Most cats love to spend time outdoors. They experience a great deal of mental and physical stimulation. Cats in the wild experience weather changes, move around to find food and water, interact with other animals, and mark their territory. Their lives are enriched by complexity, unpredictability, and choice; and they exert a degree of control over their lives.
However, the big wide world is a dangerous place for domestic cats. Here at Gungahlin Veterinary Hospital we see numerous cases of cats who have been in fights and suffered injuries and infections, who get hit by cars, or get bitten by snakes. Cats outdoors also hunt, and may annoy other people, for example by stalking aviary birds or toileting in their yard. Many owners now choose to keep their cats indoors for much of or all of the time, both to keep the cat safe and to protect the local wildlife.
All cats should spend their evenings indoors. The majority of car accidents and cat fights occur at night, studies show that cats roam much further from home at night, and that most native mammals are killed at night. Training a cat to come indoors around dusk, with its evening meal as a reward, is relatively easy. Such training is of course best started as a kitten.
Other cats should be indoors, or at least out of the sun, during the heat of the day. Cats who are white, or who have white on their noses, ears, and around the eyes, suffer a high risk of sun-induced cancers and should be kept out of the sun at least from 10.00am till 4.00 pm. Such cats might be let out in the early morning, encouraged to come indoors for breakfast, locked inside during the day, allowed out during the late afternoon, then called in for dinner at dusk.
Keeping cats indoors does deprive them of the opportunity to fulfil their natural instincts and desires. In recent years we have seen an increase in the number of anxiety induced behavioural problems in indoor only cats. Some cats do demonstrate signs of frustration with confinement. In reality, these cats are bored. They may be more aggressive, destructive, chase their tails, eat fabric and lick out their hair. All cats that spend a significant amount of time indoors need environmental enrichment to overcome the potential boredom of confinement, and to allow them to lead happy lives.
Cats love to scratch and to climb. Unfortunately, we don’t appreciate clawed furniture and shredded wallpaper. Cats should have multiple scratching posts in the house. They should be tall enough that the cat can stretch up maximally, and be stable. A floor to ceiling scratching post is ideal. It can be plain wood (rough is better e.g. old sleepers) or covered in carpet. A tall scratching/climbing post can have platforms built on, have toys attached by elastic or twine, or be placed near to bookcases or pelmets on to which the cat can climb. A platform from the post to the top of the door frame provides a simple observation and resting place for the cat.
Cats love to sit up high and look down. They also like to hide in things where they feel safe. A platform as described above can have a box (cardboard is fine) with a door way cut out of one wall, and some bedding inside, to provide a den. Such a place provides refuge from activity in the house, especially visitors and children. Boxes and bags on the ground will provide entertainment for the curious cat.
Houses with exposed beams provide an ideal exercise area and adventure playground for cats. Provide access via a climbing post or ramp, and allow the cat to sit up high, walk along the beams etc.
Cats love an interesting scene. Give them access to windows with a view of the street, neighbours yards etc. Unfortunately, the sight of other cats can upset some cats, even resulting in urine spraying.
Confined cats need exercise. They can be taught to retrieve small balls of paper, chase ping-pong balls, practice golf balls etc, or you can attach furry toys/animals to string or elastic and pull them along the ground. Some cats will pat balls on springy sticks, or push balls around in a circular race. Putting some toys away for a week or so and swapping them for others can add variety. Cats are fascinated by, and will chase, a spot of light such as a torch beam, a laser pointer, or the reflection from a watch glass or mirror.
Activity boxes are shallow cardboard boxes with slots in the top and food or a toy inside. Some cats will spend hours poking their paws through the various slots to move around or retrieve the object inside. Pot plants of cat nip, cat mint, and grass can be provided inside for rubbing, rolling, and eating.
Cats can be trained like dogs. Use a reward system, just like dogs. Spend up to 20 minutes per day in training, generally before meals. When the cat does what you want, say an associative word (eg “sit”), praise the cat, and immediately give a food reward. Cats can be taught to walk on a collar or harness and lead, and some cats go on walks with their owners outside. Training provides human contact, mental and physical stimulation.
Feeding can be a challenge. Just like for carnivores in zoos, you can vary the place and style of feeding often. Hide food in a paper bag, or in different places in the house each day so the cat has to search for the food (like hunting). Vary the type of food, including providing raw chicken wings, large pieces of cooked meat, and even cooked lamb or beef bones (keep the dog away) for chewing exercise and tooth care.
A companion pet (normally another cat) can provide activity, stimulation and companionship to prevent boredom. New animals are best introduced when they are young.
Cats can be provided with safe access outdoors by enclosing a pergola with shade cloth, fly screen wire, or wire netting, or by closing off the area between the house and the fence with gates and shade cloth between eave and fence. If positioned adjacent to, for example, a laundry door, a cat door can provide indoor/outdoor access to the enclosure. Commercially available is the “Catnip Modular Pet Park”, which is a series of wire modules joined by tunnels. They can be landscaped into existing or new gardens, built around trees etc, have shrubs and creepers planted nearby for privacy and shade. They can include litter boxes, and ground level or aerial tunnels to link the modules together. Further information is available from their website.
A final word for those concerned about cats hunting native wildlife (and isn’t that all of us?). Rather than providing bird baths and feeders which also attract hunting cats, plant trees and shrubs which attract birds. Prickly plants will deter cats but provide food and shelter for birds, and reduce wild animals’ dependence on humans while still allowing us to enjoy them. Lists of suitable plants are available from the Government nursery at Yarralumla, from garden centres, and in the “Canberra Gardener” 8th edition, pages 193-204. So, enjoy your garden, its wildlife, and help you cat to enjoy its life safely, too.
Georgia Knudsen and Michael Hayward