Question: “How can I keep my cat in the yard?”
Cindy shares her home with two dogs (five-year-old Honey, and seven-year-old Blue) and just adopted a two-year-old cat she named Harley. Harley was neutered and vaccinated three weeks ago, and so far, he gets along well with the dogs. The kitty has one litter box near the back door.
“I need to know how or when to let Harley out into the yard, and know he won't run away, or get lost,” says Cindy. “We got a harness, but he does not like it.”
The way a cat reacts to his environment depends on emotional health, physical status, and traits of instinct. I use the H.I.S.S. Test to help explain this, which stands for health, instinct, stress, and symptom solvers.
A cat that feels bad due to a health challenge often hides. These cats allowed into the yard may dive under the shrubs—or the porch—and literally disappear for hours, days or weeks. Conversely, a healthy cat allow into the yard won’t necessarily stay there. A cat’s normal territorial range is two-plus miles, when allowed free range.
The hormones of intact male cats prompt them to roam far and wide, seeking feline Juliet kitties to woo and mate. Harley, although neutered, probably still has circulating testosterone for days to weeks after the surgery that can lead him astray, literally.
Cats react poorly to stress, and the normal response is fight-or-flight. A cat unencumbered by containment usually chooses flight over aggression. Since Harley is new to the family, the dogs, and the environment he is under particular flight risk. It's always important to introduce cats and dogs properly to ease this stress.
That said, indoor cats also suffer from stress often as a result of being confined with other cats or pets. More space and territory generally relieves kitty stress enormously.
S=Symptom, Signs & Solutions
In the best of all possible worlds, the outside would be perfectly safe for our cats to roll in the grass, chase butterflies (or other big game), and snooze in the sun. There would be no cars to dodge, strange dogs to elude, or sick cats to spread devastating illness.
Cats can and do learn to recognize their home territory and live outside under these stressful and dangerous situations, due to resilience and luck. It can take a cat many days to a couple of weeks to learn that THIS is home, and know how to get back after roaming. Proponents of allowing cats outside argue that a shorter but happier life trumps a long-lived but miserable indoor cat. There is great debate over the outdoor/indoor issue. I believe you can have the best of both worlds, and here’s how.
Fence The Yard
Set up distinctive sounding wind chimes around the outside of the house, so the cat associates the chimes with “home” to help with navigation should he somehow escape the yard.
Create an Outdoor Playground
Cat condos or homemade versions can be connected to pet doors or windows, to allow Harley indoor/outdoor access that’s safe. My colleague Marva Marrow, a cat behavior consultant, has a great do-it-yourself plan.
Bring the Outdoors Inside
Provide kitty enrichment in the form of boxes filled with leaves for burrowing, limbs for clawing, and cat trees for climbing. Set up bird baths and feeders outside windows, with kitty perches inside for easy viewing.
I call this “liberation training” because it allows the cat to go anywhere safely. Many cats object to the harness, and fall over and act paralyzed once it’s on. The key to acceptance is gradual introduction and multiple rewards, to teach kitty he CAN still move while wearing it. Here’s how.
- Choose a figure-8 harness that’s closely fitted. These tighten if the cat tries to wriggle out of it.
- Choose a standard (non-retractable) leash no more than 6'in length.
- Make the harness and leash part of the furniture. Leave it out so Harley can sniff and investigate so it’s no longer strange (strange=scary). Turn the leash into a toy by dragging it for Harley to chase so it’s associated with fun experiences. Do this for at least five days in a row.
- Rub the harness all over Harley every day so it smells like him and is less scary.
- On the fifth day, put on the harness for five minutes. Have a special treat or toy (feathers work well) to distract him during the process. Lure him and entice Harley to move while wearing the harness. Use clicker training to signal he's on the right track, then take off the harness and praise him. Repeat for another five days, or until Harley’s getting up and moving on his own.
- Once he’s moving while wearing the harness, simply attach the leash.
- Follow him (don’t expect him to follow you) while holding the leash. Once he’s navigating inside the house with the harness and leash, expand his territory to the yard and beyond.