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October 2, 2013

Home, Sweet Home: Bringing an Outside Cat In

You really can make your cat very happy living indoors

  • Even cats who've been outside all their lives learn to enjoy the comfort and security of home life. A cozy hideway safely off the ground can help.  Jill Valenstein

Are you one of those people who think that a cat must go outside in order to be happy?

Actually, close to two-thirds of owned cats live indoors either exclusively or for a majority of the time. Cats can live a happy and healthy life indoors with their families.

Allowing your cats to roam outdoors can significantly shorten their lives. Potentially deadly dangers—parasites, catching diseases from other cats, being hit by cars, stolen by strangers, attacked by predators, or just plain getting lost—are constant threats to an outdoor cat. And cats themselves can be deadly to local wildlife.

So how do you keep kitty both safe and happy inside? Follow our suggestions:

Make living indoors fun
Go slow and steady

Bring on the toys
When to go cold turkey
At the end of your rope?
Do it for your wild neighbors

Make living indoors fun

Millions of cats spend their entire lives indoors without complaint. They've never been outside and have no desire to venture out. In fact, many become frightened if they accidentally wander out the door.

"But my cat has always gone outside," you protest. "I can't keep him in now."

That's not necessarily true. Plenty of stray cats have been adopted and turned into happy indoor kitties who don't want to go out. The trick is to make the great indoors as fun and intriguing as the outdoors.

Got problems with your cat? Try our Cat Answer Tool >>

Go slow and steady

Make the change from outdoors to indoors gradually, until the new way of life becomes old hat. Many cats will adjust with little effort, while others will be miserable—and let you know it. They might scratch at doors, claw at windows, yowl, and try to dash through open doors. So be prepared:

  • If your cat has never used a scratching post or a litter box, introduce both items well in advance of transitioning your cat to a life inside.
  • If you're feeding your cat outdoors, begin feeding him indoors. Then, instead of letting your cat back outside as soon as he's finished eating, keep him inside for gradually longer periods of time.
  • If you're starting your cat's retraining during the winter, a warm, dry bed in which to snuggle may be just the ticket to convince her to stay inside.
  • If he tries to make a break for it when you open the door, rattle a jar of pennies or give him a squirt with a water gun. Never hit, kick, or yell at him; he'll become afraid of you. You can also train him to run away when the door is open by throwing a piece of kibble or cat treat to the opposite side of the room.

Don't let allergies or pregnancy make you consider putting your cat outside or even giving her up. Work with your doctor to manage these conditions instead.

Bring on the toys

Though people domesticated cats several thousand years ago, they still retain many behaviors of their wild ancestors. Give your kitty plenty of opportunity indoors to express his natural behaviors.

  • A cat's play is all based on the hunting instinct, so give him plenty of toys to stalk, chase, pounce on, and kill. They don't have to be fancy; a ball of aluminum foil and a paper bag delight many a cat.
  • Cats like to observe their world from above (which is why they climb trees and roofs), so give or make yours a cat tree or kitty jungle gym to climb. 
  • Give him a sunny window so he can watch the birds or bask in a sunbeam. Make sure the screen is very secure before opening the window.
  • Grow cat grass (available at pet supply stores) for her to chew on.
  • If your cat is agreeable, train him to walk on a cat harness and leash and take him for a stroll. Don't let him get too far from you where he could encounter something dangerous.
  • Give her lots of your time and attention.
  • Think about building a screened-in enclosure attached to the house where your cat can pretend he's an outdoor kitty.

When to go cold turkey

If you're having trouble slowly transitioning your cat to a happy life indoors, it may be better to go "cold turkey." Letting your cat outdoors occasionally may only reinforce her pestering behaviors, so keep her indoors all the time.

Do your best not to give in to his requests to go out, and distract his attention with play. Your veterinarian may also prescribe a short course of anti-anxiety medication or homeopathic therapy to help your cat through the transition period.

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At the end of your rope?

If you're thinking of putting your indoor cat out because he's scratching your couch or not using the litter box, please visit our online Cat Answer Tool for problem-solving advice, trouble shooting, and behavior resources

You may want to consider building a screened-in enclosure attached to the house where your cat can pretend he's an outdoor kitty. Or, if you're lucky enough to have a screened-in porch, let your cat enjoy it (once you've thoroughly examined it to make sure she can't escape).

Finally, training your cat to walk on a harness and leash can be fun for both of you, and it provides your cat with fresh air and exercise in a safe way. 

Do it for your wild neighbors

If you're still on the fence about keeping your cat inside, consider the welfare of your neighborhood wildlife.

A cat's hunting instinct is just that—an instinct. Even well-fed pet cats who are allowed to roam outdoors may attempt to prey on smaller animals, with varying levels of success.

Outdoor cats can have an impact on wildlife populations, especially when threatened and endangered species are concerned. Ground-nesting birds like quail or baby birds (particularly fledglings who have not yet learned to fly) are particularly vulnerable. Even if your cat doesn't stay indoors year-round, keeping her inside during dawn and dusk hours—and during the spring months, when wildlife and their babies are most active—can be helpful.

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