Keeping Indoor Cats Happy And Healthy

Written by Dr Annie King DVM

As a veterinarian, I am frequently asked my opinion on keeping cats indoors verses letting them go outside.  The answer to that question is very straightforward:  it is much safer and healthier to keep your cat indoors.  Cats that are allowed outside encounter many dangers such as predators, cars, and toxins, as well as wounds and viruses from other cats.  In fact, it is estimated that indoor-only cats live on average three times longer than cats that are allowed to freely roam outdoors.  That is a staggering difference! 

However, while the simple answer is straightforward (keep them inside!), there are some other risks to consider when keeping your cat strictly indoors.  Indoor-only cats have a much higher level of obesity than free-roaming cats and are more likely to develop destructive behaviors such as scratching furniture and inappropriate urination.  These behaviors are thought to be directly or indirectly linked to boredom. 

Therefore, while I do recommend keeping your cat indoors, I also strongly recommend that we all strive to make their indoor environment as stimulating as possible to avoid the boredom that invariably leads to obesity and destructive behaviors.

How to Enrich Your Indoor Cat’s Environment

Change their Feeding Routine

One if the most effective ways to enrich your indoor cat’s indoor environment is to change their feeding routine. 

Many cats are free-fed, meaning food is left out for them at all times.  This practice invariably leads to obesity in our indoor-only cats, as many will eat more than they need purely out of boredom.  Instead, most veterinarians recommend feeding your cat a meal twice a day.  This allows you to better control the number of calories your cat ingests, as well as better monitor their appetite and eating habits (which can be an important indication of illness in cats). 

I also recommend making your cat’s meal-times more exciting and enriching by encouraging hunting behavior.  Hunting is a very natural behavior for cats and can easily be incorporated into their feeding routine.  You can purchase a feeding system that mimics hunting mice or use puzzle toys to dispense part of their meal.   

In our house, we simply hide some food around the house at our cat’s regular feeding time, forcing her to ‘hunt” for her breakfast every day.

Simulating Hunting via Play

Hunting behavior can also be encouraged through play and toys. 

Wand toys encourage exercise and hunting behaviors as well as provide much needed positive interactions with their owners.  Laser pointers can also be very stimulating and mimic hunting behaviors. 

However, be careful not to exhaust your cat or create undue frustration by playing too long without the reward of capturing their prey.  

Consider hiding a small treat to which the pointer can lead, creating a reward at the end of playing. 

Every cat has a different opinion about which toys they find most exciting, but toys do not need to be excessive or expensive.  A simple paper bag with cat nip provides hours of entertainment in our household.  Or, consider constructing a cardboard box fort with cat-sized entry holes to provide new places to hunt, perch, and sleep in a mini-environment inside their regular environment. 

Also consider rotating your cat’s toys – cats are naturally curious animals and quickly become bored with the same toys and routine.  An old toy that has been hidden for a few months becomes novel and exciting again when re-introduced!

Bring the Outdoors Inside

Another simple way to enrich your cat’s indoor environment is to bring the outdoors inside. 

Most cats greatly enjoy resting in a window perch, which allows them to observe the outdoors from a safe location.  I also recommend adding a bird feeder outside their window for added stimulation. 

You can also purchase or grow cat grass for your cat. Grazing on grass is a natural behavior that may provide nutrients or aid in the passage of hairballs via undigested fiber.  Consider growing an indoor garden for your cat to enjoy, including oat and wheat grasses as well as cat nip and even rosemary, parsley, and mint!   

Take Your Cat Outside Safely

If bringing the outdoors inside is not enough for your cat, consider allowing them access to the outdoors, but in a safe and controlled manner. 

Many cats can be trained to go outside on a leash via harness training.  However, be sure to take your time to train your cat to accept the harness so you can adventure outside safely.  Check out the excellent training articles and harness recommendations here at Catexplorer

If your cat does not take to the harness, or if you do not have time to harness-train your cat appropriately, then I recommend construction of a “catio” to provide them safe access to the outdoors.  Catios can be purchased to fit into a window or made in all shapes and sizes to fit your home or apartment.  Catios are an excellent option for your cat to enjoy the sites and smells of the outdoors while minimizing the risks of being outdoors!

Clicker Training

If taking your cat outdoors is not an option, consider adding mental stimulation in the form of clicker training. 

The idea that cats cannot be trained is simply not true!  Cats can not only be trained to wear a harness, but can also perform basic obedience such as come, sit, and lay down. 

Some cat owners have even enjoyed training their cats to perform more advanced tricks such as jumping through hoops, high-fives and more!  Not only does this training provide mental stimulation to your cat, it provides essential bonding time with their human companion. 

Check out the amazing Julie at Cat School for tips, inspiration, and online tutorials!

Scratching Posts

Last but not least, be sure to provide appropriate places for your cat to scratch. 

Scratching is a natural behavior by which cats sharpen their claws as well as stretch their legs and back. 

Providing a scratching post in every room in which your cat spends time will increase their health and happiness as well as save your furniture!  Scratching post can be purchased, but also easily made at home.  Attract your cat to their new posts with cat nip or FeliScratch.

Hopefully this article has provided some insight into enriching your cat’s indoor environment and inspired you to provide more stimulation for your feline friend.  

Indoor-only cats are safer and will live longer than their outdoor counterparts, but we need to do our part to enrich their lives so they can live the best life possible.  

We hope that you and your cat enjoy these suggestions and it helps keep your indoor cat happy and healthy for years to come! 

Dr. Annie King is a general practitioner at The Pet Vet on Patton in Asheville, North Carolina.  She readily admits that her cat, Emmylou, is the most spoiled cat on the planet, getting to go on never-ending adventures with King and their canine side-kick Muppet.  All of the above recommendations have been implemented with Emmylou, though King says they have a long way to go with clicker-training!

Catexplorer would like to say a huge thank you to Dr Annie King for contributing this article to our community.

What steps do you take to keep your indoor cat happy and healthy?