Making the transition from outdoor life to indoor life can be a relatively easy one for a cat if you set up the indoor environment to be as interesting as the one kitty is about to leave behind. It will also be much safer.
What if the Cat Has Never Been Indoors?
First on the list is to take the cat to the veterinarian to make sure she’s healthy, get her vaccinated if she hasn’t already had that done and to start her on flea control. The only newcomer you want to bring into the house is the kitty herself, and not an army of fleas of ticks.
While you’re at the veterinarian, talk to him/her about having the cat microchipped. That way, if she does escape out the door you’ll stand a much better chance of having her returned to you.
If you’re bringing in a stray cat or if you’ve decided that your exclusively-outdoor cat should now live indoors, you can’t just bring her in and let her have the run of the house right away. She’ll need to get her bearings and you may need to do a little training with her before she goes exploring in the every room. Even though you may think that after having access to the whole outdoors she should handle your 1800 sq. ft. house without a hitch, it won’t necessarily be a seamless transition. First of all, in the great outdoors, kitty could pee and poop wherever she pleased. I don’t think you’ll want that to be the case in your house. So confining her to one area while she adjusts to the litter box will be an important step. The same applies to scratching. Outside she had every tree and fence post at her disposal. Inside, you’ll want her using a designated scratching post and not your living room furniture.
In the outdoor environment, the cat also had her own hiding places, favorite perches and other locations. The indoor environment will be totally unfamiliar to her and it can be overwhelming if you offer too much too soon.
If you’re bringing in a stray or a cat who hasn’t had much contact with you, confining her to a smaller area will allow you to start getting to know each other.
The Sanctuary Room
I’ve talked and written so much about how to set up a sanctuary room, especially as it applies to introducing a second cat to a resident kitty. For a cat who has never set foot inside your home, setting up a sanctuary room will also be needed to help speed up the acclimation process.
The sanctuary room is just a room that you can close off – such as a bedroom. This is where all of kitty’s necessities will be located – her food and water bowls, litter box, scratching post and toys. There are also some extras to put in there as well that will be very helpful: hideaways and a cat tree or some kind of perch.
The first thing the former outdoor cat may do when inside is to immediately seek out a hiding place. This is important because once she feels securely hidden, she can use that hiding place as her home base as she begins to get to know the environment. The hideaways can as simple as open paper bags placed on their sides, boxes on their sides, boxes turned upside down with an entrance hole cut in one side, soft-sided pet tunnels, etc. The more hideaways you spread around the room, the less likely kitty will hunker down under the bed.
If the cat has never used a litter box then you have to make the set-up as easy for her to figure out as possible. Use a large-sized open litter box and fill it with unscented, soft litter. Initially, the box, although large in size, shouldn’t necessarily be too high. The litter substrate should resemble what kitty would use outdoors (garden soil, sand, dirt). This isn’t the time to experiment with alternative litters or a high-tech self-cleaning litter box. Make the set-up appealing and obvious – almost as if there’s a big sign above it saying “restroom.” Don’t use a covered box and don’t place the box in the closet. Keep everything convenient. In some cases with stray cats, you may even have to start out by filling the box with a sand/dirt mixture so it more closely resembles the substrate she would normally use outdoors for elimination. Once kitty understands what the litter box is for, you can gradually start adding scoopable litter and reduce the amount of sand/dirt.
A stray cat or one who was exclusively outdoors will have claws that have never been trimmed. This is a cat who is used to being able to scratch on whatever she pleases so make sure there’s a good, sturdy scratching post available. Sisal-covered ones are usually the most popular with cats but if your cat doesn’t like it, try bringing in an actual log.
Cat Tree or Perch
Being able to climb up to a safe elevated perch was a crucial part of outdoor life for the cat. It provided safety and it also allowed the cat the ability to see what was going on around her. Provide a sturdy cat tree or at the very least, install a window perch. If you don’t invest in a cat tree now, you really will need to at some point. Cat trees may seem like a big expense but it’s a very important piece of feline real estate. It provides so much comfort and security as well as being a great place to climb. Multi-perched trees also allow more than one cat to share a relatively close space while still maintaining some kind of status.
Cat trees come in all shapes, sizes and prices. What I did when I brought two feral cats in many years ago was to attach some silk tree branches around the cat tree to give the cats more cover. They felt a little more concealed when up on the tree and I believe that accelerated our trust-building process.
Place the cat tree near a window so the kitty has something to look out on.
Don’t be in a rush to show the cat how much you love her. Let her set the pace. She needs to feel secure and then the bond of trust will start to grow. Use interactive playtime as a way to engage her in fun activities while still allowing her to stay within her comfort zone. The fishing pole-type design of the toy keeps you just far enough away from her that she can focus a little more on playing and less on you. That’s actually what you want because if she feels she can relax around you and not have to keep her eyes on you at all times, it will help her see that you are a friend and not a foe.
Solo Toys and Activities
Leave some interesting solo toys like crinkly balls and furry mice for kitty to place with. The more you show her that the indoor world has all the stimulation and fun that she needs, the easier it’ll be to do the indoor transition.
Now that your cat is indoors there are some dangers around you may not have paid attention to previously. Go around your home and check for potential risks and make necessary changes. Make sure all window screens are secure, put plants out of kitty’s reach (almost all plants are poisonous to cats), keep cleaners and chemicals stored away, put the trash can under the sink or make sure it has a secure lid, etc.
Since you aren’t familiar with the cat’s habits yet, when it comes time to bring her out of the sanctuary room, you’ll have to pay attention to whether she tends to want to steal food off the counters or chew on things she shouldn’t. Watch carefully because you may have to do some training to keep kitty off the counter. In the meantime, make sure food isn’t left out.
Watch for behaviors such as chewing electrical cords or trying to play with dangling cords. You may need to secure dangling wires, use cord containment devices and coat all exposed cords with a bitter anti-chew product.
Watch for Escapes
When it comes time to open the sanctuary room door, you’ll then have to deal with the risk that kitty may try to bolt out the front door when she sees an opportunity. Make sure everyone in the family is on the same page in terms of training and making sure kitty’s whereabouts are known before anyone opens a door.
Creating a Safe “Outdoor” Experience
If you want to still allow your cat to have some exposure to the outdoors, consider doing it in a very safe way by creating or purchasing a sturdy outdoor enclosure. You can find all types of enclosures from small ones to elaborate designs.
To keep your cat convinced that being indoors is a good thing, make sure you’ve increased environmental enrichment. Place little toys around the house for kitty to find, toss puzzle feeders around, maintain a schedule of interactive playtime, and more. Be creative in ways to increase the fun factor. Grow some kitty greens for your cat (rye, wheat or oat) so she can munch on safe greens the way she might have done outdoors. It’s common for cats to nibble on grass.
Because the outdoor environment holds lots of opportunities for hunting, adventure and exploration, you have to provide that (without actually providing live prey of course) for the transitioning indoor cat. Schedule playtime, keep things interesting, maybe set up a cat entertainment DVD (you can buy these online or at your local pet supply store), and don’t allow the indoors to become boring.
Training and Manners
Once the trust-building process is well underway and kitty is starting to explore the house, begin a training program. Make sure everyone is on the same page about this so training will be consistent. Decide where the cat is and isn’t allowed to go and don’t send mixed messages. For example, keeping kitty off the counter, off the dining table, etc.
Need More Information?
The above article gives very general tips for doing a transition to indoor life. For more specifics, refer to the book Starting From Scratch. If you’re experiencing a cat behavior problem and would like a consultation with cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, contact our office.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.