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Is It Possible for Indoor Cats to Be Happy, Well Adjusted?

Cats can thrive in an indoor-only environment provided they have sufficient enrichment opportunities to prevent boredom, relieve stress and provide exercise.

Each week, Dr. Patrick Tate, chief of the veterinary staff and a general practitioner at Webster Groves Animal Hospital, answers reader questions about pets. This week's question comes from Patty Walker.

Question: It seems like indoor cats have a lot more behavioral issues than cats that are allowed to go outside. Do you think it is possible to have an exclusively indoor cat that is happy and well adjusted?

Answer: Yes, it is possible for an indoor-only cat to be happy and well adjusted. However, “environmental enrichment” is necessary to ensure the kitty is stimulated both mentally and physically.

As cat lovers know, our feline friends are very complex, sensitive and inquisitive animals with amazing senses. In the wild, they use their unique gifts to explore their surroundings, mark territory, avoid danger, catch food, etc.

Cats that are allowed outside have many opportunities to use their senses, but are exposed to danger and disease. Cats that are kept indoors don’t have as much stimulation but are in a safe, protected environment. What is the best living situation for our feline companions?

In my opinion, it is best for a pet cat to live indoors (if possible) with plenty of environmental enrichment opportunities to prevent boredom, relieve stress and provide exercise. It is important to provide a rich environment from the very beginning so behavioral problems can be avoided.

Of course, there is that rare kitty that is content to stay inside and sleep on the same pillow for 20 hours a day! But most indoor cats need MUCH more to be happy and well adjusted.

Listed below are some proven environmental enrichment ideas for your cat from the simplest to the most complex:

  1. If at all possible, get a compatible feline friend for your cat. Your "enrichment” job will be much easier if you have two cats that get along well and play together.
  2. Provide a variety of toys for your cat and rotate them every two weeks. Include toys that are stuffed with catnip. Some feline behavior experts say an indoor cat needs 24 different toys for adequate stimulation (Of course, don’t bring them all out at once!). The toys can be as simple as a rolled up piece of paper or as complicated as the popular Peek a Prize Toy Box by SmartCat. 
  3. Play with your cat one-on-one for at least 15 minutes daily using interactive toys. Cats especially like “fishing pole” toys with feathers and other pretend "prey” they can chase. A flashlight or laser pointer also works well with many cats.
  4. Make sure there is a perch or ledge where your cat can look out the window. Cats love to watch birdfeeders or bushes and trees that contain wildlife. Note: Choose a window that does not include a view of naughty neighborhood cats. Your indoor cat could become stressed and start to “urine mark” the house after seeing outdoor cats enter his territory. See last week’s Ask the Vet answer for details.
  5. Purchase or build cat-scratching posts and encourage your cat to use them. You can rub catnip on the post, demonstrate how to scratch, and then reward your cat with praise and a treat when they scratch appropriately. Cats International has instructions on how to build a simple yet effective sisel-wrapped post. 
  6. Purchase or build cat furniture (called Cat Condos, Kitty Trees, etc.) that includes areas to climb, hide and perch. Cats especially love to be in a “high” place to view the world below. Clients have recommended CatTreePlans.com for do-it-yourself cat owners. Spoilmykitty.com sells new cat furniture (assembly required) and most of the proceeds go to help abused and abandoned felines. Note – if you purchase used cat furniture, your cat may not like the scent of the previous inhabitants!
  7. If you are gone for long periods of time, consider some type of visual stimulation like a fish aquarium (with secure lid) or a specially designed cat video for your television. Some cats love kitty-friendly television images, and some don’t even notice them. The Kitty Show and Video Catnip are two companies with best-selling cat ”movies.”
  8. Grow or purchase some grasses or spouts for your cat to munch. This will satisfy their craving for greens and deter them from chewing on houseplants. Most grasses (unsprayed and chemical free, of course) are safe for cats but wheat and oat grass seem to be a favorite. Some cats even like alfalfa or bean sprouts. Both sprouts and grass are easy to grow and ready to sample in about a week. You can find the seeds at a garden center or nursery, or purchase one of the many "cat grass kits" online or at a pet store. Lucy's Cat Grass is a popular online resource. Note: Some houseplants can be toxic to cats. Check with your veterinarian or visit Pet Poison Helpline for a complete list.
  9. Spend some time training your cat. Although training is different than with dogs, cats are very intelligent and can be taught to perform on cue. Successful training is done through praise and food rewards. Depending on their personality, cats often like the challenge and mental stimulation of training. They also enjoy the owner attention (My young son taught our cat to “play” the piano using a clicker and special treats). Catsplay.com has a very helpful section on cat training. 
  10. As strange as it may seem, teach your cat to wear a harness (“H” kind is best) and walk outside on the leash. It may take some patience, but many cats learn to love it, and it gives them a taste of the outdoors. The informative and humorous book How to Get Your Cat to Do What You Want by animal behaviorist Warren Eckstein has 15 pages of instruction about leash-training a cat. Note: Never leave a cat alone on a leash or tethered outside. They can strangle themselves easily.
  11. For those cats that seem to crave a bigger outdoor experience, consider using a screened porch, building an outside cat enclosure or installing specialized fencing. Cat Fence-In and Purr…fect Fence are two companies that specialize in “cat containment” options for the yard. Note: Some cats (like mine) will rip the screens of porches and windows to get outside.

Check with your veterinarian if you have any questions about your indoor cat or the enrichment ideas above.

Do you have a question for Dr. Tate? Email your questions to Webster Groves Patch Editor Sheri Gassaway. Be sure to attach a photo of your pet, and we'll feature it along with your question!

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