Safe Solutions to the Indoor vs Outdoor Cat Dilemma

This article assumes you’re up to speed on all the pros and cons of letting your cat go outside versus keeping him strictly indoors.

If not, the TL;DR is this:

While there are risks and benefits associated with both the indoor-only and the outdoor cat lifestyles, the risks of unsupervised outdoor access (free roaming) significantly outweigh the benefits.

On average, outdoor cats have more injury and illness, and they die younger, compared to indoor-only cats.

Therefore, if you want your cat to be safe and healthy, it’s clearly best not to let him roam freely outdoors. Instead, you’re better off either keeping him inside all the time, or making sure his environment is completely controlled or supervised every time he goes outside.

Gray cat on table in outdoor enclosure

Therefore, if you want your cat to be safe and healthy, it’s clearly best not to let him roam freely outdoors. Instead, you’re better off either keeping him inside all the time, or making sure his environment is completely controlled or supervised every time he goes outside.

Here, we discuss safe options and potential creative solutions to the indoor vs. outdoor dilemma, so that you can strike that balance between safety and quality of life for your fur pal(s).

The options can be broken into 3 broad categories:

-> Optimized Indoor Environment
-> Secured/Enclosed Outdoor Access
-> Supervised Outdoor Access

Now let’s take each category one at a time.

Optimized Indoor Environment

You should really be optimizing your home for your cat no matter what. It becomes critical though, if you want to properly address the cons or risks (boredom, obesity, and urinary infections) of the indoor cat lifestyle.

Below are some areas to focus on. Of course, you can combine these indoor enhancements with enclosed and/or supervised outdoor time. And don’t forget to cat-proof to keep your cat and your stuff safe.

1. Scratching Posts, Cat Trees, and Cubbies

If you want to simulate the vertical exploration and scratching opportunities that cats naturally seek outdoors, scratching posts, cat trees, and shelves or ledges, are essential.

A variety of textures and heights can keep the environment interesting for your cat, allowing him to climb, perch, and survey his domain from a secure vantage point. Scratching posts satisfy the need to mark territory, stretch muscles, and maintain claw and paw health.

Vertical structures allow your cat to look over the landscape from up high, and cubbies offer napping spots that feel safe and secure.

Providing these structures can help a lot in meeting some essential cat needs, and prevent potential damage to furniture in the process.

2. Window Perches

Window perches serve as a portal to the outside world for indoor cats, allowing them to observe birds, squirrels, insects, and the changing environment while staying safely indoors. I like to think of it as TV for cats.

The visual stimulation can be incredibly enriching and can help alleviate the desire to roam outside. And if your setup allows, you can even simulate roaming by providing a perch at multiple windows.

My cats love to follow the movements of birds or squirrels by running from one window to the next. When Gandalf sees a squirrel, he will lower himself flat at the window sill, ears pinned to his head, ready to pounce. When the squirrel disappears from view, he follows it to the next window in super stealth mode.

The best perches are the ones in windows that get full sun at some point each day. Your cat will love the sun worshiping thrones you provide! Of course, cat trees have perches built in. You can also purchase perches (heheh) that are designed to be mounted on a wall or onto a window sill.

My setup includes a cat tree next to a window in one room. For other rooms, my DIY solution is to put something under the window for cats to be on. These include a stereo speaker, a side table, a desk, and two Chewy boxes stacked on top of each other with a sheet draped over them. High tech, right?!

3. Interactive toys and games

Interactive toys, such as laser pointers, feather wands, and motorized mice, can mimic the unpredictable movements of prey and provide mental and physical stimulation for indoor cats.

Puzzle toys and treat dispensers employ a cat’s problem-solving skills and keep them engaged for extended periods.

Rotating your toys and introducing new games can help keep playtime fresh and exciting, preventing boredom and encouraging active play. I will admit, the toy rotation thing is an area where I could show some improvement.

4. Regular playtime and interaction

Consistent interaction is huge for mental and physical well-being. It can also prevent behavioral issues. And it plays a role in strengthening or maintaining the bond between you and your cat.

Things like chasing, hiding, stalking, pouncing, and climbing during playtime can provide great exercise and stimulation for an indoor-only kitty.

Make it a daily routine. I suggest you try a variety of things in order to learn what your cat loves the most. My favorite is that Phoebe will actually fetch if I toss her favorite toy (a ratty old piece of rope).

5. Proper diet, hydration, and vet care

Providing proper nutrition and portion control will complement daily exercise to help maintain healthy body weight and prevent obesity.

The best way to do this is to verify with your vet how much you should be feeding daily, then measure each meal accordingly so that there is no overeating. Try to feed your cat at the same times every day.

Hydration is also super important for overall health, and also to prevent urinary infection. Of course providing fresh water every day is a part of this, and feeding a wet food diet helps by building in hydration to each meal.

Last, keep up with vaccinations and annual vet checkups. Your vet will help you know whether you’re on track or not with your cat care routines. And regular checkups will help you catch problems early, before they’ve spun out of control.

Enclosed Outdoor and Outdoor-ish Access

It’s probably not going to look great, and your options are going to be limited if you’re a renter like me. But if you can pull it off, these options can be a great way to give your cat a regular taste of the outdoors.

1. Enclosed cat patios (catios)

I think catios (cat patios) are super cool. This is one solution I would really like to make a part of my home some day.

The catio setup combines the safety of being kept indoors with the full immersion of the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoor world.

To create a catio, you would either convert a screened porch or sunroom that is already part of the home, or construct a catio that either attaches to the home or is a standalone unit. And of course, the interior is designed specifically for your cat.

People get pretty creative here, placing elaborate cat trees, structures, and even parts of real trees in there for cats to climb or lounge on. Add an armchair or sofa for yourself and you’ve got a pretty sweet catio situation happening!

2. Window Boxes

Window boxes are a step or two down from catios. They are basically screened enclosures that extend from a window. Simply open the window to give your cat access.

Window boxes are often just a small enclosed ledge/box, but they can be pretty large, too, with multiple levels.

The bigger ones are designed to attach to the outside of your house, over the window frame. These can easily tip into catio territory, complete with an exterior human door and room enough to stand up in.

3. Fenced yards with cat-proof systems

If you have a yard, installing a cat-proof fencing system can create an outdoor haven for your cat.

These systems often include tilted or roller bars that prevent cats from climbing over the top. By securing the perimeter of a yard, cats can enjoy a larger area to explore and exercise while remaining safely contained within the boundaries set by their owners.

I haven’t tried this. It’s complicated and often expensive. Honestly, it would take a lot for me to trust that it was really fail-proof and would keep the cats securely in the yard.

I don’t know if I would ever use such a system without supervising – cats are masterful escape artists and I just wouldn’t want to risk it.

Supervised outdoor access

1. Leash and harness training

One effective compromise for allowing cats to enjoy the outdoors safely is to train them to walk on a leash with a harness. This method provides your cat with the opportunity to explore the outdoor world while under your direct supervision.

It is crucial to use a harness designed specifically for cats, as they can easily slip out of collars. And it requires gradual acclimation to the harness and leash in a secure indoor environment at first.

I have attempted this and failed. But I gave up way too quickly. I think Gandalf didn’t like the feel of the harness around him, and he just wanted to lay down and try to wriggle out of it.

And since my cats are well set up and happy indoors, I don’t feel super compelled to get each of them trained with harness and leash. I just don’t have the time.

2. Training your cat to stay near you outside

Training your cat to stay close to you while outside is another option for supervised outdoor time. This approach requires a ton of patience and positive reinforcement to teach the cat to stay within a certain range.

While not all cats may be amenable to such training, those that do learn can enjoy the freedom of being outdoors with less restrictive physical boundaries. But they still need to be closely monitored to prevent wandering or exposure to hazards.

My own experience with this option

This option is as far as I’ve gotten in letting any of my cats be outside. And I’ve only done it with Gandalf, which I feel a bit guilty about. But his sisters get too skittish being outside, and I don’t want to run the risk of them bolting into the street or under a neighbor’s fence. I think Phoebe would likely find a hiding spot and refuse to come out if she got spooked.

Anyway, I’ve trained Gandalf to stay up on the porch with me when I’m sitting outside working on my laptop. Every time he steps off into the yard, I immediately go get him and put him back on the porch. Every single time. In the beginning, I had to do that very frequently. But over time, he wanders off less and less often.

And I must say, it’s pretty cool to get to hang out with him out there. He now will bolt out the front door when he gets a chance, but he always jumps right up onto the chair and then turns around to look at me, waiting for me to join him! It’s ridiculously endearing.

Unsupervised Outdoor Access is High Risk

We’ve already talked about how the risks of free roaming outdoor access are far greater than the benefits. No matter the benefits a cat may get from roaming outside, the likelihood of injury, disease, or death is just too high.

Therefore, keeping your cat strictly indoors, or mixing in one of the above options is the way to go in my book. Either way, be sure to optimize the cat-friendliness of your home to reduce the chances of boredom and obesity.

Can Outdoor Cats Become Indoor Cats?

Yes. If your cat is currently getting unlimited outdoor access and you want to change that, it can be done. It will probably require a lot of learning, training, and patience on your part to get there.

And it will probably be a smoother process if you use one or a combination of the above options rather than suddenly keeping your cat inside.

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The information provided here is not meant to replace professional guidance from your own veterinarian or cat behavior specialist.

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