Indoor Cats: Can They Be Happy?

In recent years, various experts have come to the conclusion that cats can be happy with an indoor lifestyle if the environment provides everything a cat needs to fulfill his wild urges.

Animal behaviour specialists have only recently begun to study cat psychology. In the past, little was known about the psychological needs of cats, and this lack of knowledge has contributed to the following misconceptions.

Myth: A cat can’t follow his true nature unless he’s free to roam

Cats spend most of their time sleeping, grooming, hunting, scratching, and observing the world. A cat sleeping indoors enjoys his snooze just as much as an outdoor cat, but he’s far less likely to pick up fleas and ticks or be attacked by another animal while he sleeps, and a cat that has access to window perches or a screened balcony or porch can enjoy fresh air, sunshine, and outdoor scenery without the risk being attacked or run over by a car.

Cats do need to hunt, but this can happen indoors if you provide plenty of toys and engage in interactive play activities that simulate the hunt. Cats without an outlet for their hunting urges often make mad dashes around the house or engage in other drive-frustration activities, some of which can be quite destructive, so it’s important to provide outlets for this urge.

Providing cat trees or other perches, hiding places, and cat-safe plants helps to simulate the outdoor environment as well, and good scratch post is particularly important. For those who want to provide a more natural scratching experience, most cats enjoy scratching tree bark. A tree stump that’s tall enough for the cat to stand upright and scratch is usually appreciated, though most cats are happy enough scratching a manufactured post covered with carpet or wrapped in sisal twine.

Myth: A cat won’t be happy unless he can kill and eat small animals

Cats are perfectly happy to eat the food their owners provide, and when well fed, many don’t actually eat the animals they capture. Because they’re carnivorous, cats do require a high-protein diet, but premium cat foods that have meat as their first ingredient can provide good nutrition without the risk of picking up diseases from the carcasses of infected rodents and birds.

Cats do need to engage in hunting behaviours, but the urge to stalk and pounce is separate from the hunger drive. Providing prey-like toys such as catnip mice or feathers attached to a string and playing with the cat each day can fulfill these hunting urges.

Myth: Cats are independent and asocial; they need to go off on their own

Contrary to the image of the solitary, independent cat, feral cats live in colonies, form friendships with other cats, and work collaboratively to raise and protect kittens, and most domestic cats are happy to incorporate humans and other pets into their social groups. The reason cats hunt on their own is that they catch prey that is only large enough to feed one cat – not because they want to be alone.

Myth: Cats should be allowed to hunt outdoors because they fill a critical ecological niche as predators

Domestic cats are the descendants of African wild cats. Early domesticated cats were brought along on cargo ships to catch rodents and then deposited at ports in various countries. Cats are not a natural element in most ecosystems where they now reside, and can deplete the supply of prey needed by native predators such as owls and hawks, as well as decimating local bird populations when allowed to roam freely.

Myth: Indoor cats are missing out on something vital

Many people argue that it’s natural for a cat to go outside – after all, that’s how wild cats live. But the majority of wild cats suffer frequently from hunger, parasite infestations, diseases, and other natural dangers. Domestic cats with outdoor access have far shorter lives on average than indoor cats –the average lifespan of an indoor cat is 10 years longer than that of a free-roaming cat.

Outdoor cats are far more likely to suffer injuries as a result of car accidents or attacks by other animals. They are also more likely to ingest poison, contract communicable diseases, and transmit diseases to humans. Some outdoor cats beat the odds and live for a long time without incident, but many are killed by cars or other hazards while still very young.

Myth: Letting cats outdoors saves time and money because there’s no litter box to deal with

Owners who let their cats out may avoid litter box duties and kitty litter costs, but they’re far more likely to incur large veterinary expenses due to the many hazards facing outdoor cats. In addition to injuries, ticks, and diseases, owners of outdoor cats risk having to wash substances or cut burrs out of fur, remove porcupine quills, deal with skunk spray, and have their homes infested with fleas.

Outdoor cats may also anger neighbours if they use gardens or children’s sandboxes as litter boxes or attack birds at neighbours’ bird feeders.

How to Create an Enriched Environment for Indoor Cats

cats on cat towerA cat-friendly home makes provisions for the fact that a cat is a different species with its own unique needs. Indoor cats may grow bored and restless, and even put on an unhealthy amount of weight, because they lack opportunities to hunt, explore, and engage in other natural behaviours.

Bored or frustrated cats may tear around the house, sleep too much, overeat, behave badly, or develop pathological grooming behaviours. These problems can usually be prevented by providing an enriched home environment.

Exercise and Entertainment

To reduce the risk of obesity and behavioural problems resulting from boredom and lack of exercise:

    • Regularly engage in interactive play that simulates the hunt. Cat Dancers and other wand toys are good for this purpose.
    • Provide solo toys and rotate them regularly, hiding some and bringing others out so that the cat doesn’t grow bored with them. Toy mice are usually a hit, and items lying around the house such as cardboard boxes and paper bags make good toys as well.
    • Buy or build a cat tree to provide climbing opportunities and a high perch.
    • Build or purchase a sturdy scratch post that is tall enough or long enough for the cat to stretch out while scratching.
    • Screen in a window so that it can be opened to provide fresh air. For a stylish viewing space, a feline perch, window veranda, or solarium can be added.
    • Catnip is safe and non-addictive. Provide a little catnip once a week so that cats can enjoy a fun, healthy high (it’s not harmful to give it more frequently, but the response may diminish).

Natural Feeding Approaches

Cats can be fed and watered in ways that support more natural eating and drinking behaviours:

    • Hide high-protein dry food or healthy treats around the house to provide foraging opportunities and the joy of discovery a cat would have in the wild.
    • Place food and water bowls in separate locations. Wild cats seek food at water in different places at different times. Finding water away from a food source encourages cats to drink more, which reduces the risk of health problems, particularly for cats consuming an all-dry diet.
    • Invest in a pet water fountain. Many cats prefer drinking from a fountain to still water, as it resembles natural running water.
    • Cats need to eat a little grass from time to time to obtain folic acid and get rid of hairballs. Grow cat grass (oat grass) indoors to provide some natural vegetation.

Psychological Needs

In addition to love, affection, and companionship, feline psychological requirements include privacy and control of resources. To keep cats happy and avoid conflicts:

    • Provide at least one private space for each cat in a multi-cat household. This could be a fancy kitty condo or just a cardboard box with a hole in it. Don’t disturb cats when they retreat to their private spaces unless absolutely necessary.
    • Ensure that each cat has his own food and water bowls, toys, litter box, and other resources. This reduces the likelihood of fights, as well as the accidents that occur when one cat views a single litter box as another cat’s territory and avoids it.
    • Place litter boxes in quiet, low-traffic areas of the house so that cats feel safe using them. Avoid perfumed litters, as the smells are unnatural and some cats will refuse to use them.
    • Although more independent than dogs, cats should not be left alone for long stretches of time. Prospective owners who spend a lot of time away from home should consider getting two compatible cats rather than adopting just one, or having a friend or family member spend time with the cat, if possible.
    • Cats find change traumatic, and domestic cats have less opportunity to control major life changes (such as moving to a new home) than their wild ancestors. When a cat is undergoing a stressful change, provide plenty of attention and affection. Many cats are also soothed by synthetic feline facial pheromone products such as Feliway, which can help during times of transition.

Safety

A cat-friendly home is also a safe home. To prevent accidents and poisonings:

    • Screen windows to prevent falls.
    • Don’t leave medications, antifreeze, or other toxic substances where they may be accessible to cats.
    • Don’t leave appliance cords dangling – cats may pull appliances down onto themselves when playing with cords.
    • Don’t leave rubber bands, sewing needles, or other sharp objects lying around, as cats may swallow them.
    • Don’t give cats wool (the fibers can get caught on the barbs of their tongues, forcing them to continue swallowing it) or toys with pieces that can be easily chewed off and swallowed.
    • Use cat-friendly, non-toxic cleaning products wherever possible.
    • Keep plants such as lilies that are very poisonous to cats out of reach (or preferably out of the house altogether). Grow cat-safe plants indoors instead.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Christensen, W. (2002). The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Halls, V., Feline Advisory Bureau. “The Cat Friendly Home.” FabCats.org.
    • Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2009). “Indoor Cat Initiative.”

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