Outdoor-cat-to-indoor-cat transition
January 29, 2010 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Attempting to transition an outdoor-indoor kitty to being an indoor-only kitty. Help/tips/suggestions for helping him be happier indoors?

My 3ish-year-old kitty, Magnet, was a mostly-outdoors cat with his original family, our neighbors across the street. They got a dog, and Magnet [née Socks, but Magnet is a clearly more awesome name] basically started to hang out at our house all the time, and we adopted him with the neighbors' blessing.

He started out life being mostly outdoors. In the year and a half or so that we've had him, we've let him be outdoor-indoor (sleeps indoors at night, comes in often during the day, but likes to be outside and run around the neighborhood too). I am emphatic about wanting him to be indoor-only, for health and safety reasons. Right now, he's recovering from a gastrointestinal infection, which he picked up outside. He's been almost exclusively indoors for about the last 2 weeks, but we had a lot of rain the first week, and he was sick the second, so he hadn't been really excited about going outside anyway. I thought it was the perfect time to start the transition, since he's already gotten through the initial couple weeks without us trying to force him. He's starting to feel better now, so he is often meowing to go out, and is a lot less happy to stay in.

Magnet is neutered. When he meows in the middle of the night, I get up and play with him or snuggle him. I always clean his litterbox pretty swiftly. He has lots of food/water available, he has millions of toys, he has a cat tower positioned where he can look out the front windows into the street, and he has plenty of places to hang out in the house. He is sometimes really upset about being inside though, and I want to help him adjust more comfortably. Ideas, experiences, suggestions, thoughts?

Bonus question: The other two people I live with are supportive of this decision to varying degrees. One supports the indoor move about 85-90% and she shares my concerns about health/safety, and the other is around 0% because he has the idea that cats should live freely and do whatever they want (whether it's harmful or not?). Any support on how to dialogue with the latter would be greatly appreciated.
posted by so_gracefully to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Good luck with that.

One of my cats was fine with this. The other figured out how to lift the glass slats on the old-timey slat windows and escape. She does this without breaking anything.

She also used to break into my neighbor's houses if I was over visiting someone - she can both lift a partially open window or open casement windows (the ones that open outwards.)

My cats are healthier and happier for being indoor/outdoor. As they've gotten a few years older, they mostly remain indoors 90% of the time. When the escape artist (who is also an expert hunter) was below the age of 3 - she was out a good 60% of her time.

I do not let them out at night.

Anywho - if your cat is likely to accept this indoor-only arrangement, it will happen easily. Provide a high "kitty condo" for climbing (he will miss this otherwise!) and be prepared for rebellion.

ALERT! Do not make escapes into a "chase" or reason to freak out, etc. Otherwise, your cat will start escaping whenever you open the door to leave just to get attention or send a message.

I recommend acting nonchalant if/when your cat dashes out the door on occasion. Maybe leave the door open a crack if you are on your way in until he comes back? Or if you are heading out, just proceed as usual?? If you make a big deal or lure him back with food each time he escapes... forget it. It will be a daily battle - and neither you nor him want that!

posted by jbenben at 3:03 PM on January 29, 2010

Best answer: Wait! I forgot the #1 BEST piece of advice...

Make sure you have an honest and gentle conversation with your cat about the changes you will make to his routine.

I know that might seem weird. But do it anyway.
posted by jbenben at 3:42 PM on January 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

Ugh, that's a really tough one. Our cat had to go through the same thing, but ours was because our house backs up to a hawk/big cat area and our cat's declawed and, well, a cat.

He wouldn't go to the bathroom in the litter box, threw fits, tried to ruin clothes, was basically an angry teenager until we put him on kitty prozac.

Pretty amazing stuff if you ask me.

If the cat's an outdoor cat and there aren't any other reasons not to let him out, let him enjoy his life outdoors.
posted by TheBones at 4:31 PM on January 29, 2010

He is sometimes really upset about being inside though, and I want to help him adjust more comfortably.

Can you expand on this? Does your cat yowl at the door / window? Does he scratch at the door? Or, does he try to escape every time you open the door?

Because ignoring him when he acts upset is the best thing to do. Or distracting him with something completely unrelated, but not in a way that he begins to associate being annoying with positive attention. Like, turning on one of those laser light toys that cats get so fixated on.

If he's running out the door, I don't really know how to fix that for your cat, unless he properly responds to your disappointed tone of voice. You know: "Magnet ... what do you think you're doing?" [kitty cowers and skulks away].

When he meows in the middle of the night, I get up and play with him or snuggle him.

This is an example of associating being annoying with positive attention.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:41 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

We transitioned all of our cats to indoor-only after the youngest, Ralphie, was hit and killed by a car in our otherwise very quiet, very sedate street. It's not even a through-street. We were devastated and we decided we couldn't even take the tiniest chance that it would happen to one of the others (we had three then, and have since taken in another).

Most of them transitioned very well. It just takes patience. The one who clearly didn't like the new plan calmed down after a while. He'll still try to dash out if someone holds the door open a little too long, but mostly he doesn't care. We play with them and they have smack-downs with each other. No one seems worse for the wear and I know they won't get hit by cars. It's a win-win situation for me.
posted by cooker girl at 4:46 PM on January 29, 2010

We had to do this several years ago with one of my cats. He is now an old kitty (13 I think?) and he still sits next to the door and meows loudly. Pretty much constantly. I just recommend being patient and playing with them a lot so they don't get bored indoors. And they will try to escape every time you open the door, so be careful.

I still think it's a good idea to make kitties indoor-only because of the horrible deaths that potentially await them outside--hit by cars, eaten by dogs, killed by a hawk, etc. Maybe you should tell this to the person who insists kitties be outside whenever they want. Occasionally I will let my cat outside in a harness and leash (they make cat harnesses, maybe you should get one), while I sit on the porch and read or something, just so he doesn't feel too deprived.
posted by Lobster Garden at 4:47 PM on January 29, 2010

A gradual transition might go smoother than a sudden indoor-only change. I adopted a neighborhood cat who had been living outdoors for quite some time. I didn't want him running around at all hours since there are coyotes and other bad things that roam around here at night. He was quite the free spirit, though, and while keeping him in at night worked OK he was pretty insistent on outdoor time. We were able to start letting him out later and bringing him earlier a bit at a time. Eventually he was only outside for a bit each day and he didn't mind being inside the rest of the time.

I respect your desire to keep your cat indoors and safe. I did the same for years. Eventually, when I lived with someone who had a cat door that wasn't going away I let my cats go outside. My old boy cat absolutely blossomed when he got to run around. He went from being low energy and early-stage arthritic to being a bright eyed turbo butt. Every cat is different - another one of my cats doesn't care about going outside at all. Check in with your cat to see how he's feeling after a while inside though.
posted by rhiannon at 4:47 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

We're in the midst of the transition with our three. Since it's currently bitter cold they aren't complaining too much but I know it will be MUCH harder when spring comes. We've provided more kitty toys, more catnap and best of all a large cardboard box - which they constantly play fight in. I don't know how well it will work when the weather gets warm in my 100+ year old house. The house is porous - windows with screens they can push out and the like will make it a struggle but our street has gotten much busier and I don't want to loose another kitty to a car.

One comment though - I wouldn't get up to play and cuddle in the middle of the night or your cat will think that's ok behavior all the time. Good luck!
posted by leslies at 4:59 PM on January 29, 2010

We've been doing this with our indoor outdoor cat and it's been . . . hard. Some weeks he seems fine with it. Some, he wakes us up at 4 a.m. and sprays around the house to tell us how unhappy he is. Hopefully, it will be worth it, though. I've spent probably well over a thousand dollars over the last three years on stupid cat bills from stuff like tummy infections, abscesses from fighting, and the like, and there are coyotes in our town so I don't want to deal with it.

Some things that have helped:

-Air cans/water bottles by the bed when he gets annoying at night. Do not get out of bed and play with your cat at night. This just rewards him. Out cat is actually very well "trained" to get out of the room (we have a two room apartment with no doors) and shut up when we even grope for the air can.

-Lots of petting and playing.

-Feliway. Oh god, feliway. The first month, this did wonders. He was a sleepy, happy, contented cat. This month--the second--it hasn't worked as well. No idea why.

-More litter boxes, and a new litter that he liked more than the last one. He was quite attached to pooping outside and held it in for the first three days until we supplied him with another box.

-Open windows (with screens, of course) for him to gaze out of.

-Bringing him to visit relatives just before the switch. We stayed with the mister's brother in another state with the cat, and he got used to staying in there, which made the situation much easier.

Still, it's been a bit of a pain. Cats are assholes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:42 PM on January 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Bird feeder outside a window so he can watch
Liberal doses of catnip (I wouldn't give it when he's annoying you or that reinforces pesky behavior)
Raw food once in a while (ground chicken, chicken organs, fish, etc)
Cat grass to munch
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:57 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, you sound pretty attentive, so I offer this advice if the transition doesn't go well...

IF you already don't yell at your cat regularly - there is hope. Where I used to live, every outdoor cat previous to mine had been hit by a car. Being choice-less in the matter because the Wild One refused all indoor restrictions, we went through a pretty rigorous training program concerning the street and cars. This worked because I didn't have a history of yelling at her except when she was in serious danger.

Here's how I did it.

We would go outside together. Perhaps I would get caught in conversation or be gardening, one eye on the Wild One. Eventually, she would venture towards the street. When she was there, I would pick her up (or coax her to me then pick her up) cradle under her butt, pull the scruff of her neck (like momma cats, but gently) and growl at her "NO." Right in the eye. Repeat. Then I would take her back into the yard and drop her off.

It took two to three months, but it worked. She lived there without incident for 4 years.

Like rhiannon reports, these cats I have now (indoor/outdoor) are MUCH happier and healthier than my previous indoor-only cats. I live near busy streets and coyotes, also giant possums. Strays abound. Here is my philosophy:

The one cat timid cat who mostly stays indoors - good on her! As for the Wild One, if something bad (forbid!) ever did happen (my indoor/out childhood cat died of Feline Leukimia - I get the risks beyond cars and predators) Wild One will have lived a shorter but very happy life on her own terms.

I don't recommend using that strategy involving the neck scruff to keep your cat from going outdoors, however. It won't make sense to your cat and it will make him afraid of you inside of the home you share together. Plus - you can only use it applied to one or two serious issues. Apply that training technique wisely and sparingly.

As with everything else associated with training a cat to NOT to do something... applying any strategy unwisely will only turn the unwanted behavior in question into a power struggle between Owner and Feline. There is a reason for the saying, "It's lke herding cats!" They're, ummm, not like dogs:)

A little anecdata: The tame one was adopted as a wee kitten, Wild One was on the streets for 3 or 4 months before rescue. You can do the math there.
posted by jbenben at 6:05 PM on January 29, 2010

Best answer: Repeating the Feliway suggestion. (Generally and hand wavilly), it contains kitty facial hormones, so the cat will think it marked the feliway sprayed areas as good and comforting areas to be, as well as not good ones to poop/pee. There's a spray version and a plug in diffuser version.

Also repeating the many-litterboxes suggestion. I have a cat that was outdoors as a kitten, and I think he thought that grass (where he used to relieve himself) was equivalent to carpet (where he certainly shouldn't relieve himself). The more litterboxes, the less likely the cat will be to not use one because it's been used too many times. And if the cat's used to being outdoors, it's probably used to always having a new place to go, and several different places to go. On the other hand, it occurs to me that if Magnet is using the litterbox without incident, you could just stick with one since it's easier to clean one than many.

It's great that you have a cat tree. Maybe think about getting more scratching posts and similar things (e.g.) -- the cat was also probably used to scratching at many different things outside, so mimicking that indoors would probably be a good idea.

Also, I wonder if not having the cat tree overlook the window would be better. My cat goes friggin nuts (in a bad way) if he sees a bird or something outside, or even a fly inside. I'm not sure about this, but you could try moving the cat tree and limiting his ability to watch the outside to see if it makes him calmer or more content. It could just be my cat that freaks out when he sees nature-like things, though.

Maybe a cat water fountain (perhaps with a cat grass add on) would be good too -- both fun to play with and reminiscent of flowing water outside.

Some cat grass in general could also be good. (Maybe Magnet ate grass outside).

Oh, you've probably been doing this since Magnet was indoor/outdoor before, but make sure to treat for fleas. If there are dormant eggs inside at all (even from previous owners/dwellers of the house), a cat being around all the time will facilitate the survival of a thriving flea population. I recommend using both Program (oral) and a topical like Advantage or Frontline. (Uh, IANAVet.)
posted by sentient at 6:14 PM on January 29, 2010

Um. Sorry to keep writing!



I'm just trying to tell you that it might not go OK because your cat has been outside too long where he currently resides.

If it doesn't work out, you might try this again when you move to a new place.

Thanks for this question. You sound like a very responsible owner *smiles*.
posted by jbenben at 6:18 PM on January 29, 2010

Best answer: I am sympathetic. I have two that lived from birth to 8 or so weeks outside. I brought them home and they haven't been outside since. When discussing the indoor/outdoor thing, a friend told me essentially that indoors only is inconsiderate and asked me how I would like living on one room my whole life. It stuck with me and I felt horribly guilty for awhile. But, bottom line, there's a trade off: adventurous, possibly short life or safe secure long life. Bottom line? This ain't the wild west and open prairies...it's a damn dangerous, toxic world out there. And life out there is hard on the wee ones. When confronted by outdoors-rightsists, I simply say I haven't the constitution to allow kitties to roam free. I would freak at every car squeal and every yeowl.

We built a screen enclosure outside of our front door, as a kitty escape buffer zone. Floor to ceiling screen...they love it. Bring in rocks and leaves for Magnet to roll around in. Pick up some leaves or whatnot from the ground where you work or from other places so Magnet can smell new smells.

Nthing Feliway...never had to try it but I've heard it works wonders.

And do sit down with Magnet as jbenben suggested and explain to her why you are making the change. It makes a difference.

There are also cat enclosure-type products...kittywalks, that may be useful. You may want to wait on those, though.
posted by Jezebella at 8:36 PM on January 29, 2010

Best answer: A leash! A leash!

When I adopted my cat, she was a stray living outdoors who was very glad to come indoors (freezing cold weather). As a responsible parent, I wanted her to stay indoors, away from animals, cars, and diseases. As a cat with extensive outdoor experience, she wanted to go out. So we reached a compromise. She was allowed to go out, but only in a harness and attached leash, with me holding the other end of the leash. That has worked fine for several years: She gets her outdoor time and is a happy cat; I get to ensure her safety. (A lot of passers-by will comment "I've never seen that before!" but a few have confided that they have a friend who walks their cat on a leash.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:56 PM on January 29, 2010

Grow some grass in a container and let your cat eat it. The main reason my cat really, really wanted to go outside was to nibble some green stuff.

Some cats seem to need / want it more than others, but some reeeeally want it.

You can buy wheat (which is a kind of grass seed) in bulk at stores like Whole Foods. I'd advise having two containers - this method seems to lead to grass that's only yummy for a certain time, then you'll need to empty that container and start a fresh batch; having another batch going already means you won't be without.

Also, cats love to hide and play in plants. If you can set up an area with a bunch of cat-safe house plants for him to creep through, that will probably help a lot. Ditto sunbeams, fresh air, view of bird feeder.
posted by amtho at 9:22 PM on January 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all these great suggestions and responses!

OK, I am hearing the message loud and clear about not getting up and playing with him at night. I have always done that, because I get too anxious and/or irritated lying in bed while he meooooowwwwwws pitifully at the bedroom door (he also jumps up into the air, against the door, which makes a huge thumping sound). Will try to change my behavior about this, but I need some help buying into cat behaviorism/operant conditioning. Any reading suggestions?

I really like the leash and "you can go out when I can keep an eye on you" ideas! I would really like to be able to make him an outdoor enclosure so that he could be out but safe. It would be so great if we had another kitty to keep him company (when he moved with us, he got separated from his brother-cat, and they hang out outside sometimes when brother-cat is out too), but I don't think it's an option.

He's been doing fine with his litterbox (although he has always been really stubborn about pooping inside, when he was sick all of last week, he had to go in the box quite often, and he has been fine with it since then). We have tried to give him cat grass before, but he was uninterested. Maybe it would be good to try it again now? And Feliway, I'll think about that.

PS. I do understand the suggestions that maybe I should just let him go outside anyway, etc.--and thanks for that input--but I made this choice with intention because he is at real risk of death in multiple ways where I live. If this doesn't work out well, I really like the idea of just limiting the amount of time he gets to spend outside to what I feel comfortable with.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:34 PM on January 29, 2010

Best answer: You've asked about night meowing. I'm going to copy and paste part of an answer I gave to somebody else a little while ago.

"That's another difficult one to eradicate once you've allowed/reinforced it. We have a night meower that we have [...] cured of the problem. If the ear plugs and white noise won't be sufficient, you'll need to take some steps to stop the behavior.

First and foremost: do not reinforce their meowing by personally responding in any way, positive or negative. Don't talk to/yell at them, make noises at them, squirt them, or open doors for them. That's going to be the hardest part. If you have a way to make a loud, unpleasant noise that cannot in any way be associated with you, go ahead and use that when they meow.

Keep them alert and active during the day, especially in the afternoon/evening. Get cat toys they love, leave them around the house, and trade them out on occasion. Hide treats around the house for them to find. Wear the cats out by playing them at night before you go to bed (think laser toy or "da bird"). Leave toys in the area they meow at night.

Along the same lines, give them attention/affection during the day and especially before you go to bed. [...] Brushing them, petting them, talking to them, and allowing them to sit on your lap all count.

Make sure they have a comfort zone at night, such as a soft bed in an area away from any noises or disturbances, such as a central air vent. Close your blinds and curtains to block any outside stimulation. You may want to consider using Feliway in their comfort area and in the area they meow at night.

So, night-meowing summary: activity and attention during the day, quiet area and an outlet at night. Ignore the meowing when it happens."
posted by moira at 1:18 PM on January 30, 2010

A note about squirting your cat with an air can or water bottle: I've seen comments here, and elsewhere on metafilter, about what a terrible idea this is because it just teaches your cats to fear you. I was reluctant to use this method, and so put up with being walked all over every night until my husband moved in. He was insistent that we use water bottles, and you know what? My cat, at least, seems smart enough to know the difference between human+middle of the night+water bottle in hand and just a human alone. Heck, he's fine with coming up into the bed when he's invited. This extremely brief reprimand hasn't made Sam Katz fearful of us at all; he just seems to really, really hate being squirted, and it helped us move away from a routine where I was waking up every night at 4 a.m. to let him out.

That being said, we don't have a door to shut our kitty out; since you do, earplugs and ignoring him is probably the way to go.

Oh, for leash walking your cat: mine just squirms his way out of normal harnesses. A walking jacket tends to work better for slippery kitties.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:43 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

My understanding about the squirt bottle is that in these cases, it acts as a negative reinforcer of the behavior. I've also read and heard - and my own experience has borne this out - that it's ineffective for behavior modification beyond getting the cat to stop doing what he's doing while you're standing there threatening him with the bottle.

We initially tried the water bottle for our night meower. It worked for several minutes. Your cat may vary.
posted by moira at 9:30 AM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: I'm not even interested in starting to use a spray bottle because 1) I don't have any interest in punishment-based attempts at conditioning, and 2) my cat doesn't really do anything "bad", just annoying. If I sprayed every human in the face who annoyed me, I'd do nothing but that all day. I can deal with being annoyed.
posted by so_gracefully at 11:02 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have any interest in punishment-based attempts at conditioning

You sound like a great cat-parent! I can't tell you how much I dislike the idea of using spray bottles on cats.

I think you'll be going through a lot of trial-and-error based on the responses here - let us know what works? Good luck.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:54 AM on February 1, 2010

"If I sprayed every human in the face who annoyed me, I'd do nothing but that all day."

Best. Idea. Ever.
posted by jbenben at 4:06 PM on February 1, 2010

for health and safety reasons

What about his mental health?

We'd all be safer if we never went outside.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 5:18 PM on February 2, 2010

Response by poster: UPDATE!!

He's been inside pretty happily for a couple months. It tends to agitate him a little bit more to sit in doorways and windows when they're open (he watches all the big fat squirrels run around in the yard, and wants to chomp them), so we have a lot of places for him to hang out that aren't right near windows, in addition to lots of places where he can sit in the window. The nighttime meowing has gone down a lot, and only usually happens if he needs a refill on crunchies or wants to announce to me that he has captured a toy.

What I have found that seems to be the magic combination is: we play a lot during the day with lots of running and jumping, I snuggle with him right before I go to bed, make sure his box is clean and the dish has some food in it, and then he sleeps through the night (or at least entertains himself) 8-9 nights out of 10.

I haven't used a leash or harness or supervised outdoor time yet, but am still considering it at some point. He's only "escaped" twice or so, and he just runs out on the porch and rolls around (as opposed to taking off down the block), so I trust that he's doing fine. He no longer tries to run out the door as people come in or out, and he's very content to hang around in his favorite spots in the house (the doorway of my bedroom! he's like my own personal bouncer). I also still don't use a spray bottle.

His mental health is perfectly fine, and he lets me know very often that he still loves me a lot.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:53 PM on March 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

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