Indoor cats - keep your feline happy

There are many circumstances in which keeping a cat indoors may be safer for a cat and therefore, arguably, better for the cat. Indoor cats are at lower risk for injuries associated with the outdoor environment (cars, trains, dogs, predators, humans, etc.) and are at far less risk of contracting parasites and infectious diseases such as the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Studies have consistently shown that urban cats that go outdoors have far shorter life spans (averaging 2 years or less), while most indoor cats will live over 15 years. Keeping cats indoors also prevents fighting and fight related injuries and has the added benefit of protecting natural wildlife.

How to keep your indoor cat happy

The most important thing for you to consider when you decide to keep a cat indoors is how you are going to provide for its behavioural needs. Obviously you will have thought about the need for food, water, elimination, and warmth, but have you considered your cat's need to hunt, play, and explore, its need to be able to retreat and hide and its need to feel in control. Providing a consistent daily routine that provides for all of the behavioural needs of your cat is not difficult but it does require some time, some thought and some commitment.

How to keep your cat stimulated and occupy his/ her time

One of the most important considerations for an indoor cat is how you are going to occupy them 24 hours a day. Of course cats are famous for their desire to sleep and it is certainly true that most cats will be happy to rest while owners are away, spending many an hour sleeping in a warm or sunny spot. However, indoor cats do need access to activity that will stimulate both their mind and their body and provide the exercise that they would naturally engage in if they were out and about.

Just like dogs, cats require exercise as well. When at home, cat owners should be encouraging their indoor pets to have at least two periods of play time a day for around 10 minutes.  This can be activities such as throwing cat toys for them or use a cat teaser wand toy to have them move and play. Try different types of toys which allow them to stalk, chase and kick. It is important to cycle through their toys, switching them from time to time, as these “new” toys will be much more exciting for your furry friend.

For when you are not around, cat aerobic centres and mazes offer climbing, hiding and playing opportunities and can be ideal for indoor cats.  These days you can find a variety of different sizes and shapes. You can also make your own mazes and cat castles out of card board boxes. It is important to replace these regularly.

Scratching posts are also essential for any cat, but especially an indoor cat. As scratching is a natural and important behaviour for cats having a post available to them will save your carpets and your furniture.

Why does your cat need to hunt when you feed him/her so well?

The feline desire to hunt is not connected to the sensation of hunger and no matter how well you feed your cat he/she will still react to the sight and sound of prey with an instinctive stalk. Obviously indoor cats are unlikely to come across natural prey, but anything that moves rapidly or squeaks in a high pitch can trigger the same behavioural response.

Since most outdoor cats will hunt upwards of 10 mice a day, some form of alternative outlets will be needed for predation. Both social play and object play toys are therefore essential for an indoor cat. Toys that squeak and those that can be moved rapidly and unpredictably are irresistible to some cats while of no interest to others. You can also select toys that mimic real prey in terms of size, texture and colour. Learn more about cat toys here

Should you feed your cat at specific times or should you leave food down in the bowl all of the time?

Cats are not social feeders and therefore set meal times are not of any inherent benefit to them. Ad lib systems that allow the cat to eat when it wants to and to consume small amounts frequently, are most natural, but in some individuals can lead to obesity.

It is important to remember that wild cats need to hunt and kill their prey before they can eat and that the whole feeding process takes some considerable time. On average anywhere from 1 in 3 to 1 in 15 hunting expeditions will be successful per day and in order to acquire enough food to survive (perhaps 8 to 10 mice in an average day) most cats need in excess of 30 hunting expeditions a day. Thus hunting and feeding can take up several hours a day and expend a great deal of energy, so it’s not hard to see how simply providing free choice food in a bowl is likely to leave most cats with a lot of time on their paws! Cats that have access to outdoors may compensate by spending time hunting but for an indoor cat a different approach will be needed.

Feeder Toys or Puzzle feeders

One solution is to put a proportion of the cat's daily food ration in a puzzle feeder or feeder toy, which the cat needs to work at in order to gain access to the food, and another is to scatter the food around the house in several bowls and let the cat hunt it out. Puzzle feeders do not need to be expensive and you can easily make your own from an old plastic drink bottle. All you need to do is cut holes in the bottle that are just a little larger than the diameter of the dried cat food, and then file the holes so that there are no sharp edges that could harm your cat. Fill the bottle with dry food and then watch your cat play with the bottle and get rewarded as the food falls through the holes. Commercial toys that deliver food when chewed or manipulated are also available.

Does your cat need to climb?

The picture of a cat stuck in a tree or stranded on a roof top is a familiar one but the fact is that cats need to climb. Getting up high is an important way to relieve stress in the feline world and when your cat is feeling under pressure its instinct will be to move upwards this may be especially necessary in homes with multiple cats. It is therefore very important to have accessible high up resting places that are accessible. Place these climbing areas near windows so your indoor cat can safely view the outside world. 

If your cat hides should you be concerned?

Hiding is an important coping strategy for cats and when a cat is spending considerable amounts of time hiding it is important to examine why. In a cat that has recently moved into a home hiding may be a perfectly normal response to the overwhelming amount of new information. In a cat that has been resident in the house for some time hiding is likely to be a sign that all is not well either emotionally or perhaps physically. If it is possible to identify the reason for the hiding then it is important to treat that first. In many cases no clear cause can be found and in these situations you need to resist the temptation to bring the cat out to face the world. Hiding serves a purpose for the solitary hunter who needs to assess potential danger from a safe haven and simply denying the chance to hide will make things harder for the cat. Instead you should allow your pet to withdraw into safety, at least in the short term, and then work to make the home so appealing that it cannot resist the temptation to join in. Provide sufficient perching and hiding areas (carriers, boxes) for each cat to have a secure area if desired. If hiding persists and is accompanied by lack of appetite you should consult your veterinarian for advice.

Fresh air - lead walking and cat enclosures

Some cats may need to be kept permanently indoors and this can work as long as owners are aware of the responsibility that it brings. For others access owners would like to offer some contact with the world outside and in these cases there are a number of alternatives. The harness and lead approach is certainly one, but the fact is that not all cats will learn to walk in this way. Introducing harnesses as early as possible will help and making a kitten accustomed to the lead will minimize resistance to its use as an adult. Another option is a commercial cat enclosure in a yard. Ideally the pen will be accessed from the house via a cat door flap and will offer the cat access to outdoors while offering you complete peace of mind.

Lastly it is important to note that not all cats easily adapt to indoor life. If you feel like your cat is struggling with the transition, please contact your veterinarian for professional behavioural assistance and advice.

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