Letting cats roam outside can be a controversial topic. The great outdoors provides physical and mental stimulation, prevents boredom (and the destructive behaviors that can stem from it), and gives cats an opportunity to practice natural cat behaviors. On the other hand, there are many dangers to venturing out of the house including parasites, predators, traffic, or becoming lost. I’m somewhere in between. I think that the safest place for the majority of cats is inside, but that the outdoors can be introduced appropriately.
The key to keeping your cat safe is giving controlled access outside. Let’s take a look at some ways to do this, from super easy tips to ideas that might require more effort.
Bring the Outdoors In
Let your cat interact with nature from the safety of indoors. You can try providing cat grass for your cat to sniff, touch, and even chew or eat. Just a small planter is enough to get a cat interested. Cat grass is available in most pet stores or you can buy a kit to grow your own!
You can get creative with other ways to introduce your cat to outdoor elements. Did it just snow? Fill a pan with snow and set a few treats on top for your cat to explore. Just make sure anything you bring inside is not treated with chemicals.
Open a Window
Have you ever cracked a window open and the cats come running? With noses 14 times more sensitive than ours, a cat’s sense of smell is one of their most important ways of exploring their environment. The fresh air coming through the window brings with it a sea of new smells for your cat to decipher.
Install a Bird Feeder in Front of a Window
Bring “Cat TV” to your cat’s favorite window perch! Setting up a seed or suet feeder will attract birds, chipmunks, and squirrels to keep your cat entertained enough to delay their afternoon nap. As with any new enrichment, carefully watch how your cat interacts with it. If they seem to be getting frustrated or upset rather than merely interested, you may need to move the feeder farther away or remove it completely to avoid adding stress to your cat’s life.
Build a Catio
Catios (a pun for cat-specific patios) are outdoor enclosures where cats can safely enjoy being outside. They allow cats to feel the fresh air and grass on their paws in a space that is escape-proof and keeps other animals from getting in.
It could be simply cat-proofing your existing porch. Or you might build an elaborate enclosed patio in your backyard, or figure out a hack to re-purpose IKEA furniture. An internet search for “catio” will bring up tons of creative ideas to provide a safe place for your cat.
For a more time- and cost-effective alternative, pop-up tents and playpens can also work well for keeping cats safe outdoors under your supervision.
Train to Walk on a Leash
Walking outside on a leash is an excellent way to give your cat exercise, enrichment, and choice over where they want to explore. But you can’t just strap a harness to your cat and expect them to trot off happily. Maybe you’ve tried that before and the cat instantly flopped over helplessly or suddenly forgot how to walk normally. Cats need time to learn to tolerate their harness to be fully comfortable with it. This process will require lots of treats and may take a few days or a few weeks for your cat to adjust to the strange feeling of the harness.
Step By Step Harness Training:
- Choose an appropriate cat harness. I recommend an “H” style harness as they are lightweight and difficult to back out of.
- Introduce the harness by draping it over the cat’s back. Hold it there for one second, then remove it and give your cat a treat.
- Repeat, gradually increasing the time the harness is on the cat’s back.
- When your cat is comfortable with that, fasten the harness collar around the cat’s neck. Give them lots of treats for a few seconds, then remove it.
- Work up to having the whole harness clipped on. If your cat looks uncomfortable at any point, go back to the previous step for a few repetitions.
- When your cat is comfortable moving around with the harness, clip the leash onto the harness and let it drag behind them. Give treats or feed a meal to associate the harness and leash with more good things.
- Still indoors, practice holding the leash and let your cat get used to gentle leash pressure. Keep sessions short, 5-10 minutes at a time.
- When you’re ready to take a step out the door, remember to keep sessions short. It may be overwhelming for your cat to be outside at first, so give them the choice to go outside and when to go back home. Keep a distance at first from new things, like trucks or dogs, to help your cat get used to them without getting too scared.
There are many ways to give your cat outdoor access and it is up to you to decide which ways are best for you and your cat. I find that being primarily indoors with controlled and supervised exposure to the outdoors seems to work best to keep your kitty safe, healthy, and happy. If you need help providing safe outdoor enrichment for your cat, contact us at Pawsitive Vibes Cat Behavior and Training today!