Convert the Outdoor Cat to Indoor Pet

If you remember to put health and safety first, there are ways to make a smooth, happy transition for all.

At the riding stable where your teenage daughter takes lessons, a young barn cat had a litter of playful, adorable kittens. A few months after the kittens were adopted, however, the mother cat remained – and as the cool Autumn weather settled in, you worried about her welfare. The barn owner made it clear that he didnt care if she hung around or not – she wasnt


much of a mouser – so you decided to scoop her up, put her in the backseat of your car and take her home.

The above fantasy exists in the life of every cat lover, but the reality is that when bringing home an outdoor cat (such as a neighborhood stray or a barn cat), you need to take precautions for everyones health and safety. Luckily, if a new owner anticipates the adoption and potential problems – and addresses them accordingly – they can be greatly minimized.

According to ELise Christensen, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists, the first and most important thing to do when adopting an outdoor cat is to have the cat evaluated by your veterinarian. “Stray cats (or any cat with an unknown history) should be strictly quarantined from resident cats until they have seen a veterinarian and been evaluated for infectious diseases, parasitic infestations and other illnesses,” explains Dr. Christensen.

Resident cats are dependent on your discernment and protection; it is not wise to expose them unnecessarily to such highly communicable diseases as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV). In the case of introducing an outdoor cat to resident cats, it is always better to err on the side of caution.

Avoid Bad Behavior. The first veterinary visit is also a good time to discuss spaying or neutering. Dr. Christensen explains that, by addressing this from the get-go, you have a good chance of avoiding certain unwanted behaviors. “Stray cats should be spayed or neutered to decrease the chance of their reproducing and/or exhibiting objectionable behaviors like urine marking,” she states.

The second key to a smooth transition from outdoor living to indoor living is gradual integration. As the old adage says, slow and steady wins the race. Dr. Christensen explains further: “Until you know this cat very well, it is a good idea to keep him/her confined, especially when not supervised.” Make sure that the cat has access to litter, food, water, rest areas, scratching posts, etc. Not only does confinement help the cat to acclimate gradually to the new environment, but it can also help ensure the establishment of good litter habits.

Dr. Christensen explains: “Most cats will naturally use unscented, clumping clay litter without specific training. But until a cat is very reliable and settled in at the new location, it is a good idea to only allow her


out of the safe area when supervised. If possible, you can reward the cat with a small bit of food immediately as she leaves the box.”

This is also a good time to kitty-proof your home, if you havent already done so. A good rule of thumb is that, if its not toddler-safe, its not kitty-safe. Poisonous plants, pest poisons (like ant traps) and small choking hazards should be removed from any rooms that the cat has access to. Until the cat is settled in and settled down, it may be a good idea to pack up any special items that could be broken. Window-blind cords, phone cords and electrical wires (including computer cords) can pose a threat if the cat plays with or gets tangled in them; they should be securely anchored or placed out of reach.

Meeting Other Pets. Introducing the cat to the rest of the household, including any resident cats, has the potential to create the most stress for everyone involved. Dr. Christensen advises, “If you have resident cats, they should be strictly separated from the potential addition to the family. Gradual integration is the best way to go. Keep the cats separated for several days; feed them on opposite sides of the door for a couple of weeks. If they do well, you can gradually allow them more and more exposure at mealtimes. Additionally, whether youre adding a new cat to an existing family with cats or this is a first cat, make sure to have plenty of litter boxes, food bowls, water bowls, toys and scratching posts available. You may also want to consider using feline facial pheromones to help decrease anxiety and the tendency to mark by urinating or scratching.”

Last, but perhaps most important (next to the initial vet visit), is offering plenty of physical and mental stimulation. Dr. Christensen says, “If you will be moving an outside cat indoors, keep in mind that you will need to provide ample opportunities for scheduled, interactive and solitary play, puzzle-solving, food-searching, cat videos, etc.”

In addition, she recommends staying open to the possibility that the cat may not adjust to indoor life at all; some cats will always be more at home outdoors. “Even though being inside is safer and seems more comfortable to humans, some cats will inevitably prefer the stimulation that only the outdoors can provide.” But ideally, your time and patience will likely be rewarded, and your previously outdoor kitty will settle in comfortably with you in your home and leave you wondering what life was even like before he came along.