How to persuade a cat to stay indoors?
November 14, 2007 7:18 AM   Subscribe

How can I make sure my new indoor cat stays an indoor cat, while allowing her free roam of the house?

A week or two ago I adopted my first cat, Tibbers who, like arnicae's cat, is FIV+, and must be an indoors cat, despite having been semi-feral before being rescued. I've seen the surprising number of AskMes about indoor cats and have learned a great deal from them, but my problem is quite specific: I need to be very sure that she won't get out of the door.

My house has no porch or other airlock-type structure on the front door, so I'm very concerned that if I allow her free roam of the house while I'm out, the instant I open the door to get back in, she'll try to bolt out of the door, and I won't always be able to stop her. Then she'll never come back, and will die on the street after infecting numerous other cats with FIV. Guilt guilt guilt.

On the other hand, my current strategy of shutting her in the front room (where all of her stuff currently is) when I go out, and trying to limit the length and number of my excursions, seems a bit mean, and clearly isn't viable as a long-term solution anyway.

So: is there some strategy I can employ to keep her inside of her own accord? Will time accomplish this for me?

If it helps, she's neutered, and around a year or 18 months old. She seems intelligent but is quite dependent - follows me around, often demands attention, does lots of head rubbing etc.. However, paradoxically, she doesn't really like to be touched (she does the touching): she'll gently move away from unsolicited stroking and doesn't ever just hang around in my lap, for example. She definitely seems interested in the outdoors at the moment though I've never really tested how interested.

I understand that cat psychology is complex and varied; "maybe, maybe not, there's no way of knowing" would be an acceptable answer to the question above. Hopefully some of you experienced and knowledgeable folk out there will have helpful feline insight that can put my mind at rest, and make wee Tibbers' days that much more interesting.
posted by thoughtless to Pets & Animals (24 answers total)
I'm a little confused -- does she currently try to bolt? Or are you just assuming that she would?
posted by occhiblu at 7:29 AM on November 14, 2007

One thing that might help would be to keep a spray bottle full of water outside of the front door. When you come back and open the door, if you see your cat at the door, spray her in the face.

This has worked with my cats in the past, I can't really say whether or not it will work in your situation.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:30 AM on November 14, 2007

If you don't leave the door wide open when you go in and out, you shouldn't have a problem. If she is right by your feet when you leave, you can "shoo" her out of the way of the door without her getting by you. When you return, open the door slowly with your foot at the bottom in case she's waiting on the other side, and "push" her with your foot to keep out of your way as you come in. If she has free roam of the house, it's doubtful that she'll spend the entire time you are away behind the door waiting for you to come home.
posted by Nathanial Hörnblowér at 7:31 AM on November 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

" I'm very concerned that if I allow her free roam of the house while I'm out, the instant I open the door to get back in, she'll try to bolt out of the door"

My cats are escape artists. They've found ways to exit the house that I never would have dreamed of. However, they've never, ever bolted through the door when it was opened from outside. Your primary concern is keeping the cat from trying to exit with you, not exit while you enter.

Think about it: the cat is lolling around sleeping. It hears the door but doesn't see you. It's not a dog, so it's not eager to investigate. What's it going to do, rush the door? There's nobody home and the door is making a weird noise!

I think you've invented this scenario in your head and misprioritized it.

If you're practically concerned about the cat rushing open doors -- mine will rush the bedroom door if it knows I'm in there -- you have to learn the moves to a little dance I call "Cat Soccer." As you open the door, get a foot through it and move it around menacingly to ward off any animal that might be lurking behind. Make your customary "GIT DOWN OFFA THAT" type noise as you enter.

Meanwhile leave a window cracked so the cat can sniff at the outdoors. Sniffing the breeze is an important indoor cat pastime.
posted by majick at 7:34 AM on November 14, 2007

However, they've never, ever bolted through the door when it was opened from outside. Your primary concern is keeping the cat from trying to exit with you, not exit while you enter.

My cat has never, ever tried to get out at the same time as me. The only time she has ever tried to escape is when I open the door from outside. Luckily she is easily scared and runs right back in. I have taken to opening the door just a crack and stomping my feet in front of it to scare the cat back inside, and then I can come in normally.
posted by splice at 7:41 AM on November 14, 2007

Don't let her out at all, not even for little supervised romps. If you're consistent with that and the spray bottle by the door, she will soon forget that the outside exists.
posted by sarelicar at 7:54 AM on November 14, 2007

I think what Nathanial Hörnblowér and splice say is the way to go. My cat is always at the front door when I get home. She hears me come up the steps and runs to the door to greet me. In my case though, she doesn't want to get out, so much as she just wants to say hello. But usually the commotion and the noise of the door opening and me walking through the door is enough to get her to back off the door a little. She's never tried to bolt when I get home but that's mostly because she hasn't really figured out that the door leads to freedom and she's too busy being excited that I'm home. The trick is to NEVER let your cat associated the door with freedom. Never let her experience an escape, either with or without your approval. But if you do something to scare your cat a bit (if you spray once or twice she'll get the message and never try it again), you'll be fine.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:54 AM on November 14, 2007

Just open the door slowly and look around inside (while blocking it with your foot), and if the cat's around, enter slowly, not leaving too much free space. If the cat moves towards the door, do something scary to make it run back into the house.

If you need to have the door open for longer than that, consider getting a baby gate (if the cat isn't a jumper) and blocking off the kitchen or other entrance room while you're doing what you need to do. I wouldn't make a habit of that, though.

But penning the cat into one room whenever you're out sounds really extreme. That's the sort of thing that's going to make that cat into a real Houdini, just out of desperation.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:58 AM on November 14, 2007

Don't overestimate the power of the steady, easy, available food supply provided to her within your house. Between that and the fact that she seems dependent, I don't think you need to worry about her bolting.
posted by desuetude at 8:05 AM on November 14, 2007

I've had cats who'd try to slide out the door when I came home. I just got really good at playing goalie.
posted by rtha at 8:06 AM on November 14, 2007

I've got an extra barrier of safety (inside door followed by outside door) so I have a little more freedom, but I've basically started training my newest kitten. When your cat likes water you have to get especially clever.

I'll periodically leave the door wide, entirely open to the hallway and lurk out of sight. Wombat, who is not terribly bright and of no more than average inquisitiveness will often sit and look out the door but rarely venture out. When he does start a trottin in the ~10 minutes or so that my patience lasts I swat him soundly in the face and make as many horrific noises as possible, jumping and screaming like an idiot.

Being a stupid cat, this terrifies him into a fluffy-tailed beeline to hide under the bed. I've only had to actually swat him about three times, now he just sits and stares out the open door.
posted by Skorgu at 8:10 AM on November 14, 2007

If my cat hears the door getting unlocked (keys jingling, deadbolt, etc) then he runs to the door. So every time i open the door he's right there waiting to say hello. I do the same thing that others do: open the door slowly (because he's right there, i'd smack him good if i opened the door quickly), stick my foot out so that i block him from getting out and push him back as i enter. He's never gotten out this way. He has, however, gotten out a couple of times where we've accidentally left the door open or somesuch, but since he's always been an indoor cat he's pretty scared about the outside world even though he's excited about it. He's never gone more than 5 feet from the apartment.

Also, if our cats hear someone knocking on the door they run - they know some stranger is likely to enter the house and to go hide. If your cat has the same reaction, you could just knock before entering your house. Seems silly, i know, but it could work.
posted by escher at 8:14 AM on November 14, 2007

We have a runner who likes to escape when we're home late to show his displeasure. You need to perfect your "entering with your deflecting foot" technique. Or, drop your bag (if you carry one) in front of the door before you open it.

Or, you could keep a can of air in your bag, and spray it in her face. She'll get the picture.

We also have a cat who used to be feral--she's grown more attached to the food and comfy chairs inside the house to care about planning an escape anymore. Good luck!
posted by atayah at 8:20 AM on November 14, 2007

Response by poster: does she currently try to bolt? Or are you just assuming that she would?

I'm just assuming - when I come back now and open the door to the front room, she's always right there and tries to squeeze her head through as soon as she can see daylight through it. And as having been an outdoors cat only a month or two ago, I'm assuming she won't have a great deal of fear for the outside.

Based on the answers so far, I think I'll leave it another week or two (just so she clearly knows which side her bread's buttered) then try the stompy/water-bottle approach. This sounds like it should dissuade her. Thankyou all; you are, as always, the world's most fonty font of wisdom.
posted by thoughtless at 8:28 AM on November 14, 2007

When entering, slowly open the door, slide one foot through and kick the air around it near the floor. This will push any cat back and give you time to slip through. Lock the cat in a room if you need to carry in groceries.

When exiting, do the same thing except backwards.
posted by Anonymous at 8:33 AM on November 14, 2007

I don't think that you need to concern yourself too much about over-confining the cat during the day when you're gone. Do you know what she does? She lays around, sleeps. Eats some. Sleeps more. Paces around, looking for bugs. Today I'm home sick, and my cat has successfully spent 95% of the time in her favorite spot sleeping. During the daytime your cat can barely see.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:36 AM on November 14, 2007

My late, beloved cat would bolt out the door when we came home. We were in apartment buildings, so she only got as far as the stairs--and waited for us to come to go further--but it definitely can happen. My guess is your can won't leave you completely, and that you could chase her down in the yard if worse came to worse, but probably you can block her with a foot most o fthe time.
posted by stevis23 at 8:43 AM on November 14, 2007

I would suggest the foot-blocking motion for most of the time, and on the few occasions when you have things to carry into the house, that's when she can be in her room, so you can keep the door open without worrying.
posted by misha at 8:47 AM on November 14, 2007

One thing to consider: She may be pushing her head through the front-room door when you open it because she *knows* she's allowed in the rest of the house and is annoyed at being cooped up. My parents' cats did this any time they were confined within the house, but almost *never* tried to do the same thing with the front door, because it just wasn't a door they were used to being let out through.

So you may be encouraging the same behavior you're worrying about by penning her up.
posted by occhiblu at 8:55 AM on November 14, 2007

I have a habit of bending over with my hand down to block any cats trying to dart out.. I do this even at my cat-less friend's houses. Just get in that habit, and you can be sure to block them every time (or at least grab them quickly).
posted by triolus at 9:21 AM on November 14, 2007

You could try getting a collapsible gate, like parents of young children use for stairs. Set up the gate when you leave, and see how eager your cat is to escape when you come home. "Play goalie" is an imperfect system - I use it myself, but after 13 years my cat still gets around me from time to time. (It's impossible to guarantee that I'm always the first one to open the door, nor am I swift enough to beat her every time.) Your cat may never try & run for it - my cat does not bother with the back door, which *does* open to the outside, it's just the front door (I assume because that's how my wife & I come in & out of the apartment - if we're using the back door, it's a temporary exit.)

Another option would be to find treats that your cat loves, and always toss some through the door when you come home. That would distract your cat when you enter, and also provide incentive to stay inside, waiting for the treats.

Whatever you do, do *not* rely on your speed to guard the door. The cat *will* beat you if it so desires.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:40 AM on November 14, 2007

While playing goalie and stomping your feet, try making a loud hissing sound ("SSSSSSSSSsssssss!!") Mother cats train their kittens this way, and many cats still retreat when they hear it. My own cat will jump off my lap if I open a bottle of pop and it makes a "ssss" sound.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:51 AM on November 14, 2007

One thing I'd also make sure of is that your window screens are secure. It was hot here on Saturday and my friend's kitty was sitting on the sill of the open window, and she fell out! Luckily he found her quickly underneath the neighbor's house.
posted by radioamy at 11:24 AM on November 14, 2007

My strictly indoors cat, Neon, recently slipped past as I was coming through the front door and stopped on the porch to look around. I lured her back indoors with some very smelly canned cat food (thank you, dead fish).

Since then, I'm more "aggressive" when coming in and going out: I always carry a big purse AND a tote, so when opening the door, I swing one of them toward Neon while firmly stating "Back! Back!" She's starting to associate "big heavy thing trying to kill me" with the front door. I haven't hit her yet with the purse/bag, but if I did it would be gently but firmly enough to let her know she's NOT going outdoors.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 9:21 PM on November 14, 2007

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