Miserable, meowing newly-indoor cats
July 18, 2012 9:39 PM   Subscribe

I know this has been asked in one form or another, but I need to ask again: how can I help my cats transition from indoor/outdoor life to indoor only?

Last Saturday a neighbor very angrily confronted us, telling us that at least one of our cats has repeatedly dug and pooped in their backyard garden. (These are the same cats that I wrote about a few weeks ago because they were leaving little mouse and mole bodies in another, more friendly, neighbor's yard for his 3-year-old to find.) Knowing that human needs must come before cat needs, I had to make the decision to keep them both inside permanently. This is breaking my heart, and, worse, making my kitties miserable.

Mimi is 3 years old, a spayed female, and a prodigious hunter and tree-climber. Bug is her 2 year old daughter, also spayed, and loves hanging outside, especially following us when we walk our elderly lab mix and running up trees. In the summer these girls spend almost all their time outside, coming in only for their 2 meals each day, and sometimes not even then. (I'm sorry for not including the obligatory pictures, but I don't know how to attach them. Not much of a techie.)

By the way, neither cat is particularly affectionate with us humans (me and my 2 teens); they're quite aloof and cold, so lavishing them with attention really doesn't help and actually annoys them.

So now neither one will shut up, continually following us everywhere in the house, meowing loudly. I feel just AWFUL! They are so terribly unhappy, and I feel so guilty. But I don't think there's an alternative.

I guess I'm asking for advice on 1) is there anything we can do to make them less miserable, and 2) the meowing is almost intolerable (it's like listening to a baby cry but being unable to do anything to make it stop); what can I do to bear it?

Should I find them another home where they can go outside? That would kill me, but I feel responsible for their happiness!

Help! Thanks.
posted by primate moon to Pets & Animals (20 answers total)
Invisible Fence for cats.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:04 PM on July 18, 2012

Will either of them tolerate a harness or walking jacket? We have a walking jacket for our big tom Sammy, who was once an indoor/outdoor cat. He loves going on walks around the yard, which take about 15 minutes or so every few days. It seems to let him release enough energy to be happy-ish.

Even with cat walkies, you'll still inevitably have to put up with some cat whining. That's how they train you to just let them out! The trick is to ignore it and be a bad human. Eventually they'll give up.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:16 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cats will complain about all kinds of things, including not being allowed to go out, and this includes my elderly calico who has never in her life been an outside cat, who occasionally goes and starts pawing at the front doorknob. My kitten complains about six times a day of intense starvation despite there being crunchy food out all the time; she wants the good stuff from the fridge.

They stop meowing before long if they realize you're not giving in. Distractions are good. Spray bottles or a few shakes of a jar full of loose change if the distractions fail. I have inside-ified several cats in the past and aside from having to watch for escapees when going in and out, they had generally adjusted fine within a week or two.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:14 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

After two of his three years inside, my cat still makes me feel guilty about keeping him indoors, but I actually think I'm probably anthropomorphizing a bit and he is more than likely pretty fine with it. To ameliorate my guilt I bought him one of those big cat trees (the kind with several levels and a little tunnel and carpet and jute textures for him to climb and scratch on) and I put it by a window. If I feel like he's getting too agitated, I spray feliway on the cat tree as well as along the doorways and windows where he hangs out.

As gracedissolved points out, distraction is good for dealing with the yowling. I have one of those laser lights and it works 99% of the time to distract him (plus it's such an easy toy to grab and use, even if you're busy doing something else).

It will get better, and you'll probably start to feel at least a little better about it too! Your neighbors will stop hating you, your vet bills are likely to go down, and your cat might get more cuddly/interactive with you (mine did!).
posted by gubenuj at 11:34 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Knowing that human needs must come before cat needs

This is true, but not having a cat digging in your yard isn't really a need - it's a minor annoyance at worst. Cats (and other animals) are just a part of life, and there's lots of options for dealing with them digging in your yard (cat repellents, etc.) If you're set on keeping your cats inside, that's fine, but to me, your neighbor is being unreasonable and, were it me, I'd buy them a bottle of cat repellent to spray over the area the cat's using.
posted by xchmp at 1:48 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another option, if your yard is fenced in: install Cat Fence-In. It might take a few tries to get is perfectly right - it did for me - but once those tricky places were fixed up, it kept my cat in my back yard at night, and kept other cats and such out.

I did this to protect my cat, Puppy, when he was getting beaten up by another cat, who'd come into my yard in the early hours of the morning. And Puppy had been living on the street for too long when we met for me to want to make him a purely indoor cat, although my other two are.
posted by jeri at 4:55 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

We made the transition for our 3 cats a few years ago and it's been ok. We did get a tall kitty tower with multiple platforms and that helped a lot - they play king of the mountain, scratch it to bits in a way that no other scratching post has encouraged, sleep on it and just love it. We've also made a point of having more kitty toys than we used to and that seems to help as well.
posted by leslies at 5:03 AM on July 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

--The cats actually were confined to the indoors for about a 6 month period at one point while we worked on putting together enough money to spay them (long period of broke unemployment). They never stopped meowing and trying to escape and being miserable during that period. We could bear it better then, knowing it was temporary. Now, knowing it's permanent, it's harder, and I feel more guilty.

--Our yard is not fenced, and we cannot fence it because we rent.

--I don't know if cat repellent would work on the neighbor's garden--they grow veggies and fruits which they eat. Can you use cat repellent on edible stuff? I also think they would not be cooperative; they were real jerks about this, even while I apologized and affirmed their anger and sympathized and promised to keep the cats inside. Also, this in addition to the other neighbor being unhappy with dead Mimi prey in his yard...

--No way would they tolerate being leashed or harnessed.

I think we all just have to suck it up. I guess I had a fantasy that there might be some magical answer to take away my guilt.
posted by primate moon at 5:05 AM on July 19, 2012

A Catio might be nice.

I'd also see if you could get them to walk on harnesses.

Nothing is perfect and life with a vocal and unhappy cat is as far from perfect as one can get.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:01 AM on July 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

How about a big outdoor cat enclosure (= free standing wooden framed box with plastic netting nailed all around and over the top)? It could be connected to a window/cat flap so cats can go in & out as they please. They still get to hang out outside on the grass, if you have a big enclosure you could put in a tree for climbing and scratching, and a few spots with blankets/pillows for sleeping. Never forget about providing shade.
This would keep your cats from leaving your yard and interacting with other animals and humans and feels better than being kept indoors.

Pros: fairly easy to build, not expensive, adjustable size, cats stay in determined space, not a permanent structure like a fence
Cons: Landlord? Neighbors? It is not exactly pretty, but oh well....

On preview, Ruthless Bunny nailed it with the catio!
posted by travelwithcats at 6:10 AM on July 19, 2012

Came in here to suggest Catio/outdoor enclosure/catdoor. Ours are EXCLUSIVELY inside (for many reasons) but these alternatives seem to be popular, give your cat some choice (which really, I know it's anthropomorphizing, but they do want to be able to do what they want in some way).

I'd just . .be sure it's really claw proof, and keep their paws manicured. Good luck.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:33 AM on July 19, 2012

To take your guilt away, tell yourself that you are increasing their lifespans from about 4 years to 12 or more years. Also, you are preventing them from being picked up by the SPCA or similar group, which the neighbor might call if they get too upset.

Also, you can provide them with alternatives. For example, cat-friendly plants in indoor planters for them to munch on, scratching posts in lieu of trees, and opened drapes or blinds so they can see outside and sit in the sun.
posted by Houstonian at 6:42 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing we did for my previously-feral kitten who was desperate to be an outdoor cat was put up a nice wide cat-shelf on one of the windows (something along these lines; they makes ones that attach to all different sorts of windows, permanently and temporarily, so even renters can do it) where there were a lot of birds and squirrels outside, and then put up a bird feeder outside that window so there would be even MORE birds and squirrels. (We call this "buying him friends.") Later, when we moved into a house we owned, we also planted plants that attract birds and butterflies in the area visible from that window so they would draw even more wildlife year round for him to watch, which may not be an option for you if you're renting.

We would leave that window open for him as often as possible (he could not defeat screens) so he could get fresh air and chatter at the birds and pretend he was king of the jungle. He was so entranced by his window of wildlife that he quit racing for the door every time it opened because he might miss the birds doing something interesting!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:07 AM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

They never stopped meowing and trying to escape and being miserable during that period. We could bear it better then, knowing it was temporary. Now, knowing it's permanent, it's harder, and I feel more guilty.

Well, but at that time they weren't fixed and wanted to go out and get laid. It's different after spaying.

Have you watched My Cat from Hell? I have a feeling Jackson would tell you to play with them more. An exhausted cat is a good cat.

Look, my cat used to knock bedside items onto my face at 3 am when I first kept him in. If I can do it, you can do it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:13 AM on July 19, 2012

I think you're right to keep them in - cats pooping in a food garden is serious bad news. Their poop can spread nasty stuff to humans. Ignoring human concerns, by keeping them inside you are really doing them a great favor. You are keeping them out of danger from cars, people, dogs, larger wildlife, etc. Indoor cats live much longer and also healthier lives than indoor/outdoor cats.

The first thing I encourage you to do is stop feeling guilty and get tough. Spray them with a spray bottle every time they start yowling to be let out.

Along with the stick, you should give them carrots: a nice cat tower to climb on, placed in a window so they can stare outside at all the birds, new toys, nice wet food as a treat, etc. If an outdoor cat-room is an option, that's easy to setup - a small dog kennel with a roof makes a great catio, but you need to have an unused door to put it on. Eyebrows McGee's idea is also a great one.

Bascially, they're yowling because they are bored. Get them interested in indoor things, and that will help, as well letting them know that you aren't going to put up with their yowling.
posted by zug at 10:18 AM on July 19, 2012

I think you're right to keep them in - cats pooping in a food garden is serious bad news.

Only if people don't wash their vegatables. There's about 8 million cats in the UK, the vast majority of which range outside. In some areas there can be 2000 cats per square kilometer. Lots of people grow vegetables and this really isn't a serious health concern for anyone. Wild animals do the same thing so it's not like any extra precautions are needed simply because it's a cat.

Ignoring human concerns, by keeping them inside you are really doing them a great favor. You are keeping them out of danger from cars, people, dogs, larger wildlife, etc. Indoor cats live much longer and also healthier lives than indoor/outdoor cats.

There's really poor evidence for this. See this page which has a nice analysis of the available evidence. Short story: Neutered female cats are only rarely involved in traffic accidents and the increased risk of disease is also fairly minor except for intact male cats (who often pick up diseases by fighting). Insufficient exercise is often a problem for indoor-only cats which can lead to obesity and diseases like diabetes and heart disease. These significantly reduce cats' quality of life.

There might be reasons for not letting a cat outside, but it's really not the unequivocal good that it's often argued to be.
posted by xchmp at 11:08 AM on July 19, 2012

Rehoming cats is terribly, terribly hard these days as there are just so many of them (cats, that is) and the difficulty just gets higher as the cats get older and/or less cuddly. Kudos to you for being cool with your kitties' semi-feral nature, and I'd advise doing whatever you can to keep them.

That said, I see a number of others have already suggested catios...this is a seriously awesome thing to do if you can manage it, and doesn't have to be expensive. Nor does it have to damage the house/building, which I know you can't really do as a renter. Here are some neat examples:


So, that's one thing to possibly try. But that said, most cats who have to start living indoors for whatever reason WILL eventually get used to it. And even non-cuddly cats generally like to play! I help out with a local feral colony (doing Trap-Neuter-Return and whatnot) and most of those cats won't let themselves be touched at all. But they still enjoy chasing feather toys and other interactive playthings and I've made friends with many of them through play.

Since your girls sound like they enjoy hunting, they'd probably settle down a lot indoors if you could find some interactive toys they like. I'm fond of one called "Da Bird"..it's not very expensive and uses a long rod, a long string, and a fishing spinner (no hook, mind you!) attached to a small bunch of feathers. If you try toys like this, remember to move them like prey. I've seen a lot of people basically whack their cats in the face with toys and then claim their cat "doesn't like" toys or isn't interested. When really the issue is that the human is playing all wrong. You want the toy to move ACROSS the cat's field of vision, not straight at their face, and to make wiggling motions and dart away. (And believe me, this sounds way more complicated than it actually is -- it's very easy once you get the hang of it, and a few minutes a day can make a tremendous difference for even a very energetic cat).

Also, it's good that you seem to care a lot about your kitties' happiness, but remember that cats can be *quite* the drama-queens. They're not meowing because they feel like they're being tortured, they're meowing because it gets results and probably because they're bored. They're not going to die from being indoors.

On the personal-experience front: I had to transition my 10-year-old kitty to indoor-only last yearish after she'd spent several years living mostly outdoors (she used to be my parents' cat until they moved). She was just getting into too many fights and running up the vet bills as well as scaring me half to death (the last straw was a serious abscessed bite wound from something clearly much larger than her, in conjunction with a snapped-off canine tooth!). And she was PISSED when I started keeping her in. Constant pacing and yowl-howling (she's Siamese so you can imagine the noise!) and scratching and trying to climb the kitchen doors like she was attempting to escape a fire. It was awful and I did feel terrible on her behalf. But even she eventually settled down. In her case the key turned out to be consistency. I did not let her out AT ALL no matter how much she yelled and no matter how bad I felt. Eventually she settled down and while she's still kind of a grouch sometimes, she clearly isn't miserable. She has a few toys she likes and plenty of sunbeams to nap in. Etc.
posted by aecorwin at 12:28 PM on July 19, 2012

Response by poster: More terrific responses. We do have a large porch (2nd floor; our apartment is 2nd and 3rd floors) with unlimited access for them. We keep their litter box out there (another con against inside cats: cleaning the litter box! We've gotten very unused to the using it at all. Oh, well.) and we have installed a cat flap in the window leading out there.

I think lots of you are right in suggesting more playing and toys. We've gotten unused to engaging them this way, since they have spent so much time outdoors, and because they are both so aloof. We just assumed they really didn't want to play with us. But I think this might be a really good idea. I think I'll set the kids to making some great cat toys out of crumpled paper balls and string and other fun stuff.

Thanks, all!
posted by primate moon at 2:50 PM on July 19, 2012

I have a former outdoor cat who has become happy living inside. Like some other posters above, I suggest plenty of perches with an outside view for him, and letting go of your own narrative of the poor, sad kitties. I worried so much when I moved him, but now I don't think my guy was sad--he just wanted what he wanted and meowed to communicate that. And he was easily distracted. He's much more affectionate now, too. It did take a while, so be prepared.
posted by feste at 5:14 PM on July 19, 2012

Oh good gracious, yes, even "aloof" cats love to play! Play is actually one of the main (and most effective) ways that professional catfolk socialize feral kittens and cats. It's a fun and very non-threatening way to interact with them on their terms.

And re. litterboxes, by far the absolute best way to make the chore of scooping it a non-issue is to scoop every day, without ever skipping a day. I have 3 litterboxes and they all get scooped twice daily and this takes maybe 3-4 minutes TOTAL. It's practically effortless when stuff hasn't had time to build up. A properly maintained litter box will not smell like anything at all unless someone has JUST used it. If you get a nasty ammonia-whiff that's a good sign the pee is hanging around too long. And clumping litter is probably one of the most fantastical inventions ever. There's a great technique for super-easy and effective litterbox maintenance here (with a video and everything; the website author is a vet):


...and apologies for tangenting about litterboxen in this thread, but it's become one of my zealot issues given how many cats lose their homes (and, sadly, often their lives) over "box issues". Best of luck, at any rate, to you and your kitties!
posted by aecorwin at 7:55 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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