It Can Be Done: Transitioning an Indoor/Outdoor Cat to Indoor Only

More and more, cat owners are recognizing the need to keep their cats indoors for their safety and the safety of wildlife in the community. Outdoor cats can easily be injured, exposed to disease, or threatened by the people and animals they meet outside. The good news is that cats can be perfectly happy indoors as long as their needs are met.

If you’re dealing with a tricky behavior issues like cat-cat conflict or spraying, unsupervised outdoor access may be playing a role in that situation. Bringing your cat fully indoors may be (part of) the solution.

Indoor/Outdoor No More

This post is focused on turning your indoor/outdoor cat (a cat that is already spending time in your house and familiar with it and everyone in it) into an indoor-only kitty. If you are considering bringing an outdoor cat, like a stray you’ve found, into your home for the first time, there are some other considerations, including health checks, litter box introduction, and meeting resident pets that we just don’t have room for here.

Worth the Work 

If you’ve made the decision to transition your cat to indoor living, you are probably already aware of the risks of outdoor life for cats. Traffic, unfriendly people, contact with chemicals or poisons, and other animals all pose significant dangers to your cat.

Perhaps the decision is driven by a move to a new area where there are new threats or a change in your cat’s health as they are getting older. Or maybe you are dealing with a behavior problem related to unsupervised outdoor access.

Cat Looking Out Window From Behind
Image by Melanie Hogue from Pixabay

Spraying

Cats that go outdoors are exposed to the sights and smells of other cats, dogs, and wildlife. When they come inside, their natural urge to protect their territory can lead to unfortunate habits, including spraying. It will likely be very difficult to stop the spraying if a cat is still confronted with the unknowns of outdoor life. Learn more about spraying in this blog post.

Cat-Cat Conflict

For the same reasons as above, conflict between cats in the home can be affected by one or more of the cats spending time outdoors. If the indoor territory feels insecure, the resident cats are more likely to fight. Ultimately, creating a safe space inside often requires limiting exposure to outdoor threats.

A Smooth Transition

Change isn’t always easy but there are steps you can take to help your cat embrace their new life.

Continue the Hunt

One of your cat’s greatest needs is the chance to “hunt”. They don’t need live prey or outdoor time to do this though. In fact, hunting rodents or birds can expose your cat (and you) to dangerous parasites and diseases. Simulated hunting through interactive play provides all of the benefits without the risks. You even get the added benefits of increased bonding with family members and it’s fun! As play is recommended for all cats, you can read about it on this whole page dedicated to interactive play.

Along with interactive play, introduce your cat to puzzle feeders instead of food bowls. A puzzle feeder requires that your cat use their paws, noses, tongues, and brains to get their everyday meals. This engages their body and mind in the way nature intended and satisfies the need for a “hunt” before eating. Bonus, it’s really no extra work for you!

Make Indoors Interesting

For all of the risks and stress that the outdoors can bring to your cat, one thing that’s true is being outside isn’t boring. Your cat likely is used to having a chance to hunt and chase, smell new smells, and explore new places. Many of our human homes are designed to entertain us but do very little for our cats.

Along with providing interactive play and hunting opportunities, think about ways to give your cat new sights, smells, and things to explore. These can be a simple as a window perch for bird watching and a small catnip toy in a paper bag. Rotate toys and scent enrichment frequently to keep it new and interesting. You don’t have to constantly buy new things; just keep everything in an out-of-reach place and switch what’s out and what’s put away.

Maximize Indoor Territory

When you’re decreasing the space that your cat has to explore (by eliminating the outdoors), it’s important to maximize their space indoors. This is especially true if you have multiple cats. Add bonus space through vertical options including cat trees, shelves, bookcases, etc. These don’t all have to be “cat furniture”. For example, shift an existing piece of furniture under a window to give your cat a window perch. Learn more about creating a cat-friendly space here.

Make a Doorway Plan

Some cats will continue to try to get outside at first. The whole family should agree to preventing door darting. Every home is different but some ideas are:

Kitten in Doorway Looking Up
Image by Daga_Roszkowska from Pixabay
  • Give your cat with a food puzzle to distract them when you leave the house.
  • Every time you come in, go to a specific place away from the door to greet (and treat!) your cat.
  • Use baby gates or exercise pens to create extra barriers around doors.
  • Enter and exit through a garage or sunroom so there is always a backup door closed behind you.

Expect Some Stress

Cats like routine and your cat probably won’t be completely happy at first with this new change in their life. We can’t explain to them that the locked cat flap is actually a good thing for them. Just because your cat seems stressed by not going outside for the first few days doesn’t mean this isn’t the right decision.

To ease the transition, really commit to lots of interactive play and enrichment. If your home was previously more “cat-boring” than “cat-friendly”, introduce your cat to the improvements you’ve added to make the indoors a great place for them. Hide treats around the house to encourage your cat to hunt and explore. This may be a good time to start teaching them some simple tricks to keep their mind and body engaged (and distracted!).

Safe Outdoor Time

Just because your cat is no longer spending unsupervised time outside, that doesn’t mean they can’t still benefit from the good parts of the great outdoors. Spending time outside can still be a wonderful part of life for indoor cats. It’s all about doing it safely and in a way that is right for your individual cat. Visit this previous blog to learn more.

If you need help transitioning your cat to the indoors or your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.