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Bringing an Outdoor Cat Inside

Living in the city I have always had indoor cats, but I see plenty of outdoor cats and recently met someone seeking advice on how to get a stray she had befriended into her home for the winter. Part of me wonders if a feral cat might be happier to live outside, the ones in my neighborhood seem quite well-fed and frolicsome. But then I think of February in the Northeast, not to mention that Red-tailed Hawk that was repeatedly visiting our backyard around breakfast time last summer. (In Brooklyn, imagine: a bird of prey!)

According to the Humane Society of the United States:

1. Transforming a free-roaming cat into a safe cat can be done, but it does require planning, persistence, and patience. The key is to make the change from outdoors to indoors gradually, until the new way of life becomes old hat. Many cats will adjust with minimal effort while others will be miserable--and let you know it. They may scratch at doors, claw at windows, yowl, and try to dash through open doors.

2. If your cat has never used a scratching post or a litter box, introduce both items well in advance of transitioning your cat to a life inside. If you're feeding your cat outdoors, begin feeding him indoors. Then, instead of letting the cat back outside as soon as he's finished eating, keep him inside for gradually longer periods of time.

3. Other members of the household may have to be "retrained" to close doors quickly and provide more stimulation for their feline friend. Playing with the cat is a great way to keep both his mind and his body in shape. Some former free-roamers will appreciate your providing "kitty greens" for them to munch on instead of your houseplants: Try planting grass, alfalfa, catnip, wheat, or oat grass (sold in pet supply stores) in indoor pots for this purpose.

4. If you live in a climate that has cold winters, that season may be the perfect time to help your cat make the transition to a life indoors. Your cat is likely to appreciate a warm, dry bed in which to snuggle. After the weather warms up and you've checked that screens are secure, open the window and let your cat feel and sniff the fresh air. Or, if your cat is docile enough, take him outside in your arms or on a leash attached to a harness.

5. If you're having trouble slowly transitioning your cat to a happy life indoors, it may be better to go "cold turkey." Letting your cat outdoors occasionally may only reinforce his pestering behaviors. Your veterinarian may prescribe short-term drug or homeopathic therapy to help your cat through the transition period.

6. If you have an indoor cat who is scratching your couch or not using the litter box, think twice before you put your cat outdoors. Consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical problems that could be contributing to problem behaviors. If your cat gets a clean bill of health, work with your veterinarian, a trainer, or animal behavior specialist who uses positive training techniques. There is always a reason, from your cat's point of view, for behavior that you consider to be inappropriate. He is not acting out of spite or revenge. Patience and persistence, not punishment, are the best way to get your cat back to his good habits.

7. If allergies or pregnancy make you think about putting your cat outside or even giving up the cat, consult your physician and learn how to manage those conditions while keeping your cat safe.

8. By providing for your indoor cat's physical and emotional needs, you can create a safe and stimulating environment. Although domesticated several thousand years ago, cats still retain many behaviors of their wild ancestors. These delightful behaviors can be played out in the great indoors. A paper grocery bag, a cat's vivid imagination, and your caring attitude will go a long way toward keeping you and your cat young at heart.


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