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Keep Your Cats Indoors

by Leda Beth Gray

Why is it important to keep cats indoors? First, it is good for wildlife. Many of us are becoming aware of the huge toll taken on wildlife populations by domestic and feral cats. Studies done over the last 50 years have demonstrated the particularly heavy impact cats have had on bird populations throughout the world. Estimates for the numbers of birds killed by cats in the U.S. per year range into the hundreds of millions.

Half the cat-caught birds brought into Wildlife Rescue in Palo Alto in 1994 were fledglings, emphasizing the particular vulnerability of birds during the nesting season. Combined with habitat loss, predation by cats could be a burden that many bird populations won't be able to withstand.

Not only are the prey species affected by cat predation, but also other predator species such as hawks, owls, and coyotes that depend on the prey species for their natural food supply. The population densities of cats, especially in rural areas, can be many times higher than occurs in predator species in nature, making it difficult for native predators to compete.

The good news is that keeping cats indoors is also good for the health and life expectancy of the cats, and less expensive for the cat owners. The Humane Society of the United States was quoted in 1992 estimating the average life expectancy of free roaming pets to be between 3 and 5 years, while indoor cats can commonly reach ages of 17 years or more. A number of local community groups, including Santa Clara Valley Audubon, Santa Clara Valley Humane Society and Wildlife Rescue are currently trying to educate the public on the benefits of keeping domestic cats indoors. Following are some important benefits of keeping cats indoors:

  • Indoor cats do not get hit by cars. According to the Santa Clara Valley Humane Society, 57% of all the animals found dead on the streets of San Jose in 1996 were cats.
  • Keeping cats inside keeps them out of fights. Indoor cats don't get injured in fights with other neighborhood cats or wildlife. Our big, white, fluffy male, Sta-Puft ended up at the vet's office with abscessed wounds twice after fights with who-knows-what. Believe me, it wasn't cheap. This contributed to our decision to make Sta-Puft an indoor cat.
  • Exposure to diseases and parasites are minimized or eliminated. Diseases such as feline leukemia, rabies, upper respiratory disease and feline immunodeficiency virus can be serious and life-threatening. Common parasites picked up outdoors by cats include fleas, ticks and worms.
  • Lower veterinary bills. Besides not having to seek emergency attention for cats who have been in fights, keeping cats indoors saves money on treating diseases and parasites which are contracted from other cats and wildlife. We were pleased to find out from our vet that in addition, our cats need fewer yearly shots now that they are indoor cats.
  • Easier and less expensive to keep fleas under control. Newly available medicines, which help keep fleas under control, have to be administered on a continual basis if the cat goes outside. It may be possible to subdue fleas if the cat stays inside. At present our cats do not seem to have any fleas, and we are not using any form of flea control. The ordeal of a flea bath is essentially a thing of the past.
  • Indoor cats are safe from neighbors who do not welcome feline visitors to their yards. In most places it is legal for property owners to trap domestic animals that wander on to their properties. Wandering cats may end up at the pound, or worse, suffer injury from angry neighbors trying to drive them off.
  • Indoor cats are safe from predation by wild animals. In rural areas especially, cats can become prey themselves to predators such as coyotes and Great Horned Owls.

It is clear that there are many reasons to keep cats indoors above and beyond those relating to wildlife, producing a "win-win" situation. Obviously it is easiest to raise a cat indoors from the time it is a kitten, but it is also possible to convert an outdoor cat to an indoor cat. For tips on how to do this, see adjoining story.

Tips On Turning Outdoor Cats Into Indoor Cats

We have three indoor cats. No, they don't drive us nuts. At least no more than before, when they went outside. Since we've successfully turned them all into indoor cats, I would like to share some of what I've learned with other cat owners who want to try keeping their cats indoors.

Of the three cats that we have, one was very devoted to going outside. Black Bunbuns was on her own when we found her, and had only gradually become used to staying inside for extended periods of time. We had cut all the cats back to only a few hours of outside time each evening after dark, mostly because of Sta-Puft or Black Bunbuns bringing home an occasional bird. After Sta-Puft had been in his two big fights (see part 1), the last straw came when he began coming home with finches - at night!! That was it, all the cats were grounded.

Yes, they drove us nuts!! Luckily, Sta-Puft and our third cat, Uncle Chuck, only pestered us for a week or two. They were fairly easily diverted with games of superballs, string and catnip mice. And after all, Sta-Puft's favorite thing is eating. The main problem with him is to keep him from getting too heavy. Black Bunbuns was another story, though. She was periodically insistent for weeks. It did lessen fairly steadily, yet gradually, until she gave up altogether after about 6 or 8 weeks. It wasn't as if she was continually in torture from not going outside. She seemed fairly satisfied when she wasn't meowing to go out, consequently giving us a break. She did finally take more of an interest in playing with string and romping with Uncle Chuck.

Following are a number of things which I think have made it easier for our cats to become established as indoor cats. When I say "easier", I mean both for them and for us.

Have your cat spayed or neutered!!! As well as helping to address a cat overpopulation problem that results in thousands of unclaimed cats every year in our county, spaying and neutering cause cats to be more sociable, and less inclined to roam.

Having toys around for them to entertain themselves. Catnip mice are a favorite in our household. I grow catnip outside, and to keep the "ratty mice" alluring, every once in a while I rub catnip leaves on the corduroy hides of the ratty-mice. This very successfully renews the cats' interest in playing with the mice (and entertains us greatly).

Making places available for them to sit by the window. Cats love to bask in the morning sun, as well as watch wildlife and human activities outside. Sta-Puft is beside himself with excitement every time the squirrels run down the window sill in front of his favorite spot.

Isolate the cat box(es) so that periodic odors are not disruptive to the human inhabitants of the household. Many people choose the bathroom. I chose the garage and installed a cat door in the door between the house and the garage, to minimize odors even further. We rent, so we actually bought a new door so we could leave the landlord's door intact.

Offset increased cat box use (and litter purchases) with litter conservation techniques. There are ways to reduce cat litter usage, but (sorry!!) they all involve "sieving". I haven't yet reached a decision as to which method is more efficient. Recently I've started using the "clumping" cat litter, and find that it reduces cat litter usage. Before that I developed a cat box setup that involved a section of newspaper and a larger-than-cat box sized piece of some fine mesh flexible screen (like that used for screen doors) The newspaper was placed in the bottom of the cat box and the screen was placed over the newspaper, fitted to the inside of the box, and clipped to the sides of the cat box with clothespins. The litter was then poured on to the screen. One could then periodically change the newspaper by lifting the cat litter out by gathering up the screen. Sieving cat litter and changing out the newspaper every few days extended the life of the litter considerably, as the urine would mostly soak into the newspaper instead of fouling the cat litter.

Find a way to allow each cat to have a favorite (and secure!) place to which it can retreat. For Black Bunbuns it is a little cat bed with washable cover. For Sta-Puft it is numerous throw-rugs of which he is king, plus a number of other places that he alternately claims for extended periods. For Uncle Chuck, it is the loft in the garage, to which he is the only cat athletic enough to leap.

Same number of cat boxes as cats. I don't know if this keeps them from fighting over the boxes, but it is a reasonable formula for not having to maintain the boxes overly frequently.

Have carpeted posts, or some other place for them to scratch. These must be made of materials that the cats prefer to your furniture. Our cats all love the carpeted posts, and I find that I can use carpet scraps to recover them when they wear out. The scratching issue can be a tough one, and can make or break the whole effort. If you have furniture or rugs, etc., that are precious to you, by all means protect them until the cat settles into an acceptable routine and it is safe to allow them access.

Make the bedrooms of allergy sufferers off limits to cats. This will go a long way toward reducing allergy irritations, especially if they tend to be cumulative. Bare, uncarpeted floors with washable throw-rugs are also easier to keep clean.

Some cats pose a serious challenge to any attempts to keep them indoors. It may just not be possible in some cases without really going crazy. In cases like these one might consider a caged run for the cat, connected to the house with a cat door.

Don't give up too easily, though. It seems to be a matter of negotiating a workable agreement with your cat. We figure that our cats think they've relegated all the hunting to us, that we are the servants that go out and capture all the food, and they just lie around like kings and queens and play as much as they want. Now that I think of it, maybe they're right!!


Updated November 2011


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