Cats are increasingly being kept indoors for many reasons, for example, owners may want to protect their cats from road traffic accidents, sustaining injuries from fights with neighbouring cats, and theft. Alternatively, some owners may wish to prevent their cats preying on local wildlife. However, despite increasing the average life expectancy of cats, can an indoor life lead to ill health and mental suffering?
Cats have specific needs which are not always satisfied in an indoor-only environment. On average, feral domestic cats spend approximately 8 hours hunting every day and therefore spend a lot of their mental and physical energy engaged in gaining enough to eat. Because hunting is such an important activity for cats, pet cats that have free access to the outdoors often engage in hunting activity even though they are also fed by their owner. In contrast, cats that don’t go outside, or have restricted access to the outside, are unable to display their full range of normal behaviours and may become inactive and depressed, or show signs of frustration. A monotonous and predictable indoor environment will exacerbate this. Therefore, by keeping our cats indoors, we keep them safe from physical dangers but we also challenge their ability to perform natural behaviours.
At the most basic level, indoor cats require access to an appropriate toileting site such as a litter tray, food, water bowls/fountains, and a comfortable sleeping area. These resources should be placed in separate areas as cats generally do not like to eat or sleep near where they toilet and often prefer to drink away from their feeding area. They must also be in private, quiet locations away from any noisy household appliances, such as the washing machine that might come on unexpectedly and scare the cat, and any disturbances from other pets or family members.
It is important to provide indoor cats with suitable levels of stimulation by providing an environment that promotes natural behaviours such as chasing and pouncing, climbing and scratching, hiding, and more natural feeding opportunities. As cats are highly motivated to hunt, owners should encourage hunting-type behaviours indoors. Toys that mimic prey in texture and movement will attract the cat’s attention and stimulate chasing and pouncing behaviours. Being able to catch the toy is very important to prevent frustration, for example, chasing the light from a laser light pen can be frustrating for the cat if it cannot actually catch the light. Owners should interact with their cat using fishing rod-type toys but should also provide toys that the cat can play with independently. Cat nip toys are suitable for most cats but some do not respond at all and others may become aggressive.
Cats wouldn’t naturally eat just once or twice a day, rather they would have several small meals. Providing the cat with foraging opportunities where they can find small meals in various locations is more natural. Food challenges can be made increasingly more difficult by using bought or home-made puzzle feeders.
Scratching posts should be provided to allow the cat to sharpen its claws. These can be incorporated into climbing and activity centres which encourage the cat to perform natural climbing and jumping behaviours. This also provides much needed exercise. Cats also like to observe and rest on elevated surfaces so make the most of vertical space by providing beds at the top of these climbing trees or on top of wardrobes.
Visual stimulation can easily be provided via a window sill allowing the cat to look outside onto a garden, or a DVD specially designed for the enrichment of cats. However, visual stimulation should be provided with caution as the cat may become frustrated if it cannot access the source of stimulation, for example chase a bird it can see outside.
Outdoor enclosures can provide a cat with the sights, sounds and smells of the great outdoors but with less of the risks. Ideally, free access should be provided from the house via a cat flap allowing the cat control over its use of the enclosure. The enclosure needs to provide shelter from the elements and a place to hide from other cats if it cannot return to the house by itself. Again the vertical space should be utilised by proving shelves, ramps and climbing trees. Cat friendly plants can be provided and there should always be fresh water and litter tray provided if the cat cannot choose to return inside.
Owners can also provide mental and physical stimulation in the form of positive reward training. Initially, simple, desirable behaviours can be rewarded with small food treats but these can become more complex as the cat gets the hang of it!
Indoor cats are predisposed to developing cystitis because of the stress associated with their lifestyle so make sure they are encouraged to drink by providing clean, fresh drinking water away from their food and in a number of different receptacles.
Cats lead a less active life when kept indoors and are therefore at risk of becoming obese and developing related medical problems such as diabetes. Therefore, owners should consider feeding the cat a low calorie diet. Owners should also consider providing grass for the cat to eat, this will aid digestion. Puzzle feeders will also extend the cat’s feeding times and reduce the amount consumed. Opportunities for exercise should be provided, such as play and climbing.
Although indoor cats are less likely to be exposed to viral and bacterial infections as outdoor cats they are still at risk from both infections and parasites, especially if they are in contact with other animals in the household that go outdoors or they themselves have restricted access via an outdoor enclosure or from a stay at a cattery. Therefore, vaccinations, internal and external parasite prevention is still important.
Cats are social but they would naturally only live in social groups under very specific conditions of resource abundance and distribution, relatedness to each other, and where there is no competition for resources such as food, water, toileting sites and access outdoors. If these conditions are not met then living in close proximity to other cats can be very stressful. If there is more than one cat in the house, all of these resources need to be provided for each cat and placed in different locations so no cat has to ‘queue’ to access food or the litter tray. These resources should not be placed in areas where one cat can block access to or from these resources by another cat.
Feliway, a synthetic copy of the facial pheromone used by cats to mark areas of their territory to make them feel safer, can be used to reduce stress and increase their feeling of security in areas of the home that may prove challenging to the cat.