Keeping Indoor Cats Happy

60% of Cats, About 44 Million, Live Exclusively in the House

More and more people are choosing to keep their cats inside, and there are plenty of great reasons to do so. Here’s a big one: Indoor cats live longer than outside cats. The average lifespan for an indoor cat is fifteen years, vs. two to five years for a cat that goes outside.

Indoor cats are not exposed to dangers from disease or fights with dogs, other cats, and urban wildlife. They can’t be hit by cars. Indoor cats make excellent neighbors, because they don’t disturb people’s gardens. They don’t hang out under birdfeeders, snagging sparrows. And they don’t disappear.

Almost every cat can be a happy, healthy indoor cat. Learning about the cat’s innate behaviors lets us create opportunities in the house for our cats to express those behaviors.

A Checklist for Happy Indoor Cats:

  • Healthy food and fresh water located in a private, quiet place
  • Litter box, placed away from food, water, or things that may make sudden noises. The rule for litter box happiness: make sure to have one box for each cat, plus one extra
  • A scratching device, like a post, door-hanger or scratchbox
  • Safe, accessible, elevated spaces; remember, additional levels create more territory
  • A variety of toys, according to the cats’ hunting preferences
  • Pheromone products, if there are difficult aggression issues
  • Safe, quiet resting places

Cats Need Their Space

All cats have territories, which they defend and depend on for food, safe sleeping spots, sunbeams, shade, and other resources. Cats establish their territories by scent marking and scratching. Outdoor cats’ territories can be as big as 20 city blocks, but an inside cat’s territory is limited to the house, and often, in the case of multiple cats, discrete places in certain rooms.

To keep indoor cats happy, create lots of safe spaces for them, so they have good options for escape, and can hide if they feel threatened. Cats prefer elevated spaces, and sturdy cat posts provide such levels, as well as places to scratch and play.

When many cats share a house, sources of stress and conflict can be traced to competition over resources. Providing multiple scratching posts, feeding areas, lots of toys, and a litter box for every cat plus one, adds resources and enriches the environment.

Help for Hairballs

An indoor cat is not subject to the light and temperature changes of seasons. She lives in an environment with relatively constant temperature and lighting all year. Because cats’ hair growth, resting and shedding cycles are triggered by light and temperature changes, indoor cats’ coats do not go through seasonal periods of intense shedding. Rather, they may be in a less pronounced, though constant, state of shedding.

Indoor cats spend a lot of time grooming–up to four hours a day–so many suffer from constipation and hairballs. Healthy, natural foods with proper fibers can help indoor cats pass ingested hairs through the feces. Adding access to wheatgrass along with an occasional treat of a natural hairball remedy, can make constipation or a hairball a rare event for any indoor cat.

Bringing an Outdoor Cat Inside

Sometimes we have a hard time keeping a cat indoors, especially one that used to enjoy being outside a lot. What to do? Install a window perch or an enclosed screened box that can be safely inserted into an open window, big enough for a cat to sit in.

Some cats can be walked outside in a specially made jacket or harness (not a collar). Walk the cat around inside the house first to be certain the cat can’t wiggle out of the harness once outside.

Some people also build enclosures or little conservatories for their cats in the yard, with scratch posts, shade, grass, food and water. Others install special fencing that prevents cats from getting out, as well as other animals from getting in. People whose cats have never been outside have an easier time keeping them exclusively indoors.

When an Indoor Cat Goes Missing

When an indoor-only cat manages to slip out of the house, it can be a harrowing experience, for both cat and owner. The cat will behave as if she is in unfamiliar territory. Such a cat is generally scared, tending to hide and stay quiet, so it’s very unlikely that she will respond to her owner’s calls. A visual inspection of all likely hiding places is usually the best way to start the search.

Only about 2% of cats that end up in shelters are reunited with their owners. Even if a cat is indoor-only, it’s still important for her to have a collar with ID, or a microchip (or both).

The Art of the Introduction

When bringing home a new cat, it’s important to be aware of the effects on the ones already established in the household, and to create a safe space for the new one.

Set up a room for them to call home until the established dogs or cats are prepared to accept a new member of the household. This room requires a litter box, hiding places (maybe a cardboard box, inverted, with a door cut into it, or a cat carrier) and food and water dishes positioned as far from the litter box as possible.

Introductions are likely to be slow, especially with adult cats. Sometimes it takes a week or more. First, let the animals sniff each other through the door. Later, bring the new cat, in her crate, into the established animal’s space. Don’t try face-to-face contact until everyone seems comfortable.

Scents and Sensibility

One method by which cats communicate with each other is through pheromones, or scent. Cats are specially equipped with scent glands, as well as with organs to detect scents.

Cats have a Jacobson’s organ, also called a vomeronasal organ, above the roof of the mouth, that helps in the detection of scents. Occasionally, you’ll see a cat with a gaping mouth, looking like she’s just smelled bad cheese. This behavior is called a Flehmen response, and is used to circulate air between the nose and mouth, stimulating the Jacobson’s organ.

Cats also have a number of scent-producing glands: in the feet, on the forehead, under the chin, at the corners of the mouth and at the base of the tail. When a cat rubs her face on you or other objects (an activity known as “bunting”), she is leaving scent markers. Urine marking is also a common form of scent marking.

The stresses that indoor cats may experience can be lessened if owners take scent into account. One way to use pheromones to an advantage is to get a synthetic form of feline facial pheromone (available in a spray or as a diffuser), which can have a calming effect on cats. Regular litter box maintenance, and making sure there are enough litter boxes, can also help reduce stress in a multi cat household. Urine marking can be discouraged by using an enzymatic cleaner on spots that have been previously marked.

Find a Favorite Toy

Indoor cats have just as strong a drive to hunt as outdoor cats do. Cats evolved as highly efficient stalking and pouncing machines. All the hunting activity necessary to keep wild cats fed also keeps them from getting overweight or bored.

To combat the bulge and the yawn, toys can be very effective. Cats base their toy preferences on prey choices. Would a cat like a bird? A mouse? A bug? A snake? All of these? Toys that imitate some aspect of a specific cat’s preferred prey–shape, color, sound, movement, texture–are likely to be a hit.

Play also helps a cat work out aggression that might otherwise be exercised in a less acceptable manner. For indoor-only cats, it’s important to provide a stimulus-rich environment to keep them active, happy and healthy.

The Best Defense Against Obesity in Cats: More Play Time

Dr. Ellen Kienzle and Dr. Reinhold Bergler, in their 2006 study, “Human-Animal Relationship of Owners of Normal and Overweight Cats,” found that owners of normal-weight cats played more often with their cats than owners of overweight cats. Both sets of owners spent the same amount of time for tenderness and caressing their cats, but “owners of normal cats more often used extra play time as a treat than owners of overweight cats, whereas extra food was more often used by the owners of overweight cats.”

Of course, there are more factors that may lead to obesity in cats, and a veterinarian can help screen for them. Mud Bay staff are happy to help cat owners find toys to increase every cat’s play time.

We’re not veterinarians. Mud Bay staff are well educated, and our writing is well-researched, but neither the advice of a Mud Bay staff member nor reading Mud Bay's written materials can substitute for visiting a veterinarian. We offer carefully chosen, natural solutions, but we believe that veterinary conditions should be diagnosed and treated by professionals.