8 min.

Indoor cats: Houseguests or prisoners?

Cats are naturally curious, intelligent, and active individuals. We have chosen to have them live with us, inside our homes, as pets, in an environment more suited to our own needs than theirs.

Cats are still wild at heart

In the history of living with humans, keeping cats in an apartment or house is a recent development. Even today, cats behave relatively similar to how wildcats behave in nature. 

In order to respect cats' natural behavioural tendencies, we need to give them a stimulating environment tailored to their needs. 

Keep your pet healthy with a cat-friendly home

The cat is a territorial species with respect to “resource zones”. Its happiness is greatly influenced by your behaviour and by the lifestyle you offer.

Living indoors automatically deprives a cat of its ability to behave naturally and experience the challenges and frustration that happen in nature. Indoor cats will adapt to their environment, but they can fall victim to a number of physical or emotional problems stemming from boredom and inactivity. Without the challenge of the hunt, exploration, and social contact, cats will fill the void with whatever they can do easily, such as sleeping, eating, and grooming. 
It's no coincidence when indoor cats develop health issues that come with a sedentary lifestyle (urinary tract infections, excessive grooming problems, eating disorders, etc.)

A cat-friendly home is built on compromises that you can make so that everyone can live there together.

Ensure safety

Although it's essential to stimulate and challenge cats at home, it's also important to make sure they're safe. There are many appliances, plants, and chemicals that could harm them. It's therefore important to routinely assess the risks in the home to limit these dangers.

Resource management 

In order to provide a cat-friendly home, you must know what objects or facilities cats consider important. There should be enough of these “resources”, and enough kinds, to satisfy even the most demanding individuals.

Here's an overview of some important resources for your pets, and tips for each of them: 

  • Food: In nature, cats spend up to six hours a day searching for food, stalking, catching, and consuming their prey. They'd eat ten mice or more per day, probably equivalent to about thirty attempted catches. 

    As a result, the predictable availability of food twice a day in a dish does not provide any challenge, and leaves the cat with several hours to kill, which it must fill with other activities.

    What's more, the inability to seek out food when hungry may become a source of anxiety. This may lead to some eating disorders such as polyphagia (excessive consumption of food, sometimes leading to obesity) and/or pica (repeated ingestion of non-nutritional, inedible substances, sometimes leading to the ingestion of foreign matter that must be surgically removed).

    Food maze systems, ball-shaped feeders, etc. that allow your cat to have fun while it eats, in small quantities each day, are available in stores. Cat owners with building skills can even make their own


  • Water: Most owners always provide water in the same spot as the food dish. Cats naturally hunt to feed and look for water in various places in order to satisfy their hunger or thirst. The presence of water near food may actually dissuade some cats from drinking enough. 

    Drinking the right amount of water is very important to avoid urinary issues. One of the ways to prevent many such disorders (idiopathic cystitis, stones, or urinary infections) is diluting urine through sufficient hydration.

    It is recommended to place at least two water sources for each cat in different places, away from the food, preferably in ceramic or glass dishes in order to avoid unwanted smells.
  • Private places: Secret hideaways are important for our cats. It's possible to create some by making space available under the bed, inside a closet or dresser, or behind a couch, for instance. 

    These hiding spots are important for your cat to feel safe. Their absence may be a source of anxiety, which sometimes lead to behavioural disorders in cats (aggressiveness, evasiveness, going outside the litterbox, excessive grooming, etc.).

Your cat must never be bothered in its private space. The only exception to this rule: If you have doubts about its health, to take it to the vet.

  • Litterboxes: Litterboxes are essential, especially if your cat is confined to the home, or has limited outdoor access. Choosing the right litterbox is important: Ideally, its length must be equal to one-and-a-half times the size of your cat (measured from the muzzle to the base of the tail).

    If you have “n” cats, you should have at least “n+1” litterboxes. The position of the litterboxes is important: They must be located in a private corner, far from food and water, in a safe place for the cat (far from glass doors and walkways). 

    With respect to the litter itself, clay-textured and fine-grained materials seem to be the most-tolerated by the majority of cats. Strong smells (heavily scented litters or ammonia smells) may be a turn-off for cats. Go for a high-quality, unscented (or very lightly scented) litter. 

    Regular cleaning is essential; feces and urine-soiled litter should be scooped out at least once a day, and the whole box must be cleaned out as recommended by the manufacturer.

    It's critical to respect your cat's excretive preferences. This will particularly help prevent house soiling (when the cat goes outside the litterbox). Even worse, if your cat constantly feels the need to hold it in as much as it can, because it doesn't like urinating in the litterbox you've installed, that urine retention may put it at risk of urinary disorders.
  • “Well-being” resources: You might sometimes think of the following resources as “accessories”, but without them, an indoor cat's environment would be much poorer. They are important to your pet's everyday life, because they help avoid behavioural disorders related to anxiety (see above) or boredom due to the absence of stimulation (polyphagia, apathy, etc.). 

Scratching posts: Cats need to be able to scratch in order to keep their claws sharp and mark their territory. If nothing is made available for them to scratch on, they'll ruin furniture instead.

Note: Punishment is not only ineffective on cats, it can also lead to anxiety, which may make the initial problem worse.

Instead, offer scratching posts made for your pet: They must be as tall as possible so that your cat can scratch them vertically with its body fully extended. Wall-mounted cat scratchers can be attached at the appropriate height if space is limited. Some cats prefer to sharpen their claws on horizontal surfaces, so a variety of scratchable areas must be provided.

Toys: Cats are all different, but most prefer toys that reproduce as faithfully as possible the experience of hunting in nature: Feathers or fur, and the same size as small prey. Toys that move randomly are the most stimulating; those which are immobile or left in one place quickly become boring and predictable. Besides fighting behaviour problems, getting your pet to move by playing also helps fight feline obesity!

Catnip-impregnated toys can also be especially appealing. 

Note that all toys must be put away and taken out from time to time to keep them feeling fresh.

Plants: A source of grass will serve as a natural way of eliminating hair ingested while grooming that ends up in the intestines. Some cats may throw up after eating grass, but this is perfectly normal. 

Grass pots can be grown specifically for this purpose.

Be careful when choosing plants for your home. Here's a site that lists toxic plants to avoid when you have a four-footed friend.

Outdoor-facing windows: When they have a choice, cats often prefer small windows. Our pets, when they look out on the garden or street, see many potential dangers there, and do not understand that they are safe indoors. 

It all comes down to camouflage: Glass does not give them a chance to hide. If you think this might be a problem for your cat, you can add decorative false leaves (no adhesive needed) on the lower part of your windows, thereby obstructing the view while keeping the room well-lit. You can also place a potted plant in these strategic spots, to give the cat a hiding place. To your cat, these will look like defence mechanisms. 

At the same time, make sure that your cat has a high vantage point somewhere near the window where it can see outside from a relatively safe position. Cats love high-up spaces. 

Synthetic pheromones: Certain pheromones are important signals of familiarity and safety, and are naturally secreted by cats. Synthetic versions of these pheromones are available in stores, and can be effective on some felines (overall, about half of all cats are sensitive to them). This may have a helpful calming effect on your cat if you move, add furniture, or even plan on introducing a new cat. 

The presence of a diffuser may even relax your cat enough to promote playtime, especially when there are other cats in the house. 

There are many different ways to enhance a cat's environment; your imagination is the only limit! Understanding what you need to provide in a cat-friendly home will ensure that your cat stays as happy and healthy as can be. 

About the author

Elodie Khenifar
Veterinarian, M.Sc. (Pathology & Microbiology.)
Vet Consulting Medical Director for Intersand and Laboratoires Blücare, Boucherville, Québec, Canada

Dr. Khenifar, a graduate of the Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire de Toulouse [Toulouse National College of Veterinary Medicine] worked in a mixed veterinary practice before completing a Master of Veterinary Science degree (Pathology & Microbiology) at the Université de Montréal Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. 

Since 2017, she has been the medical director at Intersand and Les Laboratoires Blücare, where she oversees veterinary science communications.