Indoor Cat

How to Enrich Their Lives and Expand Their World


By Laura J. Moss

By Lynn Bahr, DVM

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Can an indoor cat live a happy, stimulating, and active life? A veterinarian and a journalist answer this question with a resounding "yes," and offer real-life guidance for opening up your cat's world, even if they stay within the confines of your home. 

There are many myths our culture perpetuates about domestic cats: they live longer indoors, sleep all day, are easy and low-maintenance pets, and can't be trained. Even the most well-meaning kitty caregiver will be surprised to learn that these long-held beliefs aren't necessarily based on facts, but instead reflect the many ways we have adapted our feline friends to our indoor, domesticated lifestyles.

Indoor Cat, by Laura J. Moss, journalist and founder of Adventure Cats, and Lynn Bahr, a feline-only veterinarian, explores how to help cat owners understand a cat's perspective of their indoor homes, with practical ways to enhance cats' lives to the fullest and combat countless health and behavioral problems that result from indoor living, as well as raising the question: should every cat live exclusively indoors?

Together with scientific studies, expert opinions from vets and behaviorists, and firsthand accounts and interviews, this informative and engaging full-color guide strives to reach compassionate cat owners looking for new ways to care for and connect with their feline companions.



The Feline “Purrspective”

Your POV: My cat is safe and happy and has everything he needs. Kitty POV: But I need more than this to truly be happy.

The fact that you’re holding this book means that you’re already well versed in the ways of the cat. You know what it’s like to maintain your balance while a furball weaves between your legs. You know the tickle of whiskers, the warm pressure of kneading paws, and the rumble of a purr in your ear. You’ve been awakened by the zoomies in the wee hours of the morning, and you’ve fallen back asleep contorting your limbs around the snoozing form of your furry friend. You certainly know all about toe beans and sun puddles and tiny triangle noses. And, let’s be honest, you probably never go to the bathroom alone.

There’s no doubt you’ve tried to give your kitty the best life possible—one might say it’s even an enviable life. After all, it’s not uncommon to hear cat owners declare that they’d love to live the pampered life of their beloved cat. Endless days of laziness and snoozing, interrupted only occasionally for a meal or a head scratch? It certainly sounds like a life worthy of envy.

However, while we may view the average indoor housecat’s life as one where they don’t have to do anything, the reality is that, for most cats, there’s simply nothing to do. For most indoor cats, life is an endless series of days that all look exactly the same. As humans, we understand that when there’s no purpose, activity, or stimuli in your daily life; when there’s nothing to look forward to, no reason to wake up, it’s easy to feel down, become stagnant, or even experience depression. The same goes for our feline friends.

So as much as you think you might enjoy switching places with your cat, it’s likely that the novelty would wear off pretty quickly. Those catnaps you envied would soon become less about catching up on much-needed rest and more about simply passing time. Those daily treats would become less about satisfying hunger and more about merely requiring something to break up the monotony of your day.

Sounds rather depressing, right? But in order to make our cats happy and truly give them the best life, we first must see what life is like from their “purrspective” and gain an understanding of what life as an indoor cat is really about.

Meet Felis Interius

In many Westernized countries, it’s typical for cats to live both indoors and out. For example, in the United Kingdom, only about 10 percent of pet cats are believed to live indoors permanently, according to International Cat Care, a UK-based nonprofit that works to improve felines’ welfare across the globe. However, in the United States, the vast majority of pet cats are kept indoors, and the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages cat owners to keep their pets inside.

While some felines adapt to an indoor-only lifestyle easily, others may struggle to do so, and the felines that don’t are often relinquished or returned to shelters, where they face a high likelihood of euthanasia. In other words, we may be unwittingly creating an entirely new breed of cat through natural selection: felis interius, a term we’ve coined for a species that’s more of an ornament in our homes than it is a cat.

We can think of this breed as drastically different from a natural cat in numerous ways and identify felix interius by the following characteristics, which we’ll explore in greater detail below:

Often separated from its mother and littermates with limited maternal upbringing

Housed in four walls in an unenriching environment

Has limited ability to explore and tap into natural curiosity

Never breathes fresh air—only climate-controlled air

Has no access to direct sunlight

Has never walked on grass or soil—walks exclusively on carpet or flooring

Is inactive and lacks sufficient exercise

Sleeps 16–20 hours a day

Is fed an artificial diet in the same location

Uses a box to urinate and defecate

Is often declawed

May suffer from certain mental and physical health issues

May have several different owners as it’s rehomed, relinquished, or abandoned

I Didn’t Get It from My Mama

In shelter and rescue environments, kittens are often removed from their mother’s care once they’ve been weaned, which is typically at only six weeks to eight weeks of age. However, although kittens can eat on their own at this time, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready to leave their mother’s care, because there’s still much to learn.

“Kittens orphaned or separated from their mother and/or littermates too early often fail to develop appropriate social skills, such as learning how to send and receive signals, what an ‘inhibited bite’ (acceptable mouthing pressure) means, and how far to go in play-wrestling,” according to the Humane Society. “Play is important for kittens because it increases their physical coordination, social skills, and learning limits. By interacting with their mother and littermates, kittens explore the ranking process.”

Another skill kittens that are removed from their mothers too early don’t learn is one of the most basic to all felines: hunting. Although all healthy kittens show interest in predatory behavior, hunting isn’t entirely instinctual. Mother cats play an important role in teaching their young to hunt by bringing them both dead prey and live prey, and allowing kittens to observe their hunting techniques. Research by biologist Robert Tabor, one of the world’s leading authorities on cats, found that kittens removed from their mothers at a young age use less effective hunting techniques than those who learned to hunt alongside their mothers.

Plus, a 2017 study of nearly 6,000 cats by the University of Helsinki found that early weaning is linked to several undesirable behaviors in our feline companions, including shyness, excessive grooming, and aggression. Studies on other animal species, including rodents, monkeys, and even humans have produced similar results.

“The impacts of early weaning seem to manifest specifically as aggression and stereotypic behavior, which suggests changes in the neurotransmitters of the basal ganglia,” notes Dr. Hannes Lohi, who led the study. He recommends that kittens not be weaned from their mothers until at least 14 weeks of age, describing it as “an easy and cost-efficient way of improving the quality of life of cats.”

Life in a (Boring) Bubble

Whether they live in a cramped uptown apartment or a spacious country home, felis interius rarely ventures beyond the walls of their home except for the occasional veterinary visit or door-dashing incident. If he’s lucky, the cat within these walls may encounter a catnip mouse or scratching post, but rarely will he have access to the full extent of enrichment he requires.

There’s little, if anything to climb—if that’s even allowed—and never anything new to explore. Cats are known for their curiosity, and if you’ve ever noticed your cat sniffing at your shoes when you come inside or pawing or yowling at a closed closet door, it’s clear that she’s intrigued by the sight, scent, or even simply the possibility of something new to investigate.

An Artificial Existence

While a window may offer a glimpse of another world, felis interius never actually gets to interact with that world or experience the sights, scents, and sounds of the natural world. There’s no direct sunlight to bask in, no grass underfoot to roll in or chew on, no soil to dig in, no fresh air to sniff and delight in. The cat’s entire world is predictable and unnatural—from the synthetic carpet fibers beneath his paws to the climate-controlled air he breathes.

Felines’ senses are highly evolved and extremely sensitive, but instead of having their senses engaged by a rustle of leaves or the scent of a squirrel, cats are more likely to encounter the rustle of packaged foods or the scent of the chemicals we use to clean our homes.

Kitty Couch Potato

Cats are often characterized as lazy animals, which is no surprise, considering how often we catch our indoor cats sleeping and the widely accepted notion that felines can catnap for up to 20 hours a day. However, the truth, according to International Cat Care, is that “an active, normal cat won’t sleep all of the time in the same way as it’s able to do when stuck at home and given everything it needs.”

All that napping, as well as the ease—and amount—of which food they eat, really adds up and contributes to indoor cats’ expanding girth. In 2017, an estimated 60 percent of US cats were overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

While cats in the wild eat a variety of foods and they are actively hunting and snacking in many locations throughout the day, felis interius will often consume the exact same highly processed food every day of her life. This food is typically left in the same location and always available, freeing up more time for cats to do nothing but nap.

Doing Business Where No One Wants to Do Business

The life of a natural outdoor cat is one of choices and preferences in all aspects of life, including when it comes to urinating and defecating. In the outdoors, a cat can select not only a location, but also a substance, whether it’s grass or soil or sand.

However, felis interius is given no such option. This cat has only a small rectangular box and must use the type of litter his owner selects. Many cats, especially declawed ones, are sensitive to the feel of litter on their feet, and certain types of litter may not only be uncomfortable but also inherently unattractive, due to strong scents.

Location is another issue. It’s not uncommon for cat owners to hide litter boxes away in basements, utility closets, and laundry rooms, which forces cats to use the bathroom in a single location that may be unappealing for a variety of reasons, including cramped space and loud, frightening sounds (like a washing machine) that may deter the cat from using the litter box. And today, with the variety of innovative ways we’ve found to hide litter boxes in furniture or tuck them away in cabinets, cats are often even further enclosed in small, dark, smelly spaces that we can’t blame them for wanting to avoid.

Not Feeling So “Clawsome”

Felis interius can often be identified by the fact that her paws lack claws. In fact, 25–43 percent of all cats in America are declawed, a medical procedure that involves the amputation of a cat’s toes, according to the Paw Project, a nonprofit that educates the public on why declawing is an inhumane procedure. Pet cats are frequently declawed simply because owners want to deter cats from the instinctual desire to scratch. This can result in lifelong pain for the cat and deter them not only from scratching, but also from playing and enjoying life.

“[Cats are] sort of like zoo animals—they are certainly protected generally from predation and injury and infectious disease and all of that, but they are at greater risk for diseases associated with chronic stress.”

This Life Makes Me Sick

Ironically, while many cat owners house their cats exclusively inside to keep them healthy, felis interius is actually more likely to suffer from a host of physical and mental health issues because of their indoor lifestyle. Due to their lack of physical activity, as well as containment in an unenriching environment, indoor cats are more likely to suffer from serious health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cystitis. They’re also more prone to developing mental health issues, like depression, and boredom-related behavioral conditions, like aggression and elimination outside the litter box.

“A lot of veterinarians [recommend keeping cats indoors] because they are concerned about cats getting hurt and sick, but they don’t think about the potential downside… of keeping the cat indoors,” says Dr. Tony Buffington, creator of the Indoor Pet Initiative, an online resource designed to help cat owners understand feline behavior and enrich cats’ lives. “It’s sort of like zoo animals—they are certainly protected generally from predation and injury and infectious disease and all of that, but, like cats, they are at greater risk for diseases associated with chronic stress.”

No Home to Call My Own

Felis interius may find himself living in a variety of places throughout his life: on the street, in various shelters and foster homes, and in numerous so-called permanent homes that may or may not actually be that long-lived. Those cats that have difficulty adjusting to indoor life or a less-than-ideal environment—caused by improper care, irresponsible pet ownership, or conflicts in multi-pet households, just to name a few—are the most likely to end up abandoned or relinquished to a shelter. And the number of cats in US shelters isn’t small. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that 70–75 percent of the two to three million felines that enter US shelters each year are euthanized.

How We Got Here

Cats have lived outside for more than 10,000 years. In fact, they existed entirely outdoors until just about 70 years ago.

The earliest ancestors of the cats we know and love today came from southwest Asia and into Europe as early as 4400 BCE. Then, about 8,000 years ago, humans shifted from a nomadic lifestyle and established farming communities. These crops attracted mice and other rodents, which looked like good eating to the cats. So the felines moved in as well, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with humans as mousers.

“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” writes Claudio Ottoni, a paleogeneticist who analyzed the DNA of more than 200 cats, including the remains of Egyptian feline mummies, told National Geographic. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages.”

So, in a sense, cats began to domesticate themselves.

Still, they remained outdoors until a few key events occurred. One of these was the discovery of litter in 1947. “The biggest complaint about cats being solely indoors was, ‘But where do they go to the bathroom?’” says certified animal behavior consultant Steve Dale. “Once kitty litter was invented, [the number of indoor cats] began to skyrocket because people who wanted to live with their cats found a practical way to do it.”

The development of refrigeration and the creation of inexpensive cat food also played a role in moving cats indoors. Before this, feeding a pet cat that couldn’t supplement his diet by scavenging and hunting wouldn’t have been affordable for most people.

Finally, the availability of spaying and neutering was also a game changer for felines, since keeping an intact cat indoors wasn’t exactly easy during mating season.

So that’s what brought cats indoors, but there are several other factors that have kept them there—much more than simply the fact that they’re so gosh darn cute and we desperately want to snuggle with them. But, along those lines, there’s certainly something to be said about the human-animal bond.

Yes, we love our cats, and, as any good kitty caregiver knows, that love is mutual. Cats show affection toward us in a variety of ways: through purring, slow blinks, grooming us, head bunting, and just following us from room to room of the house. “If you look up the definition of ‘love,’ I think it’s clear that cats love us just as dogs do because they have a very similar bond with people,” Dale says.

Of course, when you love someone or something, you want to protect it, so that’s one reason we keep our kitties locked away from the dangers of the outdoors. Because there are dangers: traffic, predators, and disease, just to name a few. This is why the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages cat owners to keep cats indoors. After all, the odds of our beloved pets being exposed to cars or coyotes is substantially lower inside the house. However, other dangers to our felines’ physical and mental health—such as toxins, chemicals, and even other pets—do exist indoors, which we’ll explore in greater detail in later chapters. And while we love our children, we don’t (hopefully) confine them inside for their entire lives. Nor do we open the door and allow them to come and go as they please.

In more recent years, the effect feral and outdoor owned cats have on wildlife has also bolstered arguments to keep cats indoors. Reports issued by the American Bird Conservancy and other birding organizations claim that cats kill millions of birds each year; this has prompted salacious headlines about “killer kitties.” Cats themselves are predators and are certainly responsible for the death of some birds, lizards, and other animals. But numerous scientists, researchers, and academics have concluded that the number of birds killed—whether by feral cats or owned indoor/outdoor cats—is wildly overstated. Dale, for example, acknowledges that cats do kill small wildlife. However, “the birding organizations appear to exaggerate for fund-raising purposes how many animals are actually killed by cats,” he points out. We’ll take a deeper look at this later in the book.

So that’s how cats made the transition from outdoor mousers to indoor companions. In the roughly 8,000 years that cats have lived alongside us, it’s only in the last several decades that indoor-only cats have become common. This is a minuscule amount of time on the evolutionary scale, and the genetic mapping of both wild and domestic cats reveals no major differences in their genetic makeup.

What does this mean for our house panthers? Let’s take a look.


Enclosed in Four Walls: Daily Life for Felis Interius

Your POV: My cat is so lucky to live this life. Kitty POV: I didn’t choose to live this way. In fact, if given the choice, I probably wouldn’t.

It was once difficult to imagine what life was like for indoor cats. But that all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of us were confined to our homes for months at a time, and, before long, the days started to bleed together. Without the daily routine of work, school, errands, and social activities that we’d grown accustomed to, we adopted new ones as the monotony—and, for many of us, the anxiety—took hold.

It affected all of us in different ways. We might have slept later or napped more often. We might have snacked more and exercised less. We might have indulged in more Netflix, breathed less fresh air, and rarely ventured into the sun. We might have remained in our pajamas for days on end and wondered when was the last time we saw a person face-to-face.

Even the most introverted of humans are still social creatures, and being unable to live life as we normally do—unable to go places, see friends, and visit family—goes against our very nature. So it’s no surprise that our physical and mental health took a serious hit during this time. Rates of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder rose, as did substance abuse. And a 2020 study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry found that stress, anxiety, loneliness, panic, fear, and difficulty concentrating all skyrocketed while our motivation dipped to an all-time low.

Those of us with children witnessed our kids struggling to adapt as well. Perhaps they even acted out, rebelling against the confinement, throwing tantrums, or simply becoming listless and lethargic.

The quarantine experience provides us with firsthand insight into the life of indoor cats. Our feline friends are essentially still wildcats with a prey drive, an instinctual desire to scratch their territory, and a need for physical activity and mental stimulation. The problem is that we’ve enclosed these adorable little beasts in four walls and often deny them opportunities to truly be cats. Being trapped inside, with a need to move, interact, and explore, but with few outlets to do so, takes its toll. And when cats’ needs for enrichment and activity aren’t met, they develop physical, mental, and behavioral problems, just as we do.

This might cause depression and anxiety. It might manifest in behaviors like house soiling, overgrooming, fearfulness, and aggression. And it might even lead to the development of serious health conditions, such as skin, gastrointestinal, and even airway diseases.

While quarantine life felt endless for many of us, we could at least find comfort in the fact that our cabin fever wouldn’t last forever. But for indoor cats it does. And, too often, cats that don’t adapt to indoor life easily, and don’t fit our idea of what a house cat should be, are seen as disposable.

In fact, behavioral issues are the most common reason that cats are relinquished to shelters. And it’s in shelters that cats are confronted with the number-one cause of death in felines in America: euthanasia. This is a form of natural selection that will only further contribute to the development of felis interius. After all, the cats that fall in line with people’s expectations and are most successful at denying their core nature are the ones that will survive.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. All indoor-only cats can thrive, but in order for us to take steps to improve their lives, first we need to fully understand their situation.

Indoor Cats Have No Choices

Daily life for indoor-only cats is like an endless quarantine—but with far fewer choices. While being home day after day took its toll on us, at least we had opportunities to try to mix things up. We could change the TV channel, pick up a new hobby, or even decide to experiment with a new recipe for dinner. We could step outside, sit on the balcony, or go for a walk. But the limited choices we made to disrupt the monotony typically aren’t extended to our feline friends.


On Sale
Apr 5, 2022
Page Count
240 pages
Running Press

Laura J. Moss

About the Author

Laura J. Moss is a journalist and the author of Adventure Cats (Workman, 2017), based off the Webby-nominated website, the first and only resource for information on safely exploring the great outdoors with your feline friend. Her work has appeared on National Geographic, Fodor’s Travel, Forbes, Mother Nature Network, Atlanta Pet Life, and Best Friends Magazine. Laura has shared her expertise with countless pet publications and radio shows, and she works closely with several shelters and rescue groups, including Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest no-kill animal shelter. A long-time self-professed cat lady, Moss currently shares her home with three rescue cats and a rescue dog.

Lynn Bahr, DVM is a graduate of the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine and founder of Dezi & Roo, a company that designs, manufactures, and sells solution-based pet products that enhance the lives of cats and their owners. She volunteers at numerous animal-related charities and causes and serves on the Fear Free Advisory Board, the Parliamentarian of the Society of Veterinary Medical Ethics, the Cat Committee of the Pet Professional Guild, and the Alley Cat Allies’ Feline Forward Task Force. In 2018, she received the 2018 Pet Age Women of Influence award, recognizing her as an influential leader in the pet industry.

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