How can I transition an outdoor cat to an indoor-only lifestyle?
June 11, 2007 5:57 PM   Subscribe

How can I transition an outdoor cat to an indoor-only lifestyle?

Today I adopted my neighbor's cat. She got the cat in October, the plan being that he would live in the courtyard of our apartment building. (I don't know what his living situation was prior to this. We think he is about three years old.) Shortly thereafter, I began inviting kitty into my apartment, and in recent months, he has been spending a few hours each morning and a few hours each evening/night in my apartment.

Now that he's officially my cat, I would like him to be indoor-only; he got a really bad flea infestation (now being treated) and, as I learned this morning, worms from being allowed outside. I've had him inside since the early afternoon, and while he seems content at the moment, he was very vocal about wanting to go out a little earlier. (I created a diversion with some wet food and a new catnip toy.) He is already used to me, my boyfriend, and our apartment, but he is also used to coming and going as he pleases.

So, is there anything I can do to make this easier on him? I know that I need to be consistent and not let him out even just once, or he will continue to expect to be let out, but what else can I do? I am also slightly concerned that, since he has spent at least the last several months going to the bathroom outdoors, he won't be interested in using his litter box. I showed him the litter box, placed him inside and swirled his paws around a bit, but I don't know if he "got it."
posted by kitty teeth to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You sure you can't let him be at least a partly outdoor cat? Get a flea collar? Worms are easy enough to treat, even repeatedly, and as he becomes progressively indoor it'll cease to be such an issue.

Seems like you are trying to cage an animal that is used to being "free" and that is always sad. There are important differences between indoor and outdoor cats and I don't think they are that transmutable.

I know there is the incontrovertible safety argument about keeping cats indoors, but how about quality of life? How would you feel if you couldn't go outside EVER again? If fleas and worms are your only issues with him being outdoor, they are both manageable. Plenty of outdoor cats have neither.
posted by i less than three nsima at 6:07 PM on June 11, 2007

Keep showing him the litter box; he'll almost certainly remember it when he has to pee or poop; if he doesn't, learn to recognize the pre-pooping signs and put him in the box as soon as you see them.

On preview, I'm not sure there's much value in turning this thread into yet another indoor/outdoor cat argument. I've known folks who've turned cats from outdoor to indoor with lots of love, and while mine's been able to come and go all his life, I understand why some folks don't want that hassle. But for the record, worms are relatively easy to control with regular pills, and so are fleas, so long as you treat the outside area as well.
posted by mediareport at 6:12 PM on June 11, 2007

Don't assume it's going to be a big drama. My sister "adopted" a year-old stray from the neighborhood. We put him in a box and took him to her apt. He hopped out, sniffed around for a minute, then curled up on the floor and fell asleep. That was the extent of his "transition." He would run about 2 feet out of her apt. door if he got the chance, then turn around and come back. It wasn't a big deal.
posted by clh at 6:14 PM on June 11, 2007

Response by poster: I'm certainly willing to listen to anyone who thinks he should stay outdoors, but I've done a bit of reading on the subject, and it seems the only reason people give for letting cats outside is "because they like going outside." I'd also rather not this thread turn into a big debate, but if anyone feels that strongly about it, go ahead.

Worms and fleas aside (of course I know they are both treatable), I worry about other neighborhood cats fighting with him. I am concerned that someone will find him and see that he's such a sweetheart and take him as their own. We live on a busy street, so cars are a definite concern. As he gets older, I want to be able to monitor what and how often he eats and, er, what comes out of him so that I can care for him accordingly. I just think he will be healthier and happier in the long run if I keep him inside.
posted by kitty teeth at 6:24 PM on June 11, 2007

if you keep showing her the litter box, she'll get it. cats are clean. just be sure there's no other alternative for her to use as a litter box (piles of newspaper, for example, or dirty laundry on the floor--this will get your boyfriend to pick it up!).

if you have a window with a screen, you might open it and let her sit in the sill.

if the only reason you are concerned about her going out is the fleas and worms, don't worry. those are easy to treat. you might just let her come and go as she pleases until winter, when she's more likely to want to stay in.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:29 PM on June 11, 2007

oh, and a collar. get him used to wearing a collar.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:30 PM on June 11, 2007

He probably will pick up the litter box thing pretty easily. Is he an only cat? One stray I took in got the litter box thing, but only if it was *his* litter box, kept in a room only he was in. When I tried letting him mingle with the other cats, that mostly went okay, except for the litter box - he wasn't even remotely willing to share that. So you might run into a problem there, possibly. But if he's an only cat, I bet it's no problem at all, minus one or two initial accidents.

Definitely be consistent, don't let him out. And be aware that even once he's mostly settled into his indoor life, he's probably always going to be interested in the outdoors. I have several cats, and the one that was my partner's before we moved in together used to be an outdoor cat. She adjusted fairly rapidly - no yowling or begging to be let out or anything - but even five years later, she is still a lot more interested in going outside than any of the other cats, and is extremely quick at sneaking outside if the door's left open a moment too long. Fortunately she doesn't go far and comes back willingly, but we still have to watch her a lot more closely than the cats who have always been indoor cats.

That said, she seems perfectly happy being indoors most of the time. She just, all things considered, would clearly like to go out and kill something every once in a while.
posted by Stacey at 6:44 PM on June 11, 2007

I took in a pair of feral littermates who were living in a field. They are younger than your cat but were not socialized at all. The male of the pair pissed all over the house, the female spent her first two weeks under the spare bed snarling at anyone who entered the room. What helped:

Hormone therapy for him. Even post-neuter, he was a raging ball of anger. The vet RX'd some kitty progesterone which he was dosed with for a few weeks. That combined with the realization he was refusing to share a litter box with his sister and the subsequent purchase of a very clean litter box solved the pee issues.

Multi-level cat tree in front of a window which looks out upon a bird feeder. CatTV, they can't get enough. Another telephone-pole-esqe cat tree which leads to a secret cat-only loft.

Reinforced screens on the patio doors. There were a few climbing incidents.

Spending a few days blasting away on a can of compressed air whenever I walked in or out of an exterior door. They now both avoid the doors as though the doors are alive and ready to eat them.

(I'm with you on the indoor only part. Dozens of cats over the years, most were indoor and lived anywhere from 14 to 21 years. Two were outdoor/indoor. Neither one of them made it past 7 years. From my limited pool of data, I'm keeping mine all inside from now on.)
posted by jamaro at 7:00 PM on June 11, 2007

You shouldn't have to do anything special other than teach him what a scratching post is for. Most cats seem to adapt just fine to being indoors once they figure out their basic physical needs can be met indoors. If he's not fixed, well then ya got a problem.
posted by scheptech at 7:04 PM on June 11, 2007

Give it a try keeping him indoors, see what happens.

My cat (now 5 years old) got really bored. She'd mope around, dejected, spend hours looking out the window, until I finally got the message. A collar (or harness) and long leash make it possible for me to go outdoors with her once or twice a day, and you know, it's good for both of us.

When on a leash, stay with your cat. Don't tie the leash to a fence and leave him--he'll get all tangled up and frustrated.
posted by exphysicist345 at 7:12 PM on June 11, 2007

I adopted a 2 year old cat that had been neutered about 2 weeks before I got him and never been inside, other than the garage of the foster family's home. At the time, I lived on the second floor of an apt. building and we would hang outside on the patio in the evenings, watching him to make sure he wouldn't try to jump. He never tried to bolt out the door, the only problem I had was an open window overlooking a tree with birds (approx. 2 months after I got him) - the screen got in the way and I lost a portion of my security deposit . It was almost like a cartoon - you could see all four paw/claw marks on the screen from the launch and stick.

I've had him approx. 5 years and we have never had an issue again. As long as you have window perches and curtains he can get behind to see outside and watch birds and squirrels, etc. I'm sure the comfort of heat, food, fresh water, and cuddles will be enough.

I grew grass for him inside and he wouldn't even look at it. I also had some random aggression issues with him, but they were solved by introducing a kitten to the house - he became very maternal to it (she had been ill and wasn't grooming herself, so he did it for her).

I live in a house now and he will check out the view from every window he can reach, but he doesn't yowl to go out or scratch at the screens. At 16 lbs., he could easily bully his way out if he really want to.
posted by blackkar at 7:20 PM on June 11, 2007

I have a transitionned cat.

A key component to keeping my cat happy has been and remains plants.

She really likes spider plants.

I have a half dozen that get rotated down for her to play with and munch on until they look mangled beyond repair, but spider plants are nearly impossible to kill and always come back.

My cat also likes dirty water. She always has fresh water but insists on drinking from containers where I rince my paint brushes and enjoys nibbling on the wooden handles or when I water my plants she loves the muddy water that seeps into the overflow pan.

These things I equate to needs she would normally fill by being outside. She will still ask to go outside from time to time (even though she hasn't been out for going on 5 years now) but a new plant or a bit of muddy water always seems satisfy her and waylay the request for another month.

Side thought on fleas ... the most effective solution I have found is brewers yeast. Feeding your cat a bit daily changes the taste of their blood leaving the fleas without a food source.

(Takes about 3 weeks for the adults and offspring to starve off)

Another natural remedy is to line the sleeping area for your cat with cedar. Fleas don't like cedar and will not propagate there.
posted by phoque at 9:28 PM on June 11, 2007

Not exactly what you're asking, but, while you're still letting the cat out, get some Revolution or Frontline from your vet. It will prevent further flea and worm problems. It's expensive, but it's worth it not to have your entire house infested with fleas (I's miserable). Do NOT get flea or worm medication straight from your pet store (I'm assuming you're in the US). Many of them have been shown to cause health problems for cats--the prescription stuff is worth it.
posted by CiaoMela at 6:32 AM on June 12, 2007

Worms and fleas aside (of course I know they are both treatable), I worry about other neighborhood cats fighting with him.

If he fights with another cat outside, not only does he risk injury, but that's how cats get FIV (kitty AIDS...very sad).

I'd second getting lots of things to play with. My Tempura was found as a stray but transitioned pretty well to indoors. Just try to keep him from getting bored. I found a great toy at a big-box pet store that was like one of those elastic fishing-pole type toys, except it hooked over the door so he could play by himself. And it chirped. Brilliant.
posted by radioamy at 8:12 AM on June 12, 2007

I have a formal feral cat that I adopted five years ago. He never took to the litter-box and had to have a cat door so he could come and go at will. That was OK with both of us until about six weeks ago when he got hurt in a fight. Long story short, I had to keep him inside for a month. The hardest part was learning the litter box. He wanted nothing to do with it until I got the bright idea of sprinkling a layer of garden soil, with the occasional leaf, on top of the kitty litter. It worked like a charm and only needed to be done once, as a teaching aid.
posted by Huplescat at 2:19 PM on June 12, 2007

My advice: transition him gradually. You're already part way there. Just let him out less and less, and find more things for him to do inside as you progress him along. It's a big life change for him to get used to, and the transition will take time if he likes being outside a lot. Just set a reasonable schedule for the transition (say over a few months if he really likes the outdoors), make the outside time part of a daily routine for him, and slowly morph his routine toward being more and more indoors.

Cats generally pick up the litter box's purpose very quickly. Keep an eye on him in case he's an exception, but in my experience as long as it's clear where the box is (don't move it often) and it's kept clean, he'll visit it when he needs to. It may be that there's a tipping point where his outside time isn't frequent enough anymore, and the inside space is part of his territory, and that's when he'll start using the box.

The outside world is dangerous. Whether to keep a cat in or not is not an easy decision (I've done both), but be aware that it's a real life change for the cat. Some cats never miss the outdoors, but some do. Just be firm when he wants to go out on his own timetable, but it's also probably easiest for you both if you don't try to force the entire change on him at once. I'd distract him more with playtime than with food-- otherwise you may create a new problem.
posted by Tehanu at 7:58 AM on June 19, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everyone, and for understanding my decision to keep him inside. (Even those who didn't necessarily agree were very nice about it, so thank you too.) I just wanted to pop back in and give an update:

Kitty is doing really well! He's been inside since Tuesday morning, and while he was a bit mopey for the first couple of days, he's snapped out of it and is back to his old, sweet self. I've been trying to spend lots of time playing with him and talking to him so that he gets as much stimulation inside as he used to get when he was outdoors. Oh, and he has been using his litter boxes (I ended up getting a second one just in case there was something he didn't like about the first one I got him) like a champ.

Jamaro, your cats are super cute!

Just to clarify, I've been giving him Advantage since I noticed the flea problem a few weeks ago. He went to the vet on Monday -- the day I first posted -- to get vaccinations, treatment for the worms, and for a general checkup.
posted by kitty teeth at 10:31 AM on June 19, 2007

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