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How to Convert an Outdoor Cat Into a Happy Indoor Cat

Encourage cats to live indoors by making the inside more exciting and appealing than outdoors.

Marilyn Krieger  |  May 26th 2017


Many nature-loving cats aren’t eager to forgo outdoor adventures and relocate indoors. Although not being allowed to roam outside keeps them safer and prolongs their lives, many don’t instantly morph into well-adjusted, happy cats when denied outdoor privileges. Some will immediately adapt, while others show their displeasure by incessantly vocalizing or door darting and engaging in other unpopular behaviors.

Cats live longer never going outside. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats live longer never going outside. Photo by Shutterstock

Although it won’t happen overnight, you can gradually transition kitties to living indoors by making their homes more appealing than the great outdoors. Here’s how:

Bring your cat to the veterinarian

Before cats change venues they need to be thoroughly examined by a veterinarian. Along with identifying and addressing potential health problems, the veterinarian will check and treat for parasites. If needed, a cat will also be vaccinated, microchipped and scheduled for spaying or neutering.

Before relocating cats indoors, they need thorough veterinarian examinations. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats need thorough veterinary examinations before they’re relocated indoors. Photo by Shutterstock

Motivate your cat with food

Delectable cuisine can work wonders and can be used as a prime incentive for cats to become home-bodies. In order to make food a tool for change, you’ll need to revise how and when the outsiders are fed. Free-feeding is out — kitties shouldn’t have free access to food. Neither should they be fed only two meals daily. Felines have evolved to chow down on small portions, multiple times a day. Ideally, feed them four to six little meals every day. Consistent scheduling is important; if the food is yummy, the little hunters will typically wait at the door anticipating their delicious fare.

Feast locations make a difference. Feed cats who are used to having the run of the house only indoors, never outside. Little ones who have never experienced the indoors will need encouragement. Start by feeding the nature-lover outside, next to a door. After she’s comfortable with the eating arrangements, open the door and place the food bowl on the other side of the threshold. Gradually move it — one inch a day inside, leaving the outside door open. Her new inside digs, need to be quiet — with minimal foot traffic and free of other resident animals. The key is for her to feel safe. In order to avoid the eat-and-run mentality, do activities she enjoys after meals and gradually extend the time she stays indoors.

Cat waiting to be fed. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat waiting to be fed. Photo by Shutterstock

Provide a sanctuary room

Special felines who have never set a paw inside a building need to feel secure and safe in one room before venturing out into the rest of the home. Choose a quiet room that is exclusively theirs, along with a few special humans — no other animals are allowed in this inner sanctum. Everything the cat needs will be in this safe area.

The cat’s safe room should be quiet. Photo by Shutterstock

The cat’s safe room should be quiet. Photo by Shutterstock

Teach litter box skills

Some nature-loving cats don’t have a clue what to do with a litter box. They need to be taught proper litter-box etiquette. Place a few large, uncovered, shallow litter boxes in different areas in the safe room. Storage boxes are perfect litter boxes; an added bonus is that they aren’t expensive. Many kitties immediately take to the boxes, especially when an unscented clay litter is used. Others are enticed only when the box is partly filled with garden soil. Eventually, the soil can be gradually replaced with litter.

Some cats have never seen a litter box. Photo by Shutterstock

Some cats have never seen a litter box. Photo by Shutterstock

Enhance your cat’s indoor worlds

Part of the lifestyle change from street cat to house cat involves convincing felines that relocating inside is much more fun than being outside. There is an overabundance of fascinating things to do outside, including climbing, hiding, exploring and chasing critters. Most of these activities can be provided inside the safety of your home. Be creative.

Start by increasing the vertical space. Because cats love to climb, provide your cat with tall cat trees/condos or install carpeted shelves around the perimeter of her room. Architectural elements and tall household furniture can double as vertical territory. The more high places there are to climb, the happier your cat will be. In addition to vertical territory, cats appreciate boxes, tunnels and other partially enclosed objects to hide and hang out in.

Cats need places to climb and enclosed places such as boxes to hang out in. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats need places to climb and enclosed places such as boxes where they can hang out. Photo by Shutterstock

Scratching posts and horizontal scratchers are mandatory — cats scratch for a number of reasons, including marking territory and to reduce their stress.

The enrichment strategy includes cat toys and puzzle feeders. Cats like novelty and a diversity of stuff to play with. Ball-and-track toys, soft toys that can’t be chewed and swallowed, and ping-pong balls are examples of toys that often become favorites. Water can be inspiring — many cats enjoy swatting at running water and appreciate motion sensitive faucets and pet fountains. Keep in mind that they are little predators — instead of feeding every meal in a bowl, make the little hunters work for a portion of their vittles by stashing food in the puzzle feeders and ball-and-track toys, among other places.

An assortment of toys to choose from. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

An assortment of toys to choose from. Photo by Marilyn Krieger, CCBC

Exercise your cat’s inner predator

In addition to creating a rich cat-centric environment, do activities that address predatory behaviors. It’s not the natural modus operandi for cats to saunter over to food bowls for a nosh. Instead, they should be encouraged to “hunt” for a portion of their meals. Place dry food and treats in cat toys, puzzle boxes, handle-less paper bags and tunnels as well as on vertical territory. Treat rolls are usually welcomed as well. Roll treats on the floor or gently toss them low for chasing.

Play in a way that mimics the hunt. Cats first will watch, stalk, sprint and then finally pounce. Use a pole toy, dragging it away from the cat, over scratchers, cat furniture and sofas. Finally end the play session with a final catch, immediately followed with a sumptuous meal.

Cat playing with a pole toy. Photo by Shutterstock

Cat playing with a pole toy. Photo by Shutterstock

Cats should never be forced. Instead they need to be encouraged to live indoors by making the inside more exciting and appealing than outdoors. Many cats immediately adjust to the new arrangement, while others take time to transition to living inside. There are always exceptions — some cats insist on copious amounts of outdoor time. These little ones may do well with access to yards that are fenced in with non-electric cat fences or enclosures.

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Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods.  Marilyn is big on education—she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.