For cats, the great outdoors are anything but great. Whether they live in the city, in the suburbs, or in the country, outdoor cats face a multitude of risks. They are exposed to contagious diseases, most of which are fatal. Traffic takes a huge toll on free-roaming cats, and while many people believe their pets are street-wise, no cat looks both ways when being chased by another animal. Further dangers include poisons, leg-hold traps, pet theft, and inhumane treatment by cruel people.

Outdoor cats cause problems, too. They dig and defecate in neighbors’ yards, and as predators, they injure and kill a significant number of wild animals. Cats cannot be trained to ignore their natural hunting instincts. The only sure way to safeguard wildlife is to keep cats inside.

What does your indoor cat miss?

Getting hit by a car, feline leukemia, attacks by dogs, poisoned food, pesticides, cat fights, fleas, ticks, worms, abscesses, getting lost, getting stolen, steel-jaw traps, human cruelty, gunshot wounds, puncture wounds, wild animal attacks, cold, rainy weather.

Benefits of life indoors

The average life span of an outdoor cat is 2 to 3 years, whereas an indoor-only cat can live 15 to 20 years. Indoor cats are usually healthier, too, which saves on veterinary bills for treatment of contagious diseases, parasites, and abscesses from fights with other animals. While it is true that cats enjoy sunshine, fresh air, and exercise, they do not need to go outside to be satisfied. Some creative planning on the part of their human guardians can help indoor cats live fully.

Obviously, it is best to keep a cat in from the beginning, especially if you are starting with a kitten or young adult. Most cats who grow up inside show no inclination to leave the safety of home. Other cats who are accustomed to going out can make life miserable for the entire household by clawing at windows, yowling and trying to bolt through open doors. But while the transition may take some time and patience, even the most confirmed outdoor cat can eventually be convinced of indoor comforts.

Tips for making the transition

Many cat behaviorists suggest a gradual approach to bringing an outside cat into the house. If your cat is outdoors most of the day, bring her in for increasingly longer visits. You might time this transitional period as the weather gets colder. Most cats prefer warm, dry places, and by the end of the winter, yours could be converted to life indoors.

If you want your cat to have safe, limited access to the outdoors, consider building an outside enclosure or run. These can be accessible from a window or pet door, and are most entertaining to cats when furnished with tree limbs, perching platforms, boxes and toys.

Cats can be leash-trained so that they may enjoy the outdoors on supervised walks. All you need is a leash and sturdy figure-eight or figure-H style harness from which the cat cannot escape. Never hook the leash to the cat’s collar, but make sure the cat is always wearing a safety collar with license/ID tags. Your cat may resist wearing a harness at first, so let her become accustomed to it gradually. Put it on for brief periods indoors, and later, attach the leash and walk her around the house. When she becomes comfortable with that, venture outdoors for short trips. Do not tie a cat out on a leash or leave her unsupervised, even for a few minutes.

If your cat remains determined to get outside, you may have to just say no to going outdoors. Suzanne Hetts, behavior consultant for the Dumb Friends League in Denver, emphasizes, “For particularly persistent cats, it’s better to go cold-turkey than to occasionally let the cat outside. Letting the cat out when it wants reinforces the pestering behavior.”

Remind family members, housemates, and visitors not to let the cat outside. Post signs near all doors, and if you live with children, teach them to close the door behind them. Be especially cautious with screen doors that may not latch tightly.

Enriching indoor environments

As your cat makes the transition to the great indoors, you can transform your living quarters into a veritable cat paradise. The more you give your cat to do, the happier she will be inside.

  • Double the space, double the cat’s pleasure. If your floor space is limited, you can expand upward with kitty condos or climbing trees. The taller models, especially those with multiple perches, make the most of vertical space and appeal to cats’ natural interest in heights.
  • Cats love to sun themselves and enjoy looking outdoors. Install perches or shelves to provide your cat with more windows of opportunity. Bird feeders placed near windows attract a variety of wildlife and engage the interest of indoor cats. Beware, however, of outdoor cats in your neighborhood who might endanger wildlife. If there are marauding felines in your yard, do not feed birds on or near the ground. Use only hanging feeders placed to give wildlife a clear view of their surroundings.
  • When the weather allows, leave windows open so your cat can get fresh air. Make sure that each window is securely screened so that the cat cannot fall or jump. Many cats enjoy chewing on grass and other plants. Garden centers and pet supply stores sell wheat or oat grass seed to be planted in small pots for indoor cats. Make sure the seed has not been treated with chemicals, and remove all potentially toxic plants from your cat’s environment.

Redirecting claw action

Scratching is a natural and important behavior for cats that helps them stay limber and healthy. But when cats turn their claws on furniture and carpets, this behavior is annoying and destructive. Please see Destructive Scratching and Problems with Declawing for further information.

Cats in Toyland

Outdoor cats have plenty of opportunities for exercise, but it can be a challenge to keep an indoor cat active and fit. The best way to get your cat moving is through interactive play. By encouraging her to pounce, leap, and run laps around the house, you can help your feline couch potato become an indoor athlete.

Often the best toys are the simplest. Cats love to chase catnip toys, ribbons or strips of fabric, and feathers dangled in front of them on wands or short poles.

Don’t discount the most available toys around the house. Most cats love to explore paper bags, boxes and baskets. They often find their own sources of amusement, so don’t be surprised if your cat ignores an expensive toy in favor of plastic milk jug rings, crumpled paper, or an old sock. The key is variety. Rotate favorites in and out of your cat’s toy box, and try hiding toys around the house for your cat to find over time. Read more about cat toys and how to use them.

A last word on making the switch

Despite their owners’ best efforts, some cats will still have a tough time adjusting to life indoors. If your cat shows signs of extreme stress, you and your veterinarian might consider short-term drug therapy to relax the cat during the transition. Another option is to explore homeopathic remedies which can be effective calming agents in many animals. Consult a holistic veterinarian for specific treatments, or find a natural pet supply store that sells herbal remedies.