Keeping Indoor Cats Active and Happy

Roaming cats destroy wildlife. But if you don’t let your cat wander, will she be bored and miserable? No! There are lots of ways to keep cats contained and happy.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #187
international cat day

By now, you’ve probably heard about the famous study, published in Nature Communications, which reports that pet cats and feral cats kill many more birds and small mammals than we’d thought – billions of them. The study has enraged some cat lovers, who see it as part of a campaign to exterminate feral cats. I’ll come back to that point later. I’ve also seen some reasonable-sounding criticism of the study’s methodology. But those critics admit that even if the study’s findings exaggerate the problem, it’s still true that free-roaming cats do significant damage to wildlife populations. Given that birds and other animals already face extreme pressure from habitat loss and climate change, the environmentally responsible thing to do is to keep pet cats from wandering.

For many people, that choice sounds like “Give your cat a boring and miserable life.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.


This week, a bit of a departure for The Dog Trainer (who is also a fool for cats). This episode is for all my fellow fools. I’ve got 6 ways to keep your cats happy, engaged, and lively, without turning them loose on your local songbirds.

Tip #1: Give Your Cat Some Company

It’s true that some cats don’t get along with other cats, but many enjoy a cat companion or playmate, especially if you take care to introduce them slowly and pleasantly. Some cats and dogs develop close relationships – again, careful introductions are best. And, of course, there’s us. Most cats seem less effusive to human eyes than most dogs do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get lonely.

The best toys for cats are usually ones that mimic prey somehow and engage hunting-related behavior.

Tip #2: Play Games and Use Food-Dispensing Toys

Cats fending for themselves may eat as many as a dozen times a day – more nibbles than full meals, obviously, but that’s a lot of time spent on the hunt. So the best toys for cats are usually ones that mimic prey somehow and engage hunting-related behavior. Balls can be fun to bat around, but the same old ball, just lying there, gets dull in a hurry. Put balls away between games. Feathery and fur-like toys on “fishing poles” encourage stalking, leaping, and pouncing – especially right before mealtime, when your cat is hungry anyway. Just be careful to avoid these harmful items that could put your cat at risk. Finish up with a food-dispensing toy. Food toys for cats are harder to find than similar toys for dogs, but two I like are the Feeding Frenzy and the Kong Company’s Cat Wobbler.

You can also make meals interesting by dividing up Kittychai’s food into several portions and hiding them; if you have more than one cat, close each in a different room to make sure she gets her own meal and not everybody else’s as well.

Tip #3: Clicker Train Your Cat

Yes, you can train cats, and if you don’t believe me, hit YouTube and search for “clicker training cats.” (See, I even included a link for you.) My big orange boy Timothy Small comes when called (at a leisurely feline pace, I admit!), jumps onto a stool, targets a stick or my finger with his nose, sits pretty, and turns in a circle. And why train your cat? Because, just as for Dogalini, clicker training helps make Kittychai’s life interesting and fun. And if you get ambitious you can train your cat to walk on leash so she can go outside with you. Pick spots free of off-leash dogs, please.

Check out my episodes on how to clicker train, or watch some of those YouTube videos, and get hooked.

Tip #4: Get Some Cat Trees

No, they don’t have to be commercial cat trees, and if you have some carpentry skills and design sense, you probably don’t want them to be. The real point is to provide some places to rest, hide, and look out windows from different heights. As everybody knows who’s ever lost a vase to their Kittychai, cats are climbers. They’re also unusual in being not only predators but, because they’re small, also prey. Hence the appeal of elevated hidey-holes.

Tip #5: Engage Your Cat’s Sense of Smell

Here’s one for adventurous souls! Hunting suppliers sell many kinds of animal scents, including rabbit, squirrel, grouse, and others that your cat might be thrilled to discover in, say, an old cardboard box in your kitchen. (After Kittychai has her fun, you can recycle the box somewhere far, far away.) Or scent one of those fishing-pole toys I mentioned earlier, to up its snatch-and-grab attraction.  And yes, Dogalini might also take an interest, so while you’re at it, make her a scent toy of her own.

The zoo-animal enrichment guide where I got this idea points out that while it may be thrilling for a predator to discover the scent of prey, it’s also thrilling-but-not-in-a-good-way for prey to discover the scent of a predator. So your aesthetic considerations and Kittychai’s fun are probably on the same page when it comes to “Ultimate Bear Lure” and “Coyote in a Stick.”

Tip #6: Provide an Outdoor Enclosure

Roaming cats pose an environmental problem, but “roaming” and “outdoors” are not synonyms.

With some chicken wire and a wooden frame, you can build your cat an outdoor space to hang out safely. There are also commercial products, such as the Kittywalk, which work well but run into serious money. Whether you go with homemade or ready-to-wear, remember to include that all-important raised spot for Kittychai to rest and hide.

So, this is all a lot of work, right? Yes. Here’s the thing – most cats cope amazingly well with restricted, boring lives, so we’ve allowed ourselves to get away with thinking that they’re the pets to have if you’re going for low maintenance. When I say “we,” by the way, I don’t secretly mean “you.” I’m embarrassed to admit how recently the lightbulb went off over my head with respect to keeping my cats busy and content. The truth is, no animal is really low maintenance, not if we want to do more for them than just keep them alive. The upside of the work you do with your cat is just like the upside of the work you do with your dog: fun and a better relationship for both of you, plus the pride you can take in knowing that, more than an owner, you’re a genuine caretaker.

Last, what about those colonies of feral cats? Since feral cats aren’t socialized to people, and there aren’t enough homes for all the cats out there anyway, many people who love cats favor “trap, neuter, and release” programs. TNR is meant to reduce the numbers of feral cats by attrition rather than euthanasia. Opponents of TNR argue that releasing feral cats abandons them to sickness and danger and that attrition doesn’t succeed. Ornithologists’ groups seem to be universally opposed to TNR. Enclosed feral cat colonies present some obvious logistical difficulties, but they might be the way out of this debate. The cats’ health can be monitored, they’re safe from predators, and they aren’t harming wildlife themselves.

For this article, I drew on many ideas and insights from Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals, by Robert J. Young. It’s riveting. Honest! And there’s plenty of food for thought even if you oppose all keeping of animals in captivity.  If you want to dig deep into Kittychai’s mysteries, head for The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour, edited by Dennis Turner and Patrick Bateson.

Like Dogalini and Zippy, Kittychai is welcome to visit me on Facebook, or write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and though I can’t reply individually, I may use them as the basis for future articles.

Thanks for reading!


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About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).