Photo by Eugenio Marongiu.
By Dr. Carl Palazzolo, DVM, and Dr. Meredith Kennedy, DVM, Long Beach Animal Hospital (LBAH).
Pets who live indoors, particularly cats, will live a longer and safer life if they spend all their time indoors. Training cats to be indoor pets from the very beginning tends to work best, since the cats never have the experience of being outside. But this is not always feasible when you have adopted an outdoor cat or your current outdoor cat needs to become an indoor cat for medical or other reasons.
As far as environmental enrichment goes, outdoor cats do well as indoor-only cats if they’re brought inside, as long as their minds and bodies are exercised (see “The Active Cat: Environmental Enrichment” in the October 6 The Vet Is In column). What we need to accomplish is an “extinction” of behaviors: the pacing, vocalizing, trying to zip out an open door—all demonstrations of the agitation of a cat accustomed to going outside and who really wants to keep doing it. The problem is, every time the cat gets out, it reinforces all of these behaviors associated with trying to get out. If the cat goes out only 5 percent of the time, this still has a reinforcing effect, and the undesirable behaviors usually continue.
Since cats do not adapt to change well, should we try to extinguish these behaviors gradually or all at once? Making this behavior change all at once has the best chance of success, since it eliminates the unwanted behavior of “trying to get out.” If the outdoor cat is being shifted to your indoor environment from somewhere else, it’s important that he or she be kept strictly inside after the move, since the cat won’t be familiar with the territory outside and has a much greater chance of getting lost or coming to grief.
Cats are enchanted by new things, such as a cardboard box, paper bags, a collapsible nylon tunnel (such as little children at preschool might use—and they do make them for cats!), and even their own carriers put in different locations. Favorite toys put away for a few weeks and then brought out again can attract their attention, and some cats really respond to occasional exposure to catnip. A feline pheromone in the product Feliway in spray or diffuser form can be very helpful in calming stressed or agitated cats.
Cat carriers can be turned into fun attractions by moving them to a new spot, leaving the door open, and putting something new and exciting inside. A wadded-up piece of paper (they love the crackles), a new fuzzy toy, and catnip toys are good choices. Then, put the carriers away after a day or two, and take them out a couple of days later with some new treasure inside.
If the cats are not very keen on the carriers, you can try feeding them only inside the carriers for a week or two, and they’ll come to look forward to the carrier and see it as a good place to be. If my cats get very rambunctious and noisy, I put them in the carrier with a blanket over the top so it looks and feels like a cave. It’s not punishment, it’s just trying to replicate a natural situation like hiding in a cave, and it has a calming effect.
Just remember that if you give in and decide to let a restless, pacing cat outside “just for a little while,” this will simply reinforce the whole idea of getting outside and won’t do you or the cat any good in the long run. As an indoor cat, the avoidance of viral diseases, cat-fight abscesses, dog attacks, poisons, being hit by a car and countless other dangers will do your cat a world of good.