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How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Healthy and Happy

Updated on August 28, 2016

I am not against having outdoor cats. If I had it my way my cat would be both indoor and outdoor, but since our move into an apartment complex she doesn’t like going outside anymore (at least for more than a minute).

There are great benefits to keeping an indoor cat. Indoor cats are:

  • less expensive medical-wise (no need for flea drops, rabies shots, etc.)
  • safe from cars and other cats/predators/diseases
  • less likely to get lost
  • not a danger to birds, rodents, and other cats

Cats have a longer lifespan than those who venture outside, but cats also have the natural instinct to explore. Letting them roam outside gives them:

  • proper exercise (reducing the chance of obesity)
  • entertainment/excitement
  • the opportunities to play out their natural behaviors like hunting

I’m all for letting the cat decide what s/he wants, but the choice is yours. If you decide for whatever reason to make your kitty an indoor-only pet, here are my recommendations of keeping an indoor cat healthy and happy.

Buy a Cat Tree

Cats need a sense of territory, a place for them to feel secure. They have the desire to sit at high places, but since they can’t climb a tree or prowl along the tops of fences, it is your responsibility to provide them that high level. The cat tree, available at any pet store, is the simplest solution.

While some folks will buy cat shelves to install in their walls, the cat tree serves many purposes that your feline will appreciate. Not only will the tree provide your cat with a comfortable watch post, but it will provide exercise every time it climbs or hops to the top. Cat trees are also often made of the same material as scratching posts, which is essential to keeping their claws trimmed.

I recommend a cat tree that is taller than you. These are expensive, but are well worth the sense of security/territory and exercise your cat needs.

Grow Cat Grass

Cats are carnivorous, but they still eat a small amount of plant life just like all carnivores. No doubt you have seen dogs and cat eating grass; the grass helps their digestive tract to break down fur and other inedibles. Grass is a natural part of their diet--albeit small--so if your cat isn’t allowed outside then you must provide them the green stuff. I suggest grow-it-yourself “cat grass” that you can find at either Petco or Petsmart. By just adding water the tall wheat grass will spring up within a week and your cat will munch on the blades in satisfactory. Make sure to keep the grass out of direct sunlight. Wheat grass also has a short lifespan, so I would replant seeds (that you can buy separately) in other containers every week so your cat will always have fresh grass.

Open the Curtains

Cats need sunlight. They like to occasionally lounge in the sun, which is beneficial to their fur and gives them the essential vitamin D. So before you head out for work, be sure to open the blinds so your cat can soak up the sun.

In addition, windows are televisions for cats. They may not be able to participate in the outdoor world, but they do enjoy chattering at the birds and squirrels. Being able to look outside gives them some entertainment.

Two examples of toys that cats can play with by themselves. The Cat's Meow is battery-operated and the other requires the cat to bat the ball.
Two examples of toys that cats can play with by themselves. The Cat's Meow is battery-operated and the other requires the cat to bat the ball.

Play with Your Cat

This seems obvious, but I’m always surprised when I hear people say they rarely play with their cats. Since you have taken away their ability to hunt and explore by keeping them indoors, it is your job to fulfill their natural behaviors. This includes:

  1. jumping
  2. running
  3. pouncing
  4. grabbing/catching
  5. climbing
  6. stalking

If you are providing them those six moves everyday then you are doing everything right. If not, then you need to find the right toys for your cat. Here are the toys I use to play with my cat:

  • a feather/twirler toy in which I make her jump, stalk, grab, and pounce
  • a piece of string attached to a stick that makes her run, climb, and catch
  • a laser pointer that makes her run, jump (at a wall), and stalk
  • a battery-operated toy that makes her stalk, pounce, and catch
  • a feather duster toy that makes her grab and pounce
  • a ball trapped within a circle toy that makes her grab and stalk

It’s not just about exercise; cats need to stalk their prey as well. So don’t feel like you have to keep your cat moving nonstop. Give them the chance to creep up to the unsuspecting item, as they would do outdoors.

It’s also important to let them catch their prey now and again, to give them a sense of reward. Since a cat can never catch a laser dot, after making her run and jump for it I’ll throw a cat treat down and aim the laser on top of it so she can walk over and 'eat her kill.'

I recommend playing with your cat intensely for at least 15 minutes a day. I often play with my cat in the morning for 10 minutes, and at night for 5-10 minutes before going to bed.

Buy Multiple Cat Furniture for Scratching

While the cat tree serves as a great scratching post for your cat, I recommend at least a few scratching items around your home. You don't want to keep all scratching posts in one area. A cat isn't going to walk across the house just to scratch. So to avoid having your carpet or furniture torn up, I'd spread the scratching items around. This includes the traditional scratching post, small cat furniture, and a curl scratcher that I call the "S," which my cat loves scratching and sitting on. Your cat will be happier with multiple options.

As a side note, I am 100% against declawing cats. It's the equivalent of taking away your fingers. Would you be happy not having fingers? Without claws, cats can't climb or grasp things in their paws. It's a painful, disabling procedure that has been banned in other countries. If you are considering declawing your cat, I suggest giving your cat to a loving home where the owners will care about the cat more than the furniture. If you don't want to give up your cat, then buy scratching materials. Aside from cat hair, my furniture is fine.

Simulate the Outdoors

If you can't let them outside then bring the outside to them. Open windows with screens so they can have fresh air. Add real or fake plants to your home to create a jungle-like atmosphere.

If you have a balcony that is cat-proof, let them out there; I've even rigged up a cat window (piece of wood with a cat flap) to mine so my cat can enter and exit the balcony whenever she pleases.

People have also purchased or made large cages that you can attach to one of the back windows so your cat can be outside while still being in a controlled environment. Chicken coops or ferret/chinchilla cages could even work as alternatives depending on the setup. You have to be creative in making sure whatever you use will guarantee the cat's safety and the impossibility of escape.

Sure it's not the same as being free to roam outdoors, but keeping your pet as close to the outdoors as possible is a positive. My cat spends a good chunk of her day outside on the balcony, creeping to the edge to spy on birds or the cat in a neighboring window.

Be wary of indoor live plants that are not wheat grass, as many household plants are poisonous to cats (without the cat's realization). Please check out the link below to ensure your cat doesn't have access to these plants:

Overall, just be sure your indoor environment is interesting for your cat.


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