Can “Indoor Only” Cats Be Content?

July 24, 2015

indoor mickeyBy Julia Williams

It’s been 10 years, but I still remember the look a friend gave me after I expressed dismay that her “poor cats” were never allowed to go outside. At the time, all of my cats, past and present, had the freedom to go out as much as they wanted. I actually thought it was a bit unkind that my friend was depriving her cats of the outdoors, and when I said her cats could never be happy living indoors, that’s when I got “the look.” She vehemently disagreed, and it was clear we’d never see eye to eye.

A lot has changed since then. For starters, I now know that I was dead wrong about indoor-only cats not being happy. Secondly, I’ve changed my practice of allowing my cats unlimited access to the outdoors. It’s a personal decision we all have to make for our own cats. I just came to the conclusion that for me, the risks of allowing them outdoors outweighed the benefits. It’s been proven that indoor cats live longer and healthier lives, and I wanted my feline friends to be with me for as long as possible. However, I worried about their emotional state because I still struggled with the idea that indoor cats could be happy.

What I have found, after years of research and personal experience, is that some indoor cats will be just as happy as they could by having access to the outdoors, and some will not. There is no one size fits all answer; it really depends on several factors.


If you adopt a kitten, you’ll have a much easier time keeping it happy indoors than you will with an adult cat who’s already known outdoor freedom. Essentially, if the kitten has never been outdoors, it won’t know what it’s missing out on. It may still have an instinctual indoor  annabelledesire to be out there hunting, climbing trees and such, but it won’t have the intense longing that a cat who’s been outdoors will have. That said, even mature outdoor cats can come indoors and still be happy. Most can adjust to indoor life, but it may take time and lots of patience on your part.


When I began transitioning my current outdoor-loving cats to living indoors, I knew that my oldest, Mickey, was going to be the most problematic. He’d been outdoors longer than Rocky and Annabelle, but there was more to it – he has a more “wild at heart” nature, and that’s not something I can change. It’s just who he is. I had to compromise with Mickey – he gets to go outdoors for a few hours a day in the summer, and he stays indoors 100% of the time in winter. As much as I wanted him to be indoor only all year long, I knew it was making him miserable. I had to ask myself which was better – him having a long and largely unhappy life or a potentially shorter, but infinitely happier, life.

Annabelle’s temperament is a lot different. She hasn’t been outdoors now for over a year, and she doesn’t seem to mind one bit. She seems just as happy being an indoor kitty as she was being allowed outdoors. Her transition was easy peasy. Rocky is somewhere in-between; he does seem to long for the outdoors, especially when he sees his brother out there. So he gets to go out for a half hour before breakfast and again before dinner. Foodie that he is, I know he will not go far from the front door and risk missing his CANIDAE meals.

My point is, every cat is different. Some will adapt to indoor life without blinking an eye, and some will be more challenging. You will know which kind of cat you are dealing with.

Indoor Enrichment

Since an indoor cat has less mental stimulation than an outdoor one, it’s vital that you find ways to enrich his life. Scratching posts are essential, as are a variety of different types of cat toys. Wand-type toys that stimulate the cat’s innate prey drive are especially indoor rockyhelpful. My cats all go wild when I bring out the Da Bird – it’s basically feathers on a stick, but it flies through the air much like a real bird, and they love chasing and catching it. Some indoor cats love having a window perch where they can watch the Bird and Squirrel TV. Some cats love interactive puzzle toys; mine seem … ahem… too dumb to figure them out and they quickly lose interest, but you never know until you try. Just get to know your cat, so you can provide the indoor enrichment he or she loves.


I have found that at Mickey gets older – he’s 16 now – his extreme longing for the outdoors has lessened some. He will often come in even before his allotted outdoor time is up, which is perfectly fine with me. So age seems to play a small part in whether an indoor cat can be content.

Photos by Julia Williams:
Mickey (top), Annabelle (middle), Rocky (bottom).

Read more articles by Julia Williams

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