How to keep your indoor kitty
The whole question of whether cats should be indoors or outdoors involves
two major conflicting issues plus one minor complicating one. The major ones are: cats like to explore vs. the world is a dangerous place. Our
domestic cats are about 3000 years removed from their wild ancestors, and domestication has taken away from them the skills they need to live
on their own. It has not, however, taken away their intrinsic feline curiosity about what’s on the other side of the door.
The minor complicating issue is that many cat owners think their own lives
will be easier if they’re freed from the burden of entertaining bored cats and, of course, cleaning the litterbox. While it may be literally
true that having an outdoor cat is “easier,” this is akin to telling your kids to spend their time elsewhere. The idea of having both kids and
pets is to have a relationship with them, isn’t it?
If you haven’t read my article on why cats should be kept indoors, indoor cats: why, please do. The article you’re now reading focuses on how to keep cats indoors while keeping
everyone happy. I separate my Happy Indoor Cat strategies into three categories: indoor environment modifications, controlled outdoor
environments, and limited outdoor adventures.
Indoor environment modifications
These strategies involve making the great indoors an enjoyable place to be.
Where you live, and how much freedom you have to make modifications, will largely determine what you can do, but get creative and do as much
as you can.
Cat toys. Cats like to play, and toys don’t have to be expensive. Just as with kids, cats sometimes prefer the box
the toy came in.
Some cats can be entertained for long periods of time chasing the dot of a
laser pointer. (Hint: do not buy this item at the office supply store. You can get one for lots less in the kitty toy department of a grocery
or discount store.)
Cats like things that have erratic movements
(like live prey do), so balls with irregular shapes or things that stick to their claws, like a yarn ball, are fun. They also like things that
make a crunchy noise, so try wadded-up paper (you could put it inside an old sock with some catnip) or a straw.
Some of my cats love those stretchy hair ties; get the fat ones, and if they show any evidence of being chewed up
and consumed, take them away. And anything that can be batted about like a hockey puck, such as
plastic bottle caps, is a standard cat toy.
Do not allow your
cats to play with anything that can be chewed up and ingested, such as loose string, rubber bands, plastic bags, twist-ties, Christmas tree
Cat places. Two activities that cats love are climbing and hiding. If you can, build or buy a tall cat house, cat
tree, or high shelf with a ladder leading to it. I knew some people who had a real tree, dead and anchored to the floor and ceiling, in their
living room. They didn’t have cats, but cats would have loved it.
Cats love boxes and open cupboards. Turn a paper bag on its side. Do not
use a plastic bag. And whatever you set up for them to go into, make sure they can get out.
Cat places with a touch of outdoors.
Cats love to spend time on the windowsill, especially if the window is open and they can
bask in the scent of outdoors. Make sure your screens are secure! Cats love to claw things, and if the screen is at all loose, your cat can
easily pull or push it right out of the frame—and then take advantage of the newly opened window to the outdoors.
You can buy a cat “shelf” that provides a wide, comfy place for your cat to
hang out next to the window.
Live catnip or cat grass gives your kitties something green to chew on.
Just don’t give them something too large with a plant in it—they may use it as a potty.
When you leave home, leave the radio or television on. It’ll give your cats
some sense of a human presence. You can put it on a timer to go off at night if you wish.
Controlled outdoor environments
Secure back yard. Where cats are concerned, “secure back yard” is almost an oxymoron. Cats can squeeze through
astonishingly small spaces, and of course (unless they are declawed) are very good at climbing. This is not to say it’s impossible, however,
to create a backyard enclosure that cats cannot escape from. You can surround your yard with a roll fence (it has a rolling bar at the top) so
cats can’t climb out, and predators can’t climb in. (Large raptors could still be a problem, however.) You can make sure you’ve plugged all
the holes and that no one (neighbors, kids, delivery people) will open the back gate and let your cats escape.
Cat sanctuary. This is one step up from a secure back yard. It would be a cage, more or less, built specifically for
your cats, complete with a top. It could enclose part of your existing natural yard, with tree(s), grass, rocks, etc. Or it could be a dog run
modified for cats, with natural elements such as rocks and trees added. In either case, make sure the enclosure has either free access to the
indoors, or, if you’re planning to move your cats into and out of it yourself, a water bowl and adequate shelter. You never know when the
weather might change or when you might not get home to move them when you expected.
Outdoors with time limits. Some people successfully let their cats out only in the daytime or only when they’re home. Depending on
where you live and what the specific threats are, this is better than free roaming; however, it still leaves huge security gaps. Lots can
happen to cats in the daytime, and lots can happen before you’d have a chance to prevent it.
Limited outdoor adventures
Human-controlled exploration. Some cats will walk on a leash. If you’re going to try this, however, work into it gradually; do not
leash your cat and immediately take her for a long walk. Cats are like furry little Houdinis and can wiggle and squirm out of any kind of
harness if frightened—not something you want happening out of sight of your home.
You can buy a stroller made just for cats and small dogs. It’s completely
enclosed with mesh, so they can see, hear, and smell the outdoors; what’s missing is the touch of earth and grass under their paws. Still,
some cats enjoy stroller rides, so it’s worth a try. Check out this 5-star choice:
Pet Gear Special Edition Pet Stroller for cats and dogs up to 45-pounds, Sage
Finally, my favorite type of human-controlled exploration:
teaching them to go outside under close supervision and come in when you say so. I’m going to
devote a lot more space to this strategy with illustrations from my own cats. Out of personal tragedy, I made the decision and the effort to
transition my cats from free-roaming, kitty-door using, independent cats to mostly indoor kitties. Other changes that were happening at the
time actually made it easier; granted, not everyone has this luxury.
At first, we opened the kitty door at daylight, then rounded up the kitties
and closed the kitty door in the evening. It wasn’t easy. One of our cats was quite shy and wouldn’t come in if we had visitors, so we had to
plan ahead and bring him in earlier in the day if we were expecting someone. (This is Kitty #1 in the descriptions below.) This wasn’t always
successful. More than once, we had to close the kitty door for the night with him on the outside; a couple times, I woke up in the middle of
the night because he was scratching on the door—pretty surprising, considering how far my bed is from the door!
Then we moved three times, ending up back in the house where we started
out. in the meantime, keeping the cats in when we were in a new place was obviously critically important. Perhaps that conditioned them
somewhat to staying inside. For your information, here’s how each of my six current kitties deals with limited outdoor access.
Kitty #1: senior boy cat. He was quite the outdoorsman in his younger days,
frequently disappearing all day and coming home smelling of mint. When we started making him come in at night, he resisted. Then when we moved
the first time, he never set foot outdoors for eight whole months. Being a shy cat, he may have been too afraid to see what was out there. By
this time, he was well into his teens—retirement age in cat years. When we moved the second time, he adjusted quite well (after a period of
fulltime indoor life) to being allowed out only with human supervision and coming in when told to. Now, a year and a half into being back at
our original home, he’s never been outside. With his visual as well as cognitive impairment, I’m too concerned he could be spooked, run, and
get lost. He doesn’t seem to mind.
Kitty #2: senior girl kitty. This little kitty has always been good about
coming in when required. Back when we called them in at night, she obediently came, kind of like a dog! Now, she occasionally asks to go out.
I’ll follow her down the front steps to the driveway, where she’ll stand and look around as if trying to remember what she was going to do.
Then I pick her up and bring her back in.
Kitties #3, 4, and 5 are the group who get to go outside on a daily
Kitty #3: young adult girl. We adopted her while living out of state; she’d
been a stray with a very hard luck story whom I met at the shelter where I was volunteering. This kitty is quite predictable about where she
goes when outside (she likes watching the birds who inhabit a certain pile of sticks), so I know where to look for her. When it’s time to come
in, she does not want to be picked up—she wants to be herded. Then she’ll lead me on a wild goose chase around the deck until she decides
which door she wants to go into. I open the door and she shoots in—then goes and smacks down her two buddies, who’ve usually come in before
Kitty #4: young adult boy. At eight months when I adopted him, this kitty
had been in foster care, with a stint of some months in a different home during that time. He’d never been outside. Because of his friendship
with Kitty #3, he was easy to track and corral at the end of outdoor time—they were usually together. Now that he’s more acquainted with the
outdoors, he’s a little less predictable: he may be climbing a tree, diving into a bush, or wandering onto a neighbor’s property. If I’m not
sure where to look, however, I need only call and he comes.
Kitty #5: half-grown kitten girl. As far as I know, she’d never been
outside when I adopted her at three months. As soon as she figured out that her buddies got to go outside, I began taking her out while
holding her, letting her see where her friends went and what they did. With them as role models, she recently transitioned very well to
running around with them.
Kitty #6: half-grown kitten girl. This little one was older than Kitty #5
when I adopted her; as far as I know, she’s never been outside (although don’t know all the details of her life in foster care); so far, she
has not discovered the door that leads outside.
While I do believe that cats should be kept primarily indoors, I do not
necessarily advocate never, ever letting them outside—for one reason: if they should ever slip out, they need to know how to get back in. At
the very least, take your cats outside in your arms, walking them around the house and going in and out of all the doors. Or you could do this
But this is an absolute: introduction to the outdoors must
be done slowly and gradually. This is easier if you’re working with a kitten, but still quite doable with an adult cat. If any part of the
equation is new—you’re adopting a new cat, you and your cat are moving to a new home—the importance of slow and gradual cannot be overstated.
A cat who’s been with you in your present home for some time at least knows what “home” means.
So this is your mission as a cat owner: comfortable and
enjoyable indoor life combined with limited and controlled outdoor adventures equal a long and happy life.
©Lisa J. Lehr