As time and generations change we learn and do things a little differently. When I was a child typically all the house cats were allowed free range. I still remember my own cat Blackie as he would hang from the window ledge of the back door and peer through the window while scratching the door with his hind claws to inform us that he wanted someone to open up the door and let him back in after a day of exploring. How he ever came up with this “doorbell” is beyond me but it worked. Now over 60% of cats in North America are kept strictly indoors. This is not true though in other countries. In Australia 23% are kept 100% indoors whereas in the United Kingdom the majority of cats are allowed outside.
It is obvious that our indoor cats are protected from cars, predators, and many contagious diseases. In fact this has become such the standard of care in North America that many shelters will not allow you to adopt unless you plan to keep your new cat indoors. But in the pursuit of keeping our cats safe, by keeping them indoors, we have actually increased their risk to other diseases – crap! Our strictly indoor cats are actually at a greater risk of anxiety and a number of other medical conditions including obesity, dental disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes and urinary tract disease.
So what do we do now? Well that is the million-dollar question; how to allow cats to express their natural behaviours of hunting, scratching, and exploring without increasing their risk of being injured by a car etc. Veterinarians have been studying this issue and one leader in this field is the Ohio State University who has The Indoor Cat Initiative which is on line information for cat owners to help them improve their environmental enrichment (http://www.fvah.ca/cats-only/links/ ) and hopefully decrease the risk of indoor cat medical issues.
So what do we now recommend at the Fraser Valley Animal Hospital?
Well if you have a young kitten try and train them to a leash and harness. Go slowly to not scare them and make sure to choose a leash that does not have a large clasp as that banging on the cat’s back can be scary and uncomfortable. Walking your cat daily can allow your cat some outdoor time – as long as they are not scared. Remember walking a cat differs from walking a dog, with a cat you allow him to wander and sniff where he wants to go not where you want to go. You will spend a lot of time standing as your cat sniffs and checks out the latest smells.
Older cats may be harder to train to a harness and so another option is to try and get an outdoor enclosure for your cat; a screened in patio, a screened tunnel to a outdoor play area in the yard. There are also a number of premade outdoor cat enclosures that you can buy. Check out these web sites for some outdoor ideas.
The other recommendation we make is to increase the environmental enrichment. There is nothing more enriching for a cat, than hunting. A cat’s natural feeding pattern is multiple small meals throughout the day as the cat busily hunts for the next mouse. Why not make your cat hunt for his/her meal? Rather than leaving a big bowl of chow sitting in the kitchen for easy access have 10 bowls with 10 or so kibble in each bowl (about 35 kcal which is the caloric equivalent of a mouse). Hide the bowls around the house. Of course you need to train your cat, so leave one bowl in her normal spot then put the other bowls in easy to find spots that are in areas that your cat regularly frequents. Gradually make the bowls harder to find. Do this slowly, one bowl at a time, so that your cat learns that he now has to spend the day hunting for some food. Of course check the bowls daily to make sure your cat did find them and did eat his food. A unique version of this hunting for kibble concept is the No More Bowls Food Pods. These are toy mice that you put the food inside and when a cat finds and hits the mouse the food falls out. Check them out.
Still looking for more information? Check out Dr. Margie Scherk’s paper Optimizing an indoor lifestyle for our cats.