Indoor cat to Outdoor cat
June 18, 2021 2:22 AM   Subscribe

Our Molly has been an indoor cat for as long as we had her - up until recently. We lived in a flat with her for over 5 years and she was kept indoors with some outings to the backyard on a leash. However, we recently moved and it is proving to be almost impossible to keep her as an indoor cat anymore (much to our anxiety and stress!) and would like some guidance on how we can transition to her being an outdoor cat as we have no experience with this.

Please refrain from berating us about her becoming an outdoor cat. We don't want her to be an outdoor cat. But for reasons stated below, it's become untenable to force her to be indoors anymore.

We've moved to a big house with wide sliding glass doors to the backyard. We have limped along by trying to keep the doors only open slightly ajar but this has become fruitless. We have a toddler and it's just not possible to teach her to keep the doors only slightly ajar. We tried blocking her to the other parts of the house when we want those doors open but again, keeping her indoors is not foolproof with children and guests. And most recently, she's become houdini, squeezing herself out of bedroom and bathroom windows. Just yesterday I thought we had done all the necessary measures and then I found her outside the closed (!) sliding glass doors staring at me to be let in.

So, tell me about outdoor cats. Do they come home regularly? How do I know she knows where "home" is? Do we need to install a cat door somewhere or do we let her in and out on a regular schedule? At what point do I worry if I don't see her in a while? She gets fed regularly from an auto-feeder and she has an uncanny ability to know when it opens. When I found her outside yesterday it was about 15 minutes after her food was dispensed. That's a good sign right?

We are just about to order a GPS collar asap and she is already microchipped and I'm going to make a vet appt to get her flea medication. Anything else?

We're already trying to strengthen our hearts knowing her risks have gone up significantly, so any words of experience is appreciated.
posted by like_neon to Pets & Animals (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Cat tax!
posted by like_neon at 2:23 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I take my cats to the country in the summer for several weeks. They don't add much burden to the local critter population because there are a hell of a lot of stray and barn cats there, so the critters are plenty wary, and I only ever had one hunter that actually presented me with mice. They generally stick to the garden and nearest neighbours. In the 30 years I've been doing this with on average two cats every year, I've lost one cat to a car on a nearby road, and seen several of mine venture there - I suspect they're visiting the barn cats on the other side of the road, because those cats also occasionally come over - but that was the only casualty. 99% of the time they're within sight, or come when called (especially to dinner), and they tend to sleep inside at night because they feel safer there, and warmer.

I go without a cat flap, but the door is open most of the day when I'm at home, plus checked often in the evening. No collar attempts lasted more than 24 hours. The most trouble I get is when it's time to go home, because you want them to do their business in the morning before the car ride, but then it's a challenge to hunt them down. Especially the smart ones that figure out what packing suitcases means!

Oh right - big advantage to outdoor cats is that they prefer the outdoors to the litterbox. I'd recommend setting up something outside that's appealing, because otherwise she might pick your prized flowers. We have a patch of sandy soil under the raised deck that's out of the way, good for digging and offers good sightlines so the cats feel safe.

The risk is there, and I miss that kitty like blazes. But even in the city my cats love watching things on the balcony so much that each year I end up packing them up for their holidays.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:49 AM on June 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm in London where the vast majority of people I know and people who live around me have indoor/outdoor cats.

I don't have a cat at the moment, but have spent a long time preparing to adopt one and my answers are derived from my conversations with various shelters about outdoor access for cats. (Many (but not all) UK shelters will only adopt to you if you can guarantee that your cat will have outdoor space, unless the kitty is FIV+ etc.) So I will answer some of your questions based on what I know.

Battersea Cats and Dogs have lots of good information about letting your cat out.

How do I know she knows where "home" is?

So the advice from shelters is that when you adopt a cat, or when you move, you keep the cat indoors for 4-6 weeks. That means all windows and doors to the outside are kept closed all the time. This allows them to establish this new space as their territory. Once they have done so, if you let them out they will come back because they know this is where their food is and this is their space. I don't know how long you have lived at your current home, so I don't know how helpful that is.

Do we need to install a cat door somewhere or do we let her in and out on a regular schedule?

It depends on if someone is home to let her in and out on demand. I'm very home based so I have been okayed to take in an outdoor cat on the understanding that I will let one in and out, that I will ensure that my garden has a sheltered spot for the cat to go to if it rains, and that I won't leave the cat out overnight. If I could, I would get a microchip cat flap that would only let my cat in and no other. (But I'm not allowed to put a catflap into my back door.) You can get cat flaps with the facility to be indoor-access only after a certain time, so she wouldn't be able to go back out again between say 9pm and 6am.

Is an outdoor catio an option at all?
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:54 AM on June 18, 2021

Best answer: All of the major UK-based pet charities have pretty basic, starter guides for letting cats out. Here's one from Cats Protection which is where we adopted our cat from. And another one from Battersea. If you read through a few of those type of articles that might help.

We have an outdoor cat (also in the UK). To answer your questions - our cat knows where home is for sure, we waited about 5 weeks after adopting him to let him out which gives them enough time to mark their territory and understand where home is. He is in and out all day, to be honest, sometimes goes out for like 5 minutes, sometimes a few hours. He comes back for food, if the weather doesn't suit him, to get cuddles, to take naps in his nice cat bed, usual cat business. We have a cat door but didn't have one at first and it was easy enough, we just kept our sliding door open most of the time, or opened it to let him in and out. We always make sure he is in by nighttime, you can also get cat flaps that you can switch to be entry-only (so if the cat's not back by night you can switch it so they can get back in but then can't go out again). But I would not really worry if he spent a night outdoors. I think I would worry if I hadn't seen him for 24 hours.

I will say we have a very friendly, quiet neighbourhood with several cats around - people know whose cats are whose and it's common for there to be posts on our neighbourhood FB group if a new cat turns up in a garden, followed by reassurances "oh she belongs to Sue in number 10" etc. If anyone posts about their cat not turning up at night they are always swiftly found. I don't know how recently you moved but it might be worth asking around to see if there's a similar collective watching-out-for-cats kind of thing going on where you live, might give you some peace of mind.
posted by cpatterson at 3:01 AM on June 18, 2021

For what it's worth, friends of mine had a similar issue. They wanted to keep their cats inside as they were living in a flat that was pretty high in a tower block and didn't want said cats going wandering into potentially dangerous places, but also had sliding doors out to their patio. They bought some mesh screens to fit over the doors that you can just unzip, but it allows the doors to be open for the fresh air and keeps the cats in.

There's a UK company that does standard and custom mesh screens for windows and doors, if you'd like to explore locking things down before accepting the inevitable. (The link also contains many photos of adorable cats with foiled escape plans.)
posted by fight or flight at 3:17 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much! Great information already and the links are perfect. Just a bit more info for those interested:
- We've been at the new house for almost 3 months and as I've said tried to keep her mainly indoors for almost all of that period so she's well settled into the house.
- Good idea to alert the neighbours! I know there are a few cats wandering around so she won't be the only one out there. But the neighbourhood (very residential) also has a few missing cat posters :(
- The timed cat flap is a really good suggestion, we'll look into that.

So far the comments have helped me feel less stressed about the situation so thank you very much.
posted by like_neon at 3:30 AM on June 18, 2021

I had a cat who used to climb the curtains and generally cause a ruckus if I didn't let him out. He lived until age 16. One option, if you can, is to build a catio. Solves the problem of safety. Most cats like to roam but come back home, barring interference from dangers.
posted by DixieBaby at 3:50 AM on June 18, 2021

Best answer: We've looked after a lot of outdoor cats (like, 50). A couple of additions I have based on that diverse experience:
1. If you can, keep her in until after the sun is fully up and lock her back in the house before it gets fully dark. This is for a couple of reasons: cats are more likely to be hit by cars at twilight and full dark, and cats are more likely to kill the local wildlife at dawn, dusk and in the dark. You mention that she is somewhat food-driven, so if you align her feed times with this it should work out.
2. Many people think that if their cats are outdoor cats they don't need to be played with. This is absolutely not true. Most of the outdoor cats we've met love to play!
3. If you plan to let her go in and out on her own, a cat door is great. A chipped cat door is even better because other neighborhood cats won't come in the house. (Someone we sat for set up a webcam in their house at one point and discovered that all the neighborhood cats would come over when they were out, which is when they switched to the chipped door.) With both the chipped and non-chipped doors, there's a setting that will let them in but keep them from going back out, which is good for making sure they don't go out at night (see point 1).
4. If she doesn't have a collar with a bell, get one. It gives the local wildlife a head start.
5. Someone mentioned giving her a good place to do her business outside. I would add: if you plan to do any gardening you will need to find a way to protect the garden from her. Outdoor cats loooooove to poop in vegetable gardens because the soil is softer and thus easier to bury things in, and based on what I've seen it doesn't really matter if you give them an alternative.
posted by rednikki at 4:27 AM on June 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Our cat is indoor-outdoor as well, coming from a feral mama who had her litter in a friend's yard. We kept her inside, never planning for her to be an indoor-outdoor kitty, but one day she sneaked out into the back yard to explore. We watched her and called her back in about 5 minutes later with no trouble.

We've since installed a fancy cat door that unlocks when she sticks her head in the tunnel and a scanner senses her microchip. We didn't turn this feature on until... today, actually, because beginning around 3:00 this morning we had a raccoon come in our kitchen 3 times, trying to drag the canister of dry food back outside, tipping it over and feasting until it heard me coming downstairs. But that's a whole 'nother story that I was saving up for an Ask Me question.
posted by emelenjr at 4:58 AM on June 18, 2021 [7 favorites]

I grew up in Ireland where indoor/outdoor cats are/were the norm. All of the cats we had were well aware of where "home" was, but that still didn't stop them from having "second homes" in the area too. (I think particularly when there are small children involved, they sometimes appreciate being able to have a snooze on a sofa/bed in peace.)

All of them also came home regularly. Depending on the cat, they'd spend part or all of the day outside doing cat business and return home in time for their dinner at the latest. Their dinner was also generally served last thing at night, so that there was less chance of them "escaping" after dinner. However, they were all a bit different ranging from ones that more or less disappeared for the day, to one which rarely left the garden and complained bitterly about being left outside for more than an hour or two. We didn't have a cat flap, so they would either stand at the door to be let in/out, or do the same on a window will. (Frequently with a pitiful but silent meow.)

In terms of when to get worried - it depends a bit on the cat. We generally wouldn't worry with some of them if they didn't appear at dinner time, it was only if they weren't around the next morning that we'd start getting concerned. On the other hand, with at least one we would be a bit worried if she hadn't been seen for a couple of hours as that was not her usual routine. (Generally she'd turn up asleep on someone's bed after climbing in through an open window.)
posted by scorbet at 5:47 AM on June 18, 2021

I've always been strictly an indoor-only cat owner and then inherited a boy who will not tolerate this, so I understand where you're coming from.

What we've done over the past year is take him out supervised over our lunch break every day (we are fortunate to be working from home) so he could get used to the area. One day he scampered away and we thought he was lost forever and we were total idiots for letting this happen, but he came back 30 minutes later. This made it clear to us that he does indeed know where he lives, and we started being a little more relaxed about letting him wander out of sight. Cats are not dumb about their environment. They know where the food is. Right now we're still at the point where one of us is outside if he's outside, even if we can't see him. Mainly this is so we'll know when he wants to come back in. I will say, though, he's meowed at the door to my office before when my husband was outside with him, and I can easily hear him through the door. He doesn't have his big canine teeth, though, due to misadventures from before his time with us, so I don't want him out for long periods of time or at night. Despite this, he did manage to trot into the garage and present my husband with an (unharmed) chipmunk in his mouth, so. They're efficient little predators.

I've started looking into GPS collars and there are several options but they are kind of bulky. My dude weighs 17 pounds - if you have a smaller cat it might not work very well. This is the one the NY Times recommends. I have not pulled the trigger yet.

You can order flea medication online without a vet appointment - we use Advantage and despite living in a warm, damp, forested area packed with various bugs, it seems to be working fine.
posted by something something at 6:18 AM on June 18, 2021

Pick a little song to whistle when you put out food in the morning and evening - this will become something you whistle at the back door to help your cat know it’s time to come home. Growing up in a mid-sized American city, all of our cats went outside, and this was incredibly helpful for getting them back inside.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 6:39 AM on June 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

A lot of my thoughts here would depend on the location of your house vis-à-vis traffic. If you're away from busy traffic, your cat can start going out anytime.

If there are coyotes or other predators in your area, take that into account. People do lose cats to bigger predators.

Provide a litterbox and keep it as clean as you would for an indoor-only cat. You don't want to be the person whose cat digs up flowerbeds to use as a toilet. I've had indoor-outdoor cats for a long time and they've come home to poop. Nobody complains about my cat digging their yard.

Don't put a bell on your cat. Cats live for stealth. Chip your cat and put a collar on her (it signifies to other people that the cat has a legitimate home) and add a small tag with your number or email address.

My cat is about 6, was a rescued stray amd has always spent time outside, comes in before I go to sleep. I don't let her out when I'm not home or am sleeping, so we're always aware of each other's general location. She loves being in the sun, being able to smell the plants and guard the back yard against other cats. I know it has risks but I think her life's more interesting this way.
posted by zadcat at 7:37 AM on June 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've had indoor/outdoor cats before - never with an autofeeder though. They'd be let out after breakfast, and we'd shake the food can outside in the evening and they'd generally always come running. Occasionally one would go on some sort of quest and not return for a day or two - alarming for sure, but if it happens, keep in mind that this isn't that unusual.

Twice daily indoor feeding is fine for food, but make sure there is a water bowl on a porch/stoop, especially when it's hot out.

I'd tell your vet - they can let you know if you need more than flea medication. Obviously, being outdoors makes rabies, feline leukemia, and HIV/AIDs much more likely. Also she will be more likely to be bit my mosquitos, which can lead to heartworm - you'll need a monthly pill for that.

You can and should try to see if your cat will tolerate a collar with a name tag + bell (the birds will thank you). Some cats will tolerate these, others won't - don't feel bad if Molly belongs to the latter camp.

But while I'm obviously not anti-outdoor/indoor cat, I'm confused why you need to leave the sliding door ajar? Why can't you just lock it shut? You will want to figure out a way of keeping Molly inside at night, because the risks (cat fights, animal attacks, etc.) go way up once the sun goes down.
posted by coffeecat at 7:53 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Similar to rrrrrrrrrt's whistling suggestion, if Molly is food-motivated, you could try to use a high-value treat to train her to come when she hears a bell (give treat, ring bell, repeat until it sinks into her little kitty brain). It just has to be special enough to be more appealing than being outside. This worked well for my cousin's indoor/outdoor cats.

Also, make sure any collar is break-away (and buy more than one).
posted by amarynth at 8:31 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I guess screens on doors and windows aren't really a thing any more?
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:58 AM on June 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is fencing a possibility?

Also, every indoor-outdoor cat I've ever had has been very smart about where "home" is, as nervous as it made me. Even our escaped, indoor-only cats eventually showed up very anxious to get back inside.

For me, the biggest worry is cars and coyotes. If we're ever able to move to a place where I can do this, I would install cat fencing in a heartbeat.
posted by whistle pig at 9:00 AM on June 18, 2021

You have to train her to come, immediately, when you call her. There are resources to show how to do this.

Learn about the predator situation where you are.

I'm assuming you've already looked into screens for the sliding doors? Also, maybe some kind of door mechanism that makes an alarm sound if it isn't closed, to help your toddler learn?

Also - if you do decide to take another run at keeping the doors / screen doors closed, there is a small excellent book called "Clicker Training for Cats" that will show you how to train your cat to NOT run at the door every time it's opened. The basic approach is to teach the cat to do something else -- run and sit on a designated stool or something -- because she is expecting a reward. It sounds very cool.
posted by amtho at 9:36 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up with indoor/outdoor cats (rural location, low traffic on the nearby road, few predators at the time). We never had a cat flap / cat door or anything special. Cats stood by the door and meowed when they wanted to get let out, and when someone was there, they'd get let out. Same with getting let back in again. (Although they did start scratching the storm-door screens and generally making a ruckus if they weren't let back in, in what they determined was an appropriately timely fashion.) Sometimes they would go out in the evening, after dinner, and spend all night outside, especially in the summer. In the winter they never did. If they did spend all night outside, they always were there on the porch, waiting for breakfast in the morning.

I don't think there's much that you need to do, honestly. Cats are territorial animals and like to patrol "their" territory; the boundaries will be determined by where other cats have already made claims in the neighborhood.

I would definitely get a flea-and-tick collar, or use Frontline or one of the other similar preventatives. We always used the collars because they seemed to do a better job of keeping the cats from inadvertently bringing ticks and whatnot into the house with them.

Depending on how old the cat is, you might be able to train it to ring a bell when it wants to go in/out. We managed to get one of our cats to bat at a sleighbell that we hung from the doorknob when he wanted to go out, which was cute and slightly less annoying than just "singing the song of his people" when he wanted the door opened.

Neither of our cats were large enough for GPS trackers, even the smaller modern ones that now exist (they were in the ~12 lb range as I recall). If you have a chonkier cat, one of those might work... although our cats used to lose their collars on a regular basis outdoors, and best practice is to always keep a cat's collar loose enough so that it can slip out if needed (if the collar gets caught on something, say). So I don't know that I would want to invest a lot of money on a GPS tracker that the cat might decide to ditch or slip out of repeatedly. (Although I suppose with a GPS one, you could always go and recover it when the cat shows up sans collar...)

And yes, cats will totally "adopt" multiple human households if they are allowed to do so. At one point, one of ours used to make the rounds of the neighborhood, begging for treats and occasionally spending the night at various houses (anyone who was inclined to feed and/or let him in, and didn't have dogs, was fair game). They always came back to our place, though, whether that was because they honestly liked us best, or just because the food was highest-quality, I don't really know.

Compared to an indoor cat I would be prepared for somewhat more-frequent vet visits. Our indoor cats rarely need to go to the vet, but the indoor/outdoor cats ended up going in for emergency visits every few years or so, on account of getting in fights with various other creatures (typically other cats during territorial disputes, although in one case we think one decided to tussle with a fisher). It is critical that you keep their rabies vaccinations up-to-date.

Oh, and definitely do not let your cat outside if it's not spayed/neutered! That is just common sense, but bears repeating. Even if your cat is fixed (ours were), you may still end up with multiple cats as a result of having one indoor/outdoor cat. Cats aren't stupid, and newly-independent adolescent cats will follow older cats around. We only had one cat, until one day he showed up with a "friend", and then we had two cats. C'est la vie.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:57 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I guess screens on doors and windows aren't really a thing any more?

FYI, the poster is in London, UK. Screens on doors and windows are unheard of in the UK, as are coyotes and the threat of rabies. ;)

In terms of actual threats to Molly, traffic is going to be the biggest one, so maybe a collar with a reflecting band on it would also help. We have high numbers of urban foxes but they're not a predator that's going to attack a cat unless the cat initiates the fight. Fleas and worms from eating rubbish might be a problem but OTC meds should keep that under control. She might get into scuffles with other local cats as well.

Honestly the biggest problem is liable to be other humans, which isn't something you can really plan for and prevent, besides trying to keep her indoors, but that's your choice OP.
posted by fight or flight at 4:13 PM on June 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Your cat will be more vulnerable to all kinds of parasites, not just fleas, so it's worth checking what kind of preventatives her vet recommends in your area.

I'd also recommend keeping a much closer eye on her in general and increasing the frequency of her checkups. Puncture wounds can get very nasty and are easy to miss if you're not looking for them. If she's not using a litter box any more you won't get any warning signs if anything changes in her toileting habits.

Also, my last cat went blind very suddenly from high blood pressure. Kidney disease can also be a cause of sudden blindness in older cats (7+) so it's worth screening extra carefully if she's going outside unattended.

If you're getting a GPS collar it's worth keeping an eye on her movements to see how much time she spends around major/busy roads. Cats can die instantly from being run over, but severe injuries that aren't immediately fatal are also common.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 6:21 PM on June 18, 2021

Here in the Netherlands, indoor-outdoor cats are the norm. This is how we handle ours:
- No one goes outside without a reflective collar (with address attached).
- We have cat flaps that read the chips so we don't get unauthorised visitors.
- The cats are inside during the night because of safety and of hunting. When we want them inside, the flaps are set to one-way.
- The one who is interested in hunting birds wears a bell.
- Our cats get dry food all day long and wet food in the evening. No one misses dinner, they all love wet food.
- Litter boxes are provided and maintained.
- Flea and tick prevention happens regularly.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:28 AM on June 19, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Your advice has helped us feel more confident with adjusting to Molly’s new lifestyle.
posted by like_neon at 12:52 PM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]


- Microchip cat flap (so no other cats or creatures can get in)
- Molly is spayed, right?? Just checking.
- Reflective collar
- Flea and parasite prevention
- Vet consultation
- Check the plants you have in your garden against a list of plants toxic to cats. Lilies are the worst.
Here's a more comprehensive list that is intimidatingly long. Most of these will do no more than cause vomiting or diarrhea, but it's useful to know which ones are nearby.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:37 PM on June 29, 2021

When we adopted Coconut we similarly tried to keep her indoors but it was untenable.

I’d mostly echo the advice you’ve already been given. The one caveat is that our cat has been a damn assassin over the years and likes to bring home her kills. With a small daughter at home we had to limit our cats access until times when she where we can confirm she’s unaccompanied. We do not have a cat flap but we do have a strange wiggle through our basement and the outside electrical closet she can get through.

Two main points here. If your cat is a hunter, the cat flap math changes a bit. I think they are actually making some now that can detect if your cat has anything in its mouth before it opens. Second if you have other animals (we have a dog) you have to be a bit careful with them finding the cats leftovers.

Also our cat won’t keep a collar on. We have always used the breakaway ones but an air tag would be a bit bulky on her.
posted by bitdamaged at 6:01 AM on July 2, 2021

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