Keeping cats indoors is one of the best things owners can do to stack the deck in favor of a long and healthy life. In comparison to cats who go outside, they are at much lower risk for traumatic injuries, infectious diseases, and becoming lost. Local bird and small mammal population also benefit when cats are kept indoors.
But as with all choices, deciding to make a cat “indoor-only” is not without its downside — chief among them boredom and a lack of exercise. Indoor-only cats are at higher than average risk for developing problem behaviors related to a lack of mental stimulation and diseases that are commonly associated with inactivity, like obesity and diabetes mellitus.
Even taking the negative aspects of the lifestyle into consideration, I do think that keeping a cat indoors is almost always the best option, particularly when you take into consideration the fact that owners can do a lot to keep indoor only cats active and mentally engaged. Here are some examples:
The best play activities for cats make use of their natural predatory drive. Owners are often surprised to find that their cats are very good at playing “fetch.” Many cat toys are designed for this purpose, but if you are on a budget, items you have around the house will do just fine. A crumpled up piece of paper or tinfoil will often work. I knew one cat who so loved fetching cotton swabs that she would pick them out of the trash and bring them to her owner.
I am also a big fan of kitty fishing poles. There are many varieties available or you can easily make one of your own. All you need is a stick and string with something prey-like (typically a few feathers) attached at the end. Toys are also available that can keep cats entertained when they are in the house alone. Puzzle feeders and electronic toys that allow cats to hunt erratically moving prey tend to hold their interest best.
Cats live in a three dimensional world, but we often don’t make full use of their ability to climb and jump. Placing a kitty tower near a window or scattering a few treats throughout the rooms of a kitty condo will encourage cats to investigate and use these structures. Many also often incorporate areas for scratching, which provides an acceptable location for cats to perform this normal behavior. Kitty furniture is a great way to increase the amount of feline-friendly space in a home.
Let Your Cat Go Outdoors ... With Stipulations
The outdoors doesn’t have to be completely off-limits to an indoor cat. Something as simple as a securely screened, open window with a ledge or chair placed in front (weather permitting, of course) can provide hours of entertainment for cats. My cat, Vicky, loves to sit on our wide window ledges monitoring all the goings on in the neighborhood. Fence extenders, screened outdoor enclosures, and cat harnesses and leashes are also good options for some cats.
Giving a cat unfettered access to the great outdoors should only be considered as a last resort. One of my cats, Pippin, was so miserable if we tried to curtail his outdoor activities that we eventually found him a home where he could be a “little lion” in a more appropriate setting — a remote ranch with a rodent problem. His life was probably shortened by that decision, but at least he was happy.
Dr. Jennifer Coates