Safe Activities for Your Indoor Cat
Studies consistently show that outdoor cats have far shorter life spans – many averaging two years or less) - while most indoor cats will live up to 15 years or more.
Injuries that are associated with the outdoor environment, such as cars, trains, dogs, predators, humans, etc., are much less likely to affect the indoor cat. Indoor cats are also at lower risk for contracting parasites and infectious diseases like feline leukemia, feline infectious peritonitis and feline immunodeficiency virus. And depending on your cat’s personality, it may also be safer for birds and other wildlife if you keep your cat indoors.
If you decide to keep your cat as an indoor pet, you will need to be very aware of the extra responsibility that an indoor cat brings. You will need to take the time and trouble to ensure that the indoor environment offers your cat opportunities to express as many of its natural behaviors as possible.
The most important thing for you to consider when you decide to keep a cat indoors is how you are going to provide for its behavioral needs. You have already provided for the basics - food, water, elimination and warmth - but have you considered your cat’s need to play, hunt, and explore?
The Cat’s Hunting Instinct
The feline drive to hunt is not always associated with the sensation of hunger, so no matter how well you feed your cat it will still react instinctively to the sights and sounds of prey with a stalk and pounce.
Unless your cat is lucky to be living in a mouse infested home (lucky for your cat – not for you!), it is not likely that it will come across enough natural prey to fill its drive to hunt. Since most outdoor cats will hunt upwards of ten mice a day, some form of alternative activity will be needed to meet your cat’s predation drive. There are ways to mimic the hunt. Anything that moves rapidly or squeaks in a high pitch can trigger the same predatory response from the cat.
Toys that squeak and toys that can be moved rapidly and unpredictably are irresistible to some cats, while of no interest to others; you will need to experiment. You can also select toys that mimic real prey in terms of size, texture and color. Small toys with fur and feathers are usually successful, but caution must be exercised to be sure they do not have strings, buttons, or other pieces that can be accidentally ingested and cause intestinal blockage.
The Cat’s Need to Hunt – When it is About Hunger
It is important to remember that wild cats need to hunt and kill their prey before they can eat it, and that the whole feeding process can take up some considerable time. On average, anywhere from one in three to one in fifteen hunting expeditions will be successful per day, so in order to acquire enough food to survive (perhaps eight to ten mice in an average day), most cats will go on 30 hunting expeditions a day. Thus, hunting and feeding can take up several hours a day and expend a great deal of energy.
One solution is to put a portion of the cat's daily food ration in a puzzle feeder or feeder toy. The cat will then need to work the puzzle in order to gain access to the food inside. Another solution is to place several bowls of food in different areas of the house, varying the locations each day, to let the cat hunt them out.
The Importance of Cat Play
Games for cats, including social play and object play, are also essential for an indoor cat. Play sessions for indoor cats need to be frequent and regular. If your cat is to stay interested, you should aim to provide at least three play sessions every day. Recent studies seem to indicate that while the cat may tire of a chase toy in just a few minutes, the desire to chase new and different toys may remains. Therefore, try to offer two or three chase sessions in a row with different toys to ensure that your cat is truly finished playing rather than just bored with a particular toy.
Consider changing the variety of the toys. Leave a few toys out for a few days and then put them away as you replace them with different toys. Rotate the toy selection so that your cat never gets bored with the same old toys. Experiment with hiding toys in different locations of the house so that your cat can find them while exploring. You will know success when you find a “dead” prey object - a gift from your cat - on your bed.
Stuffing or coating a toy with food or catnip may also help to maintain and prolong your cat’s interest. You can have hours of fun playing with your cat, but remember that it is the chasing and hunting action that is generally more important than the social contact, so be certain to provide a variety of toys that your cat can chase and attack.
It is vital that you do not allow your cat to use your body (or anyone else’s body) as “prey,” since this can eventually lead to injury. It is not advisable to engage your cat in play by using your hands and feet under a blanket, or running your fingers across a surface.
Your Cat’s Need to Climb
Indoor cats need access to activities that they would naturally engage in if they were outside.
The picture of a cat stuck in a tree or stranded on a roof top is a familiar one, but the fact is that cats need to climb. Getting up high is an important way to relieve stress in the feline world, and when your cat is feeling under pressure its instinct will be to move upwards. This may be especially necessary in homes with multiple cats.
It is important to have access to high resting places. Tops of refrigerators, bookcases and entertainment center cabinets are all popular resting places for cats, but if all of the furniture in your house is built-in, you will need to make special provisions in the form of shelves that have been installed just for the cat’s use.
Cat furniture offers climbing, hiding, and playing opportunities and can be ideal for indoor cats. If possible, place the cat furniture in a central location for easy access, rather than in a corner or under the stairs. Scratching posts, or “trees,” are also essential. Remember that your cat would be using a tree outside to condition its claws, so let that be your guide when choosing a scratching material for your cat.
Your Cat’s Need to Hide
Hiding is an important coping strategy for cats. Hiding serves a purpose for the solitary hunter and for the cat that needs to assess potential dangers from a place of safety. Denying your cat places to hide will only increase its stress. Allow your cat to withdraw into safety when it needs to, at least for the short term.
In multi-cat homes, provide sufficient perching and hiding areas (boxes, shelves, etc.) for each cat to have its own secure area. However, if your cat is hiding excessively and this behavior is accompanied by lack of appetite, you should consult your veterinarian for advice immediately.
Is There a Way to Take the Cat Outside Safely?
Some cats are very persistent about their desire to go outside. Even when a cat is happy with the indoor arrangement, some owners want to offer some contact with the world outside. In these cases there are a number of alternatives.
The harness and lead approach is one solution, but not all cats will cooperate. Introducing a harness as early as possible will help the kitten to become accustomed to the lead, minimizing resistance to it later. If you have tried to introduce your older cat to a harness and have been met with overwhelming resistance, you may wish to consider the use of an outdoor pen, or cat patio (“catio”). Often made with shelves to climb and a roof for protection, an enclosed area can be just the solution for an indoor cat to get some fresh air.
There are a number of commercial cat containment products, but it can also be a do-it-yourself project, and it need not take up a lot of space. Even apartment balconies can be outfitted with an enclosed cat space. Ideally, the pen will be accessed via a cat door from the house. As much as space permits, the pen should mimic the outside world, with cat furniture in the shapes of tree trunks, and high up resting places. And don’t forget the toys. Furry mice and feathery toys are perfect outdoor pen toys.
One other alternative is a window box that attaches to the outside of the window, allowing the cat to sit “outside” while still in the safety of the home.
A word of caution: The cat should never be allowed access to the outdoor pen when no one is home to supervise, since escape is possible.