As cat parents, it’s natural to worry about our cats. While chances are they will live long, happy lives while in our care, there’s always a risk that things will go wrong. Serious illnesses taking them from us too early, an accident that leaves them injured, or our beloved felines ending up permanently lost should they escape our homes are just a few examples of worst-case scenarios that always seem to haunt the backs of our minds.
While preventing every single disaster isn’t possible, cat owners can take some practical and effective steps to prevent their indoor cats from escaping outside. While finding a lost cat can be done, stopping an escape from happening in the first place is one of the most effective actions you can do to avoid catastrophe.
Why do cats escape?
First, let’s examine the reasons a cat may escape outside as the solution depends on the cause. Cats may be drawn outside by something appealing to them. It could be a particularly tasty looking bird flying by or a bug that looks like fun to play with. Some cats may be curious and want to explore their territory.
In other cases, your cat may not intend to go outside at all. For example, if a cat is trying to catch a bug on a window screen, they may accidentally break through the screen. They may also end up stuck outside by mistake during a move or while trying to transport them somewhere.
Some cats may try to get outside if they are scared by something inside or chronically stressed. For example, if you happen to have a door open talking to a visitor and someone makes a loud noise while your cat is nearby, they may bolt outside. Your cat may also be living in chronic stress due to other cats or a lack of their needs being met. They may see outside as a way to get out and find somewhere that they wouldn’t be quite as stressed out all the time.
Lastly, if you cat isn’t spayed or neutered, that may be the root cause of your cat’s escapes. If your cat is in “the mood,” they may be trying to get outside to try to find a mate.
How can I stop my cat from running out the door?
If you can identify a reason for your cat wanting to go outside, you may be able to address the underlying issue. If you can’t, there are still some steps to take that will make your home safer for your kitty regardless of why they’re dashing past you. You may need to try a few things, but cat escapes can often be prevented with a bit of effort.
Spay or neuter your cat.
This one is short, sweet, and extremely important. For many reasons, it benefits your cat and you to get them spayed or neutered. If you haven’t already done so, start with this step.
Secure your exits.
The first thing you should do regardless of the reason your cat is escaping is making sure your exits are secure. If your cat can open doors, consider adding an extra lock to any doors that lead outside or changing the type of handle you have on the door. Adding a screen or glass door may create a second barrier to give you a chance to block your cat from going outside when you open the door.
If your cat still is managing to get out, you may need to create an “air lock” system. Depending on the layout of your home, this may mean closing the door to a mudroom as you exit. You can also use a freestanding pet fence to block your cat from being able run through as easily. Even slowing them down can help quite a bit! In a pinch, taking an old carboard box and flattening it so you can use it as a shield can help. The box can then be easily slipped back through a crack in your door once you’re outside for later use.
Doors aren’t the only way cats get wiggle their way outside. Doing a thorough inspection of your home for any exits you may not be aware of will help prevent unexpected escapes. This step is extremely important if you have a cat repeatedly getting out without explanation as you are either missing something big or there’s a surprise tunnel to the great outdoors somewhere in your home. Cats can fit through very narrows spaces so if you’re not sure, it’s better to seal any potential exits.
Windows are another potential source of escape. If you have your windows open during nice weather, you absolutely need to have a sturdy screen in place. The screen should be secure so your cat can’t push their way through it. Even if your cat doesn’t seem to play with the screen, remember that many cats escape because they get spooked. If something frightens your cat while they are inside, you don’t want them giving it a try! Plus, other factors such as weather may cause the screen to fall out. Make sure that isn’t a risk!
Prevent your cat from being bored.
If your cat isn’t getting enough entertainment in your home, they may seek entertainment elsewhere. Think of it like this: if you’re home on a Friday night and your internet goes out, you may not be able to watch the latest trashy reality TV show you were planning on bingeing (No judgement on your TV choices!). If you don’t have something else to do, you may decide to go to a friend’s home, out to a movie, or go somewhere else so you aren’t bored at home.
Your cat will have the feline equivalent of that thought pattern. Plus, they may be more tempted by entertaining things outside. By making sure they’re getting plenty of play and enrichment indoors, they won’t be as tempted to go outside. I suggest at 10-15 minutes of interactive play with you two or three times a day for most cats. Some cats may need more play than that, especially younger cats or kittens. Food puzzles are also a great form of entertainment for cats. Plus, they can distract your cat while you slip out the door.
Bring the outdoors in or the indoor cat (safely) out.
While cats absolutely can lead enriched, fulfilling lives entirely indoors when provided with the right environment, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways you can safely let your cat experience some of the outdoors. This may help reduce the temptation to go outside as why would they need to when they have everything they need inside?
One fun activity would be bringing some leaves in from outside and letting your cat sniff them. This may not seem too exciting to us as humans, but cats are very scent-oriented creatures so to them, it’s a great time! You can try putting them inside a box to contain any mess. Just make sure you thoroughly screen the leaves you bring in to make sure they come from cat safe trees and that you’re certain there aren’t any pesticides or nasty chemicals applied to them.
An alternative to bringing leaves in is to grow some cat safe plants like cat grass or catnip for your kitty to nibble on. Cat grass is a great enrichment activity and relatively easy to grow. Catnip will have the added bonus of sending your cat into a state of bliss, though if they have continuous exposure to it, they may have less of an effect. Save that for a treat!
For cats that seem to like chasing birds, you can use cat TV! If you have a computer, TV, or tablet you aren’t using, put on some videos of birds designed specifically for cats. There are even games for cats available on YouTube. Some cats may find not being able to catch the birds frustrating so keep an eye for signs of stress in your cat if you choose this option.
If you don’t have a spare device, you can consider putting up a bird feeder outdoors. I suggest placing it away from any potential escape routes so your cat won’t be tempted to try to get out to get to the birds and they’ll be distracted elsewhere in the home.
Lastly, consider bringing your cat outside in a controlled way! Cats can be trained to walk on a harness, though some may not be okay with it even with some patience. This allows them to be outside under close supervision. Alternatively, you could consider using a playpen or making a catio for your cat. These allow your cat to lounge and experience the joys of nature while reducing the risk that they’d become victims to predators or other dangers lurking outdoors.
Address your cat’s stress.
If your cat is experiencing significant stress or something is causing them to be fearful in the home, it’s a good idea to address the source of fear. If they are stressed out by other pets or their interactions with humans, working on changing the dynamic of those interactions will keep their stress low. If your cat is chronically anxious, a visit to the vet is a great idea to figure out what could be happening. Working with a cat behavior specialist can also help give you some tools in your specific situation.
One easy thing to try to help your cat feel more secure in their space is by adding more cat specific resources. More vertical space (think cat towers or cat shelves) and scratching posts in particular are extremely helpful at reducing stress for cats. If you don’t have enough litter boxes, adding in more and making sure they’re well maintained can help quite a bit, too. You can also try a calming pheromone diffuser to help your cat.
Ultimately, there isn’t a single strategy that will work to prevent every cat escape. The solution depends on why your cat is getting outside in the first place, your living situation, and your individual cat. What works for some cats may not work for your cat. Try a few things and if you’re really struggling, you may want to consult a professional behaviorist or your veterinarian for individualized advice.
Written by Joey Lusvardi. Joey is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, Elite Fear Free Certified Professional, and professional member of the Cat Writer’s Association. Joey runs Class Act Cats where he helps cat parents with all sorts of behavior problems and cat training.