Bringing Your Cat Indoors

“There are so many benefits to bringing your cat indoors, not only for your cat but for the wildlife with whom we share our world.”

—Cheryl Falkenburry, Animal Behavior Consultant and Author

On average, free-roaming outdoor cats live significantly shorter lives than their indoor-only counterparts. And, as our webpage The Case for Indoor Cats explains, the effects of outdoor, free-ranging cats (both owned and unowned) on wildlife, on the environment, and on public health, are severe. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends that veterinarians educate clients about the risks associated with allowing cats unrestricted access to the outdoors.

Making the Transition

It can be challenging to transition a free-roaming outdoor cat to an indoor-only lifestyle, but with patience, diligence, and enrichment, a successful transition is possible.

There are abundant resources available to help. The Humane Society of the United States has a webpage with useful tips that provides a great place to start: Home Sweet Home: How to bring an outside cat indoors.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia has collaborated with Animal Behavior Consultant Cheryl Falkenburry to compile the following step-by-step guide with resources that will help address your cat’s needs through the transition.

Step 1: Setting the Stage

Preparing your home for a successful transition means establishing three important locations for your cat:

Places to Climb and Hide

Cats usually fall into two categories: Tree-dwellers or bush-dwellers.

Tree-dweller cats like to climb. These are the cats who will knock knickknacks off of shelves and bookcases in an attempt to get a high vantage point of the room. A tall cat tree can help satisfy these tree-dwelling cats.

Bush-dweller cats like cozy places to hide down low. Many cat trees have little hiding places in them that cats enjoy.

Consider making a cozy area under an end table or in a box in a corner of the room to help keep these cats happy.

There are a multitude of cat trees for climbing and hiding available on the market to fit your décor or you can get creative and cut holes in old furniture and shelving units to create unique climbing and hiding areas. You can keep it simple or get creative when developing spaces to entice your cat to enjoy the indoors.

Places to Scratch

Scratching posts give cats an area to exercise their claws, stretch their muscles, and mark their territory. Cats will instinctively stretch and claw. They need to scratch on rough surfaces to shed the outer sheath and sharpen their nails. When you provide an enticing rough surface like a post wrapped in sisal rope, you can help reduce a cat’s desire to use your oriental carpet and antique chair as a cat scratch.

The cat trees for climbing also provide places to scratch. It is a good idea to have different scratching areas placed around the house: tall ones, short ones, ones that lie on the ground, ones that hang from a doorknob -- they come in all shapes and sizes. 
Still having trouble?  Explore troubleshooting tips for scratching problems.

Places to Eliminate

It is important to have more than one cat box even if you only have one cat. If you have multiple cats you should have one more cat box than cats, i.e., three cats = a minimum of four litter boxes. Cats can have a preference for the location of the box, the type of box, and the type of litter used in the box. It can take a little experimenting to find out what your cat likes best, so it is best to start with a variety.

Type of Litter Box:  The varieties of cat boxes can be a little overwhelming for first time shoppers, but there is a reason for that. Cats who are worried about a member of the household sneaking up on them while they are doing their business may prefer an open cat box that allows escape from all angles. Other cats like a cozy enclosure. Some cats may prefer a litter box that allows them to see who is coming but still provides a safe enclosure. Ideally, if you can get one of each and place them in different locations, you will be able to find out which type of box your cat prefers. At first, avoid the automatic cleaning cat boxes. They make noise that can often scare a cat and ruin litter box training. Set your cat up for success. In that vein, also keep in mind that litter and location have a lot to do with successful litter box use.

Type of Litter:  A variety of litter for the cat box can also be found. It can be confusing to know which one will be best for your cat. The least amount of dust that is created when your cat scratches at the litter is best for their health. Clay litters can be very dusty with added chemicals and scents and are often heavy, especially when they get wet. Keep in mind that you are bringing a cat in from the outdoors, where the cat has been using natural substrates to go to the bathroom -- so try to find litter that is as natural as possible that will mimic what your cat is used to outside. They are also better for the environment when you are disposing of them. Natural litters come in corn, wheat, pine, and even walnut varieties. Try different types until you find one that your cat likes and that fits your budget.

Still having trouble?  Explore troubleshooting tips for elimination problems.

Step Two: Places to Play

As with any domestic animal, life can become boring if stimulation is not provided while kept indoors. When cats are outside, they are entertained by hunting. It is up to us to find ways to meet those hunting instincts inside.  A bird feeder outside a window can provide visual stimulation, and hiding food around the room can help a cat feel like he is still hunting. Toys can also help mimic the natural wild hunting process of stalk, chase, pounce, catch, and eat.

Toys for Co-play with your Cat

Playing with cats can be very entertaining. Outdoor cats may not be well-versed in how to keep their claws to themselves, though, so it is best to use toys that keep your hands a safe distance from your cat. A feather tied to a string attached to a stick or a mouse attached to a wire allows you to get the cat interested in stalking, chasing, and pouncing as the cat would do when going after prey. It is important to end all games by bringing the excitement of a cat down to a normal level. End all games with a few pieces of kibble so the cat can stop and nibble, ending the game with satisfaction and often a nap.

Independent Interactive Toys

There are interactive toys that a cat can play with alone when you are busy or away from home. A track with light-up balls can be very entertaining as the cat bats the ball around the track making the ball flash lights which entices the cat to play more.

Catnip toys are good to attract a cat’s attention to a toy instead of other objects in your house. There are a variety of types, and trying different ones is best until you find what your cat likes the most. Some cats prefer small toys to bat around, others like long stuffed ones they can grab and kick.

Interactive Food Toys

An interactive food toy is another good outlet for kitty to be able to play and eat. This can make mealtime much more exciting. Consider feeding your cat a few meals this way instead of putting food into a bowl, which can be boring and cause obesity.

A food ball allows a cat to bat the toy around and rewards the cat with food falling out. The more the cat plays, the more the cat eats, but that is all right;  your cat is working off calories by running around and working for his food. Plus, you can manage how much food you put into the ball.

A food maze makes a cat think while she tries to get her food out of the maze. Some mazes lie flat on the ground while others are upright; the cat has to bat at the food at different levels to move the food down and make it fall out at the bottom.

Put all those interactive toys together and you get one great area that will keep your cat happy and busy for hours. Just watch this video and see how happy this cat is!

Water Break

Playing and eating can be thirsty work, so make sure the cat has access to clean fresh water at all times. A variety of cat bowls is a good idea. Some cats don’t like the reflection of aluminum dishes. Other cats can be bothered if their whiskers touch the side of the bowl and do better with oval-shaped dishes. If you find your cat will not drink water from a bowl at all, you may want to try a cat fountain, which entices cats to drink fresh running water.

Outdoor Kitty Recess

An outdoor enclosed area is a great way to help a cat transition from being an outdoor cat to an indoor kitty. It provides fresh air and a place to climb, pounce, and play in the outdoors without the dangers involved in roaming free. There are plenty of ways to create catios for your indoor cat. If you have a screened-in porch, you already have a great starting area. Consider installing a cat door so your cat can access this area at will. You may need to change the screens to pet-proof screening so the cat cannot claw his way out. If you don’t have an area connected to your house, you can create one with access through a window or build a free-standing area where you can carry your cat in a cat carrier to play on nice days. Whether you use a free-standing caged area or an area connected to your house, be sure to add some branches or cat trees and shelves for scratching and climbing.

Step Three: Making the Transition

Once you have purchased and set up your cat trees, scratching posts, litter, litter boxes and toys, you are ready to bring your cat indoors.

Start Slow

If your cat has been an outdoor-only cat, the best way to start is to let the cat in and out for a few weeks to allow the cat some time to get used to being inside a house. The best time to do this is at meal time. Bring the cat in for a meal and leave the cat in for longer and longer periods after the meal. If you are bringing the cat in during the wintertime, a warm snuggly bed can be a great enticement to stay inside. Whether you are dealing with a cat who has been coming and going over the years or a cat new to indoor living, slowly increase the amount of time the cat stays in until the cat is inside all the time. You will have to decide when it is best to stop opening the door to let the cat out.

Start Small

It is usually best to start with your cat in a small area of the house instead of giving the cat complete freedom (unless your cat has already had complete freedom while coming and going, in which case skip to Be Consistent, Be Strong below. Cats do not handle change well and often need to adapt gradually. Giving them all that they need (food, water, cat box, cat tree, scratching posts, and toys) in one room of the house can allow them to adjust to the new smells and sounds of indoor living. Introductions to children and other pets can be done in a controlled environment with the cat in a separate area.

Gradual Freedom

Give your cat a little freedom at a time. Close all the doors to rooms in the house, and open the door to the room your cat has been living in. Supervise your cat’s time in the house, so you can interrupt any unwanted behavior such as scratching or marking in undesired locations. Interrupt with a toy or treat, although a squirt bottle can be used. Try and keep things as positive as possible in the beginning while your cat adapts. For semi-feral or feral cats, you will really have to decide when it is best to allow your cat some freedom. It is very likely these cats will find a place under a couch or on top of a bookshelf and not come out. If this happens, do not chase the cat around the house. Sit quietly and watch. If the cat absolutely refuses to come out, wait until feeding time and put food into the room where the cat had been staying. Wait and watch from a distance. If the cat retreats to the room, quietly follow and close the door. You may want to wait a little longer before allowing the cat more access. It may also be that this cat will always be one who wants to hide. As long as you have provided places for the cat to do so and plenty of cat boxes in the new areas of the house, you can allow gradual access, keeping doors closed to as much of the rest of the house as possible.

Be Consistent, Be Strong

Be prepared for some vocalization. You will get some! Cats do not like change and are usually quite happy to let us know they are displeased. As a matter of fact, the vocalization usually will get worse before it gets better when you transition to not letting your cat outside at all. Do not give in! Make sure everyone in the family understands the rules. Consistency is important. Escalation in vocalization is to be expected, especially for cats who are used to meowing to get you and other family members to open the door to let them out. Now all of a sudden no one is responding appropriately, and the cat is frustrated that everyone seems to have gone deaf. Be strong. Get earplugs, and remember if you end up giving in and opening the door, you have just made your next attempt harder. The yowling will be even more persistent next time. You can make going near the door unpleasant by using a squirt bottle, but only as a last resort as you want being inside to be fun, not scary. A Comfort Zone Feliway Plug-in near the door may also help the cat calm down and have less desire to go outside. It is worth the investment to have a few of these plugged in around the house while making the transition. Plan on buying some refills and using them for at least a few months.

About Cheryl Falkenburry

Cheryl Falkenburry with her dog, Delilah
Photo Credit: Center Hill School

From the United States to Japan and England, Cheryl Falkenburry has traveled the world for more than 20 years helping people make sense of mind-boggling animal behavior. Working with animal behaviorists in Tucson, Arizona, and England, majoring in psychology, and becoming a certified parenting educator prepared Cheryl to teach both humans and animals. Cheryl recognized that the concepts of positive parenting and loving leadership worked whether her clients were parents of human children or furry ones and applies her positive parenting skills to her animal training sessions. Through her book, In Delilah's Eyes: Dog Training from the Dog's Perspective and countless of in-home sessions and classes, Cheryl has helped thousands of people develop new and exciting relationships with the animals who share their lives.

Cheryl Falkenburry
Center Hill School
Palmyra, VA 22963