Outdoor/Indoor Cat Training
It’s fun and rewarding to take your cat on outside walks, train him to stay in the yard or walk around on a leash. You can also train your cat to come when called while outside. Your cat can learn to run to the house when he see cars and strangers, and walk back into the house of his own accord. After you learn how to teach your cat to behave outside, you won’t have to chase him down or carry him all over the place to get him to come home.
Some shelters insist that the people who adopt cats from them not let them outside. That is understandable . . . they’ve seen lots of lost, stolen, injured, and dead cats, all because of outside hazards. But it’s quite possible to take your cat outside in relative safety and teach him how to avoid danger, stay in the yard and/or take walks with you.
Trained outside walks can benefit both you and your cat in many ways:
- Walking and fresh air help relieve stress and will make your cat more stress tolerant.
- Because he will be familiar with his surroundings, he’ll know where to go in the event that he accidentally gets outside. (Statistics show that most ‘indoor-only cats’ will accidently get outside at least once in their life.)
- Allowing your cat to go outdoors is a great way to reward him for using the scratching post and for coming when called.
- Being outdoors often alleviates or stops a cat’s worst behavior problems—problems that result in some cats being mistreated, abandoned, and euthanized.
We don’t recommend adopting a cat unless you are able to give the cat time outside. However, we acknowledge that there are a few cats that absolutely have no interest in going outside. It’s fine to keep those cats indoors. But most cats love going outside even though at first he might look afraid.
Some cats go crazy when they are kept indoors only; others develop physical ailments. Taking a cat outside relieves you from having to provide the daily requirements of fun, entertainment, vitamin D (from sunshine), dirt, and grass that a cat needs to be mentally and physically healthy. Going outside is the cheapest yet most interesting cat “baby sitter” you will ever find. Boredom causes bad behavior in cats. But when outside, cats can watch birds, sniff bushes, and enjoy fresh air for hours. Safe time spent outdoors is the best entertainment, and stress and pain reliever that a cat can possibly receive.
The Right Circumstances for Training?
Supervised outside walks can be fun and very beneficial to cats and cat owners, but only if you have the proper cat, the proper setting, and time.
Not just any cat can be taken on outside walks. If your cat likes to fight or has been brought up in the streets, he may not take to this type of training well. Try keeping him in the house for several months. Then, if possible, begin training on an exceptionally cold day so that he’ll only want to be out for a few minutes.
Don’t take your cat outside:
- At dark or near dark (twilight)
- When there’s a moving van or a vehicle with a trunk or window left open and unattended nearby
- On these holidays or the day before: Halloween, New Year’s Eve, Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo, or any other holiday that’s celebrated with firecrackers
- Right after any misbehavior (going outside should be a favorite reward; don’t reward bad behavior)
- If weed killer or garden supplement has recently been applied (contact manufacturer to find out when the lawn will be safe for pets)
If the cat is an extremely fast runner, or doesn’t like to be touched or held, he won’t be a good candidate for outside walks. If you live near heavy traffic or you don’t have a yard, you probably should keep your cat indoors. (However, there are many cats that lived on busy streets to the age of more than twenty years.) You also should not let your cat outside if there are predatory animals around. See the “Indoor-Only Cat” section below.
If you have a kitten, consider keeping the kitten indoors for about a year to get him very used to routine. This can really help keep him closer to home when he goes on walks.
Outdoor training will start at about five minutes per day. The time the cat will stay outside depends on how much he violates your orders during certain phases of training. Try to do outside walks daily. If you can only take your cat outside during the weekend, you may have a problem if he is declawed. Once a declawed cat gets used to outside walks, he may require one every day. The stress of being inside may make the cat pee outside the litter box. If you can’t walk a declawed cat daily, you may not want to start this training.
- Choose only one door of the house to let your cat out of. It’s easier to manage just one door.
- Allow the cat to walk inside through any door.
- If your home has other doors he can go out of, don’t let your cat use the front door. You’ll then have less trouble with your cat when it comes time for you to use that door for visitors.
- If he gets out of the door on his own without your permission, get him back inside the house as soon as possible. Don’t let him get away with it even once.
Training Your Cat to Behave Outside
The attitude you must convey to your cat is that going outside is his privilege, not his right. This training is geared for that attitude.
Ideally, your cat should live inside the house for quite a few months before you begin outside training. You need to make the cat or kitten trust you and be dependent upon you before going outside. During this time, feed wet meals at the same time each day so he learns when to expect them. (This will help with outside training because cats are creatures of habit—if they’re used to being fed at the same time every day, they’ll come inside, even if the weather is nice.) Also, it’s important that he’s been trained to come when called, as explained in Cat Training Basics.
Outside training requires a harness, a leash, and a collar with a bell. We highly recommend tattooing and a microchip for any cat that goes out.)
Before You Begin
There are a number of things you should do before you actually begin the process of training:
- Let your neighbors know that you have a cat and that you will be training him to stay in your yard. Tell them that your cat is not allowed in anybody’s yard but his own, and that they can either shoo him away if he goes into their yards or call and let you know he’s there.
- Check to see that your cat’s rabies vaccinations are up to date. Your local laws may require additional vaccines as well.
- If you don’t have a fence, set up some flags or stones to mark the boundaries that your cat is to stay within.
- Get a lure toy that you can leave outside. Latter on it will come in handy to literally “lure” your cat back inside the house.
- Keep a spray bottle handy to stop cat fights. Children’s pump-up squirt guns or industrial spray bottles work quite well. The Super Soaker shoots pretty far. The longer stream lets you hide behind the bushes, waiting to ambush your cat when he violates the rules. You may need to station a spray bottle or two around the house as a backup arsenal. As previously mentioned, it’s best to avoid spraying water at your cat’s head. But if your cat gets into a serious situation where his action must be interrupted (such as crossing the street when a car is near) then waste no time in trying to avoid squirting his head.
- Stick to a single session each day during the first several months or your cat will pester you until you take him out a second time, then a third, and so on. Later you’ll be able to take him outside more than once a day if you want. But for now, he needs to respect the time he gets to spend outside.
- To avoid having your cat wake you up for his outside walk, wait until after you’ve been awake a couple of hours to take him out.
- Always take him out during daylight, never at night or in the twilight.
Phase one takes about three days. Its purpose is to give the cat a good first impression of the outdoors. For this phase, pick a quiet time so that the cat is less overwhelmed. Also, choose a time shortly before your cat usually takes a nap, because at that time he’ll be tired and more likely to stay close to home. For most cats this seems to be between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Later, you’ll take him out at noisier and busier times.
When it’s time to go out, call “Here!” with his name, even if he’s already by the door. Praise him while you put his harness and leash on him. Make sure he’s also wearing a collar with a bell, just in case he slips out of the harness.
Tell him it’s time to go outside but that it’s also “Time to scratch.” Put him on his scratching post. As soon as he scratches his post, praise him as you pick him up and carry him through the doorway. (You need to carry him so he knows you’re in control. This also will change later.) Set him down facing the house a few feet outside the door. Pet him now so that right away he starts getting used to being touched while he’s outside.
Let him walk around and sniff at things while you keep hold of his leash. Every few minutes, go to him, pick him up, pet him, say his name, and put him down facing the house. This helps avoid teaching the cat to run from you. He will learn to run and hide if you take him inside as soon as you get your hands on him. Remember, first impressions are important, so start getting him used to being handled and approached right away. You want to be able to touch or pick up your cat anytime he’s outside.
Don’t drag him by the leash and harness; if you do, he’ll learn to escape. Cats can escape most harnesses. Once a cat learns that he can get out of one, he’ll escape all the time. Stay close by so that you can get your hands on him at any given time. It’s okay to step on the leash should he suddenly bolt away from you, but grab him immediately (the harness won’t hold him). If he bolts, puts your hands on him and see if he’ll calm down. If he’s too ready to run off again, take him inside. Give him a treat and try again tomorrow. It’s not a good idea to take a cat inside as soon as you get your hands on him while he’s in his own yard, but bolting needs to be discouraged until he learns the yard boundaries.
Praise him whenever he walks toward the house or you. Play with him near the house using the lure toy you’ve been keeping on the porch. Let him know that staying near to or going in the house is a good thing.
Keep the sessions short and avoid letting him near the yard boundary for these first three days. You don’t want to have to say “no” during this part of the training.
Do not leave him unattended while he’s wearing a harness. Never depend on a harness to restrain your cat.
Later on, he’ll learn to come back indoors on his own. For now, though, you need to keep his outside walk short because he’s not likely to walk in on his own. You’ll have to pick him up. Don’t call him when it’s time to go in; instead, go to him and pick him up. If the cat stays calm in your arms, carry him around for several seconds before you take him in so that he doesn’t associate getting picked up with going inside. If he gets antsy, however, take him in immediately.
As soon as he’s inside, praise him and then remove his harness, leash, and bell. Tell him how good he is to be home. Give him a treat or serve a wet meal if it’s mealtime. Coming home always deserves a special food treat, no matter how he acted outside.
Most cats love the outdoors, but some are frightened by it at first. Your cat may act as if he doesn’t like the outside at all. If he freaks out once he gets outside, try using a lure toy to distract him from his fear. Don’t talk to him unless he loosens up or wants to go back in the house. Then open the door, praise him, and let him slink inside. Tell him how good he is to come inside no matter how scaredy-cat he seems. Give him a treat and try phase one again for the next day or two. If he doesn’t like it any better, don’t force it. Let him stay indoors. Later on in his life he may not be so afraid and you might want to try again. Also see +++”Indoor-Only Cat” (below).
In this phase he’ll learn where the property lines exist and that if he crosses them too much, it will stop his walk for the day. He’ll also come to understand that walking to you or staying on his own turf earns him extra time outside.
Gradually change his walk to a busier and noisier time of the day. This will make him more aware of the dangers outside. Sometimes the commotion alone will make him stay near the house. Ideally, you should time the training sessions to end right before it’s time for a wet meal.
Begin by taking your cat outside just as in phase one. But this time, after you set him down outside and pet him, let go of the leash. Let him go wherever he wants. And again, as in phase one, every few minutes, go to him and pick him up, pet him, and set him back down again, facing the house.
Whenever he gets near the yard boundary, watch closely and stay near him. The instant he steps on the sidewalk or outside any boundary, say “No.” Stop him from going farther by walking in front of him, and gently force him back into his yard by pushing him lightly with your hand. If he won’t walk back into his own yard, pick him up and return him to just inside his property line. Say “Good boy” as soon as he’s back in bounds.
Stay close to him as he roams around the yard. If he approaches the line again, say something like “Uh-uh,” or “Hey! I’m watching you,” but do not say his name. If he crosses the boundary again, then again put him back inside his yard. Take him inside if he crosses a third time.
When he walks up to you on his own, pet him and praise him. Pick him up if he wants you to. Let him go again for at least a few minutes, even if it’s time to come in. You always want to reward his coming to you.Open the door and give him a chance to go back in the house on his own.
A good time to take a cat inside the house is when you catch him in someone else’s yard and he makes no attempt to run to you or run back home. If he runs back into his yard before you can catch him, let him stay out a little bit longer. Remember, don’t take him inside when he walks to you. When he walks up to you, tell him he’s a very good boy and pet him.
If it’s time to go inside and he doesn’t walk in on his own, try the lure toy to lure him indoors, and then continue to play with him once he’s inside. Or, you could tell him it’s time to eat. When all else fails, silently walk to him, pick him up, and carry him around for a few seconds. Then apologize for taking him inside. As soon as he’s indoors, let him go gently, pet and praise him, and give him a treat. Remove the harness and leash.
Your cat will need to make mistakes on all sides of the yard in order to learn where the boundaries are. He’ll need to experience being yelled at, gently pushed, and carried back from all sides of your property.
Make sure you respond each time he trespasses, either by putting him back in the yard or taking him in the house. Letting him get away with it without making him get back in his own yard can set the training back a few weeks.
Whenever you call for him outside, have his most special food ready, or a very favorite toy. Praise him as soon as he shows up, even if it’s ten minutes after you first called. Use special rewards after he comes to you when you call for him outside.
If he tries to bolt on several days during this phase, he may not be a good candidate for this training. Keeping him inside the house for a year, and getting him to come to you when called during that time, may help break his need to run. If your cat is the type that is too outgoing and curious to be kept in one yard, training him to walk with you on a leash and harness around the neighborhood is another option.
Most cats will learn where the yard boundaries are. When he continues to hesitate before crossing them for several days in a row, he’s waiting to see if you’re paying attention. So you know he knows, start cutting down to only allowing only two mistakes for a week or two.
And now it’s time for phase three.
In phase three you no longer need to use the leash and harness. Continue to use the collar and bell from now on whenever he’s outside.
When he scratches his post after you’ve asked him to, you can now let him walk out the door without being carried.
At the beginning of this off-leash training, warn him not to trespass when he approaches a property line. Stay close. If he violates your verbal warning, even just once, take him inside right away. Try to get your hands on him as soon as he has crossed the boundary. Do this for several weeks.
As your cat gets better at staying in the yard, gradually let him go farther away from you, but keep him in sight. When he almost always respects the border while you’re there, and is pretty good about coming when you call to him outside, start letting him wander out of your sight. At the least, get out of his sight. If you can spy on him, do so. If not, only leave for a few seconds. Gradually increase your time away to a few minutes, and then longer.
If you find that he sneaks outside the boundaries when you aren’t looking, hide from him. Then use scare tactics, such as spraying water in his path or throwing something near him the second he steps out of bounds. A snowball or an empty pop can with a few pennies inside can help startle him too (put tape over the opening on the can). If he runs back into the yard on his own, let him stay outside. If he refuses to go back to the yard, take him indoors.
As the weeks pass in phase three, you can relax again about the number of mistakes unless he starts making too many. If that happens, for the next few days go back to allowing only one mistake to take him indoors for the rest of the day. Sometimes you may want to give him another chance. Tell him, “Get back in the yard.” If he walks back into the yard on his own, let him stay out. If not, go get him with the attitude of “You should have listened to me! You thought I was joking.” Then take him inside. Over time the cat will learn that you mean what you say and that staying within the property lines and walking to you earns him more time outside.
The more he stays in the yard while you have your back turned, the longer you can leave him on his own. As you become more confident that he’ll stay in the yard, you can just come out to check on him occasionally. It may take a few months of daily training before you can trust him to be on his own for very short periods.
When the cat walks into the house on his own, you can start to let him back outside again within a few minutes. When the weather is bad a cat will probably want in, then out, then in and out again. When you’re ready to keep him inside for the day, give him his treat.
Show fear when a car approaches. Say “Ooooh! Car. Be careful!” in a frightened tone of voice. Pick him up and walk quickly to the house. Put him down facing the street instead of the house so that he can look at what you are afraid of. Keep a hand on him. Sound shaky and nervous until the sound of the car disappears.
If a stranger walks by your property, be quiet but walk swiftly toward your house. Then turn around and watch until the person has gone by. Your cat will watch and pick up on your reactions. You may not want to act too scared in this case, because the stranger might think you’re weird. Also, by being quiet, you won’t draw unnecessary attention to a cat that’s supposed to be hiding from strangers.
Once in a great while you can use scruffing as a reprimand if he crosses the street. (See Cat Training Basics for more information about scruffing.) Save this last-resort punishment for when he continues to cross the street in spite of your warning him to not leave the yard. Carry him back to your yard and release the scruffing grip, but carry him indoors immediately. Don’t forget to reward and praise him for coming home. Use this method only on very rare occasions. If your cat continues to go out into the street fairly often, try phase two again, using a harness and leash. Resorting to scruffing a cat more than twice might mean that this cat is not a good candidate for outside training.
If he leaves your yard while you’re not there, praise him when he returns to the yard or door, even if he’s been gone for a while. As soon as you realize he’s missing, go looking for him. Walk by the houses adjacent to your house and call his name. You may find him two houses away, and when he sees you, it’s likely that he’ll start running back home. Sound and act surprised and happy to see him. If he runs to you, sound extremely happy and grateful. But if he runs in the opposite direction, go after him as you say “No.” Catch him and sound irritated at him until he’s back inside the yard boundary. Then take him inside immediately.
As always, once your cat is back in the house, whether he was carried or walked back in, he needs to know he’s always a good boy for coming home. It’s time for his wet meal or treat. “Louie’s home!”
If you are training more than one cat, train them outside separately until at least one of them is at the stage at which you can trust him unattended for at least five minutes. If you have to take one of them indoors, you need to be able to trust the other one while you’re gone.
If you do decide to train your declawed cat to go for outside walks, try to be very regular about the training sessions. Even after phase three training, stay outside with your declawed cat. Do not leave him alone, even for a minute. Your presence provides some protection against an attack from a dog or other animal.
Considerations for Indoor-Only Cats
Living indoors-only is very difficult on many cats and their owners. Indoor-only cats need more attention to make up for the loss of the fun and excitement they can get from being outside in natural surroundings. Outdoors has been cats’ “home” for thousands of years. Keeping a cat inside all the time is unnatural and can lead to poor health and bad behavior. Unfortunately, there are situations or cats that some owners feel must be kept inside. If that is your situation, here are some tips for keeping your indoor cat healthy and happy:
- Compensate for the lack of fresh grass by feeding him kitty oats. If you use a commercial hairball remedy, use the maximum recommended dosage. (See Hairballs for more information on hairball remedies.)
- Add raw organic meats and vegetables to his diet at least twice a week to make up for the insects and critters he normally would eat outside. Feed mostly wet foods.
- Put cat beds in sunlit windows. A bird feeder outside the window can help him pass the time.
- Increase your play time with him, and play with him regularly.
- Let your cat jump on sturdy desks, file cabinets, bookcases, and sofas to increase his livable space. Remove breakables and slippery things from places where the cat can jump. He may accidentally knock things down or fall after landing on something slippery.
- If your cat was used to going outside but can’t now, try to ease his stress. Supplement his meals with vitamins, and give him catnip.
- Add an extra litter box and a new scratching post or cat tree no matter how many you already have. They’re great for exercise and relieving the stress of living indoors.
- Install an outdoor kennel. Chainlink is a good material. Put a scratching post or cat tree, a dog house, and catnip plants in the kennel if you can. If possible, install a cat door to the kennel from inside the house. Use a padlock to keep curious strangers out.
For outside walks:
- Brightly colored cat collar with safety release, bell, and your phone number (write the phone number with permanent ink or add a tag)
- Cat harness, such as the narrow web, 3/8-inch-wide Surefit Harness by Premier
- Lightweight leash
- Industrial squirt bottle and/or Super Soaker squirt gun
- Cat treats or wet cat food
- Microchip implant (call your veterinarian or local shelter)
- Empty soda pop can with pennies inside (put tape over the opening of the can)
- Cat tattooed with registered number (strongly recommended)
- Retractable leash
- Direct Stop Animal Deterrent Spray by Premier
- Pet knapsack (found in pet stores; you wear on the front of your body to hold cat)
For indoor-only cats:
- Kitty oats (grown indoors)
- Hairball remedy
- Extra cat tree / scratching post
- Extra litter box
- Raw foods
- Bird feeder
- Cat kennel
- The City Cat, by Roz Riddle
- The Indoor Cat, by Patricia Curtis
See Cat Products.