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While we are happy to advise you and share our knowledge with you, we would never propose that our recommendations be used instead of consulting with your veterinarian about any concerns or issues. You know your pet better than anyone, and should always use your best judgement regarding obtaining the best care for your pet. ©2015 PetPeople Enterprises, LLC

The Great Debate

Indoors or Out?

Cats are clearly made for a life outdoors – sleek predators and avid hunters, they enjoy an active lifestyle.  Outdoor cats are generally less likely to be overweight, claw at your furniture,  urinate in the home, or suffer from stress related problems.  However, the great outdoors is not as safe as it once was.  Suburban or city pet owners sometimes don’t have the option of letting a cat outside – a busier urban environment is much more dangerous than a farm once was.  Increased human activity has made outdoor living much more hazardous for our pets.   Injury or death are common from –

  • Traffic – The closer you live to high traffic roads, the greater the risk of death or serious injury to your outdoor cat.
  • Loss – Cats are curious animals by nature, and love to investigate strange places.  They can easily get shut in garages, sheds, or vehicles they have climbed into.  It is common for outdoor cats to move in with another owner, no matter how well you may have treated them. 
  • Poisoning - Outside cats can be poisoned by common chemicals used in gardening, by eating prey that has been poisoned, or by lapping up a few drops of common anti-freeze.
  • Fighting – Territorial disputes, or interactions with wild animals can result in serious injury to outdoor cats.  Un-neutered cats are at a particularly high risk.
  • Disease – Fighting with other outdoor cats, feral cats, and wild animals can result in infections like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (Feline AIDS), Feline Leukemia Virus, and Rabies.
  • Parasites – Outdoor cats can pick up fleas, ticks, and other parasites from their prey or contact with other animals.

Because of the dangers to outdoor cats, many owners prefer to keep their feline friends safely inside. 

Basic Needs of a Happy, Healthy, Indoor Cat

To help prevent potential behavioral problems, there are some steps owners can take to help their cat flourish in an indoor lifestyle.  According to Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, and creator of the Indoor Cat Initiative at The Ohio State University, there are six basic needs every indoor cat requires. 

1.  Personal Space – As most owners notice, cats have a natural urge to climb as high as possible.  Cats are very curious, and need to know what is going on around them.  In the wild, cats are vulnerable when on the ground – to feel safe, they naturally climb to get away from predators and get a  better vantage point on their prey.  Because cats may feel safer someplace high, it is important for owners to provide their pets with a place to climb where no other animal or human could frighten them.  A perch is anything that allows a cat to lie, sit, sleep, or look outside from above. 

2.  Food and water bowls – It’s nice to know where your next meal is coming from!  Cats are very much creatures of habit, and knowing where food and water are located is important to them.  Place food away from appliance and air ducts that could come on unexpectedly, and put them where another animal (or human!) can’t surprise the cat while he uses them.  Food and water should be kept fresh and changed daily.  Some cats enjoy the additional challenge of getting food or treats out of food puzzles - this can be especially beneficial to increase activity for an overweight feline.

3.  Soft, comfortable bed – Cats are at their most vulnerable while sleeping, so they prefer to rest in areas where they feel safe and secure.  Desirable resting areas are usually quiet, comfortable locations where the cat can get away.  Owners who prefer the cat stay off of ‘people’ furniture can encourage the cat to sleep somewhere else by providing a ‘kitty haven’ in a quiet part of the house.  This place  should be a warm out of the way area that has all the necessities; a soft bed, food, water, a litter box, a scratching post, perch, and toys.   Remember, cats are naturally drawn to places that are warm - a cool damp basement is not where your kitty would choose to hang out!  Providing a place like this lessens the possibility your cat will find a place you might not like him to rest – like your pillow!

4.  Scratching/Climbing Posts – First and foremost, indoor cat owners must realize that scratching is a natural behavior for cats.  Felines must scratch to stretch their muscles, shed old cuticles, sharpen their claws, and leave scent marks.  Scratching is so ingrained, that even declawed cats still retain the instinct to scratch.  Scratching posts provide cats with an appropriate outlet for their scratching instinct, while at the same time saving their owner’s furniture!  In order to choose the right post for your cat, consider the following:

What does your cat like to scratch?

Choose a scratching post that is similar to the material your cat most likes to scratch.  The favorite substance seems to be a rough material they can shred – sisal scratching posts seem to be ideal because they are satisfying to scratch and tough enough to stand up to repeated use.  Vertical or upright scratching posts are widely used – cats who scratch furniture such as table or couch corners usually prefer a vertical scratching post.  Make sure upright posts are tall enough so the cat can stretch up to scratch, and also sturdy enough not to be knocked over - cats wont use something if it has scared them in the past.  Cats that tear up rugs and carpets may prefer a horizontal scratching mat.  Either type of scratching surface should be stabilized to ensure they don’t move or tip and scare the cat while he is using them. 

Where does your cat scratch?

Cats scratch to leave scent marks that define their territory and tell other cats they have passed through.  They will often scratch prominent objects near sleeping areas and room entrances.  Because of this, posts should be located in these and other ‘public’ parts of the house that the whole family uses – a cat is not likely to feel the need to ‘mark’ where they’ve been if a post is in a basement by itself.  In multi-cat households several scratching posts should be offered, both vertical and horizontal, in several types of material.  Once you learn which type your cats prefer, invest in several of that kind and spare your furniture!  Posts should be placed in areas where cats congregate and along commonly traveled routes to food or litter boxes.  Setting up multiple scratching posts provides the cats with an acceptable place to leave their mark without ruining furniture or carpet.  Remember, they’re going to scratch, so the more appropriate outlets you give them, the fewer inappropriate places they will use!

What if my cat won’t use the scratching post?

Consider your cat’s demonstrated preferences, and provide similar objects for him to scratch.  You can also place the scratching post near the object you want the cat to stop scratching.  For example, if your cats has been using the arm of a couch, place a tall vertical post directly in front of it.  When your cat goes to their favored spot, they will use the post instead of the couch.  When your cat is consistently using the scratching post, it can be moved very gradually (no more than a couple inches each day) to a location more suitable to you.  It is best, however, to keep the scratching post as close to your cat’s preferred location as possible.

Besides encouraging the cat to scratch a post, deterrents can also be used.  Remember – you can’t stop a cat from scratching, you must give them a place they are encouraged to scratch and praised for their behavior.  To keep a cat from scratching inappropriately, owners can try covering the inappropriate object in something the cat finds unappealing, such as double sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, or sheets of sand paper.  You may also try giving the object an unacceptable odor – most cats don’t like citrus scents, so a cotton ball soaked in lemon juice or a citrusy perfume might work.  Be careful not to use anything that could be dangerous if the cats ingests it, and be careful with powerful odors – you don’t want the nearby acceptable scratching object to also smell unpleasant.

Trimming your cat’s nails

Nail trims are an easy, and often overlooked way to reduce damage from scratching.  You can clip the sharp tips of your cat’s claws about once a week.  There are several types of nail trimmers designed especially for cats, which usually work better than human nail trimmers.

Before trimming your cat’s claws, accustom him to having his paws handled and squeezed.  You can do this by gently petting his legs and paws while giving him a treat.  Gradually increase the pressure so that petting becomes gentle squeezing, which is needed to extend the claws.

When the cat accepts handling readily, apply a small amount of pressure to the paw until a claw is extended.  Near the cat’s nail bed there is a thicker portion, pink in color, called the ‘quick’.  The quick is a small blood vessel which feeds the growth of the nail.  It is important not to cut into the quick because it will bleed and cause pain to the cat – cut off just the sharp tip of the claw to dull the nail.

If you prefer not to trim you cat’s nails, a veterinarian or professional groomer is usually happy to do it for you! Visit our calendar of events for in-store nail clipping times by local groomers and vets.

5.  Litter Box – Cats are fastidiously clean and this is one important need NOT to overlook!  All cats need an appropriate place to eliminate – besides it being a fundamental need, they also use eliminations as a way to mark their territory.  Indoor cats consider your home their territory – you can help ensure that your cat doesn’t feel the need to use eliminations to ‘mark their territory’ by providing an attractive litter box.  The goal is to make using the litter box a positive experience – making it positive makes them want to keep using it!  Cats tend to avoid things that they associate with a negative experience – if the litter box is dirty or something startles the cat while using it, he will most likely avoid that box in the future.  There are four basic things to consider when setting up a litter box:

  • Litter Box Hygiene

Cats are very clean creatures.  Most cats will avoid using a dirty litter box in favor of a cleaner place.  That ‘cleaner place’ may turn out to be your carpet, bed, or sofa.  To prevent inappropriate elimination, the litter should be scooped daily, and the box washed weekly with mild dish detergent.

  • Litter Box Type and Size

Litter boxes are available in a variety of sizes and shapes.  Cats prefer large, uncovered litter boxes that are easily accessible, and provide plenty room to move around.

Covered boxes are also available – owners may want to use covered boxes to keep other pets out of the litter, or keep it ‘out of sight’.  Some cats may prefer covered boxes because of the added privacy.  However, covered litter boxes can also trap in odor, and your cat may refuse to use a covered box if not kept sufficiently clean.

  • Litter Substrate

Research has shown that most cats prefer fine-grained, unscented litters.  Scoopable litters usually have finer grains than basic clay litters, and have the added advantage of being easy to keep clean on a daily basis.  Many cats dislike the odor of scented or deodorant litters – this is also a good reason not to place room deodorizers or air fresheners near the litter box.  Odor should not be a problem if the box is kept clean – remember, if you find the odor offensive, so will your cat!

Once you find a litter your cat likes, don’t change types or brands or the cat may refuse to use the litter box.  If you want to make a change, offer the new litter in a new box placed next to the old box and litter.  This allows the cat to decide if he likes the new litter.  It is important to let the cat choose if and when he is going to use the new litter.  Choosing any new item enhances their feeling of control over their environment, thus reducing the chance of a stressful reaction.  It is important to remember to fill the boxes deep enough to permit the cat to scratch and bury waste – usually 2-3 inches deep.

  • Number of Boxes/Litter Box Location

The Golden Rule for number of boxes is to have one more litter box than you have cats.  One cat = two boxes, two cats = three boxes, and so on.  Problems such as urine spraying can be prevented or reduced by providing multiple litter boxes.  Each cat requires a place to eliminate and mark their territory.  In homes with more than one level, litter boxes should be available on each floor.  It is important that multiple litterboxes are put in different locations, out of sight of the other boxes. To a cat, four litter boxes next to each other may seem like one giant litterbox, and he may not want to share.

Litter boxes also must be easily accessible – they should be placed away from appliances or air ducts that could suddenly come on and startle the cat.  They should not be placed in ‘tight spots’ such as under vanity sinks or low tables – remember cats need to be able to stand up and turn around comfortably. 

6.  Toys

In addition to a cat’s basic needs, don’t forget environmental stimulation!  Your kitty’s wild ancestors had to hunt insects, birds, mice and other small animals to survive.  Since they had to catch 10 to 20 of those morsels every day to survive, they had to be ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.  Even though an indoor house pet may not have to hunt, they still have that hunting instinct.  Having things to stalk and pounce on keeps them happy, healthy, and active.

Toys that most resemble prey, such as toys that squeak, chirp, or vibrate are more likely to entice interaction.  Cats will usually quickly find a ‘favorite’ toy – and play much more with that one!  If you find a toy your cat particularly enjoys, stock up!  Variety is important too – cats can get bored with the same old toys every day - rotate toys to keep them interested.  Many cats enjoy wand toys that simulate a bird or other moving object – these also increase owner interaction time.  Remember, toys don’t have to be fancy.  Most cats will play with simple things like crumpled up paper balls, plastic rings off of milk jugs, cardboard toilet paper rolls, and other common household items.

Cats also like visual stimulation – don’t forget a perch so cats can see out a window.  Consider hanging a bird feeder or planting flowers outside the window so that birds and insects come close by – it’s like watching tv for them!  Some cats will actually watch tv, and pet shows or even dvd’s for cats are available.

Click here to see some of the cat enrichment toys we offer.

The Unique Feline

Now that we have an understanding of how cats behave naturally, we can understand that sometimes their natural behavior and our idea of appropriate indoor living can clash.  Even if your cat lives indoors, its behaviors result from their survival value in the wild.  In their natural environment, cats hunt for food, hide from predators, and mark and defend their home territories.  Indoors, these behaviors may not mesh with normal household activities, and might appear hostile or spiteful.  The key to enjoying cats in our lives is to provide acceptable outlets for their natural behaviors, and reduce their exposure to perceived threats.  With appropriate modification, an indoor environment can permit cats to engage their natural behaviors in ‘human appropriate’ ways.

Keep In Mind – There are some Differences

We can ensure positive interaction with our feline friends by keeping a few things in mind 

We (and most other mammals) are a pack species; cats are an independent species.  This means –

  • We tend to like to go to others to get them to play with us, cats prefer to come to us on their terms
  • We tend to like longer visits less often; cats prefer shorter more frequent visits that they initiate
  • We tend to see shouting and punishment as forms of ‘conflict resolution’; cats see these as life-threatening

The best indicator of your cat’s health and welfare is regularly seeing these healthy behaviors

  • Activity – cats should confidently explore and use living space, including climbing and perching
  • Interaction – cats will initiate brief, frequent interactions with others in the house
  • Food and Water Consumption – indoor cats usually eat small meals frequently throughout the day
  • Normal Eliminations – most cats use the litter box 2-4 times a day
  • Grooming – normally gently grooms the entire body

Cats don’t like unexpected change –

  • An undesired behavior displayed by your cat could be a reaction to a change, even if you didn’t notice one
  • Life changes like moving, adding a new pet, or a new addition to the family can be very stressful – take steps to reduce stress in these situations
  • Offer new things (food, litter, toys) next to their familiar things in a separate container.  This will let them tell you whether they like the old or the new thing better!

Problem Behavior

Most problem behavior stems from one of two problems – either an owner has failed to provide an appropriate outlet for a cat’s basic need, or the cat is reacting to stress in the environment.  The first problem is relatively easy to fix – by taking steps to ensure the cat has food and water, several clean litter boxes, appropriate scratching posts, a place to perch, climb, and hide, and plenty of environmental enrichment, most problems can be stopped before they start.  

But when those steps are taken and there is still a problem, the cat is usually reacting to a life stressor.  The hardest thing can be to recognize the stressor – what stresses out a cat might not always be easy to see.

A life stressor is an event or change in your cat’s environment that may affect their well-being.  Research suggests that some cats are unusually sensitive to their surroundings – these cats may respond to life stressors by becoming uncomfortable, nervous, or fearful.  Particularly susceptible cats may even get sick, or develop behavioral problems such as aggression.

Cats are creatures of habit, and they depend on us to keep their surroundings stable and safe.  When something changes a cat’s surroundings, even for a short period of time, it can cause stress and discomfort.  Some life stressors are easy to spot, such as moving to a new home, adding a new pet, stray cats outdoors, bringing home a new baby, or a new person moving in.  Other life stressors may not be so easy to see – things like rearranging furniture, a changing schedule, changes in weather, or taking a vacation can also cause a cat strife. 

Inappropriate Elimination

One of the most unpleasant ways (for humans) stress affects cats is inappropriate elimination, or going to the bathroom outside the litter box.  This problem is one of the most common reasons (after over-population) that cats are given up to shelters – but with proper understanding of cat behavior, can be readily solved.

Many owners automatically assume their cat is being ‘bad’ or ‘spiteful’.  This is just not the case.  Often times there is an underlying cause – and as their owner, it is up to you to find out what it is.  It is important to rule out serious causes before implementing behavior modification.

Rule out medical problems FIRST

A visit to your cat’s veterinarian is your first step when any inappropriate elimination begins.  A lot of time, money, and stress can be avoided if your cat has a treatable medical problem. 

This is especially important if you have a male cat – if a male cat (neutered or not) suddenly starts urinating outside the litter box, straining to urinate, or urinating small amounts more frequently than normal, he could be showing you the signs of a life-threatening urinary blockage.  Without prompt medical attention, this condition can be fatal.

All cats in the household should be checked – the last cat seen having the accident might not be the instigator, but may be responding to a chemical attraction to where the first accident occurred.  Also, more than one cat could have a problem.  It is important to treat and correct medical problems first – behavioral problems can only be diagnosed in a healthy cat.

Litter Box Problems

After a medical problem is ruled out, an owner should take a hard look at their cats’ litter box situation.  Be honest with yourself - do you clean the litter box every day?

  • Remember the Golden Rule – Provide a litter box for each cat, plus one more box. 
  • Scoop cat litter daily, and change the entire box weekly.
  • If you changed the brand of litter, or used a new disinfectant, go back to the old one
  • If you moved the box, move it back
  • Move food and water away from the box – people don’t like to eat in the bathroom and neither do cats!
  • Make sure box is an appropriate size
  • Uncover covered boxes
  • If the cat is only going in one spot, put a litter box in the exact location.  You may not want a litter box in your dining room, but if your cat has chosen that spot, it’s either going to be in the litter box or on your carpet.  Once the cat is successfully using the box, you can gradually move it back to a more appropriate location at the rate of a few inches per day.
  • Experiment with different textures of litter – most cats prefer sandy type litter.

For additional help, please see our brochure Solving Litter Box Problems.

Territorial Marking

The last thing it is likely to be is the first thing owners usually jump to – territorial marking or spraying.  Most inappropriate elimination problems can be solved either medically or through environmental enrichment, behavior modification, or litter box etiquette. 

In the case of marking, it is important to remember cats are creatures of habit – they like having their own space, their own toys, and their own stuff.  While they can share, sometimes they feel threatened – if they feel like something that belongs to them is being taken over, whether it be by another cat, another pet, or even a human, they sometimes have to let everyone know it is ‘theirs’.  The natural way cats do this is to mark it with urine – by putting their scent on a certain area, it makes the cat feel secure, especially if he feels out of place, nervous, or fearful.

Cats who are marking are not being spiteful – they are upset over something.  It is important owners don’t try to ‘reprimand’ a cat by shouting, rubbing their nose in it, or throwing them in the litter box.  Cat’s just don’t work that way.  This will make them more nervous, more upset, more fearful, and more afraid of the litter box.  Cats in this situation need reassurance and stress relief, not punishment!

Life stressors that could cause a cat to spray or mark could be bring home something new, like another cat, dog, baby, or furniture.  If it’s another pet, reduce stress by introducing them slowly.  Let them get used to each other, and acclimate to the smells and sounds that accompany the new ‘intruder’.  If there are cats outside, cats may mark windows, glass doors, and anywhere else he thinks they may notice so they stay away from ‘his’ house.  Find out who the cats belong to so they can keep their cat closer to home, or if they are strays, work with your local humane society to have them safely trapped and spayed or neutered.  You can also block your cat’s view of outdoor intruders by placing foil, newspaper, curtains or blinds up.  Cats don’t spray unless they feel threatened.

After figuring out what is bothering your cat, it is important to clean the areas marked with a special enzymatic cleaner, made to take away the scent so the cat can’t even smell where it was.  If they continue to smell their scent, they may continue to mark it.  Limiting access to that area also works – ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  Owners may also consider using a natural pheromone called Feliway – it is the synthetic version of calming feline pheromones.  Pheromones work by telling the cat the environment is safe and non threatening, and work in conjunction with environmental enrichment to reduce stress related behaviors.  It comes in both a spray and a plug-in diffuser, and along with other enrichment efforts can help a cat feel calm and secure, reducing the urge to spray or mark.

A Happy Home

Sometimes pet ownership seems easy, and other times our furry feline friends need a little more support from their owners.  To enrich the lives of indoor cats there are many things owners don’t often consider.  As an owner, one of the most important things you can do for your cat is to educate yourself about feline idiosyncrasies.  Often times, a ‘problem’ behavior is really just a misplaced natural behavior that owners don’t understand.  By providing an appropriate indoor environment for an animal that still has many of its wild instincts, we can ensure a happy home for everyone.

We would like to thank Dr. Tony Buffington for his guidance and input on this topic.

C.A. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN
Professor of Veterinary Clinical Services
Adjunct Professor of Urology
The Ohio State University Medical Center
601 Tharp St
Columbus, Ohio 43210
The Indoor Cat Initiative
Center for Neurobiology of Stress

Information and content used with permission from The Indoor Cat Initiative
This non-profit movement is run by Dr. Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN and is an effort to help owners enrich the lives of their indoor cats. 

As the number of cat owning households increase, so do the number of cats turned into animal shelters – each year an estimated 5 million cats are cared for by animal shelters, and 2-3 million are euthanized.  Cats come into shelters as strays or owner surrenders – many are given up as a result of a perceived behavior problem.  Cat owners struggle with providing a suitable environment for cats, who are natural hunters and predators, made for a life of action. However, cats can make wonderful indoor pets.  And with an owner’s understanding of the cat’s basic needs and instincts, felines can be wonderful companions. 

Cats have become the most popular American pet – there are an estimated  80 to 90 million cats owned as pets in the United States.  These furry felines can be great pets, but owners must remember that cats are not small dogs!  They have unique personalities and needs.  Many people choose to house their cats indoors, and as more and more cats owners opt for keeping their cats securely inside, veterinarians and cat behaviorists are seeing a new cause for behavior problems: their housing conditions.  Some cats simply do not get enough stimulation in their secure indoor environments, which can lead to a variety of behavior problems – or simply to a bored, sleepy, and often overweight feline.  Other times, behavior problems are caused by the opposite problem - a too busy unsettled environment.  Busy comings and goings, unpredictable job schedules, and large numbers of humans or other animals can create chaos and stress for a sensitive feline.   

Indoor Cat Enrichment