is as close to normal as it’s going to get until I’m done waterproofing the basement and setting it up again.


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Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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