Preventing Escape Artists: How to Keep Your Cat from Running Away
Your kitty’s an explorer. Just keep their expeditions indoors.
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We all know of many perfect pairings: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Thor and his hammer, Mjölnir, or dark chocolate with a good merlot, for example. They belong together and are at their best around each other. There are also pairs that absolutely do not go well together: Steph Curry and Nike, Thor and Thanos, chocolate and, OK, everything goes with chocolate so maybe that’s a bad example, but anyway, both good and bad duos exist.
One pairing that can be as bad as a large group of ferrets and a room full of crystal goblets is cats and doors. Cats are little Houdinis who can sneak over, under, through, into, out of, and in between every kind of barrier devised by humankind. These little geniuses are impressive in their abilities, which are honestly to be admired. What they are capable of doing when it comes to getting away from us is a big deal, and that’s why many cats run away once, twice, occasionally, or even regularly.
There are a lot of reasons related to their safety (and the safety of the neighborhood birds) to keep your cat from running away, but it’s not easy. If you are wondering how to keep your cat from running away, one profound truth to take in is that we have a much better chance of keeping them from running away if we focus on doing all we can to prevent them from wanting to run away in the first place.
Why do cats run away?
Cats escape houses all the time, providing opportunities for neighbors to bond over the search and even to cooperate in the retrieval with one family providing a ladder and another family (usually mine) providing skilled tree-climbers who are also gentle with animals for the final stage of the retrieval.
During these adventures, you will frequently hear people asking, “Why do male cats run away from home?” and “Why do female cats run away?” Cats of either sex run away for the adventure and the excitement, because it’s natural for them to roam a wider area than a suburban home or backyard, and perhaps because they love the outdoors. Some cats run away because they find home to be a touch on the boring side, and they enjoy the opportunities for stimulation in the great wide world.
Can I train my cat to come when called?
Teaching your cat to come when called is a great idea, as it is a valuable skill for them to have. Teach them that they will get good things, such as treats, toys, or a play session, when you say “come” and they follow the cue. The goal is to get your cat accustomed to the idea that if they come to you when called, they will be happy they did so because it is always a positive experience. That means you have to make them glad they came by providing something that is worth their while each time you give them this cue. Also, it is essential they are never sorry they came, which means not calling them to put them in their carrier, give them a bath, cut their nails, or to do anything else they won’t love.
Even once a cat is excellent at responding to the cue to come, I would not generally trust that their good recall will be enough to prevent them if they want to head outdoors and have an open door available to them. Even though training a cat to come when called is a wonderful skill, it’s not a complete solution to the issue of how to keep a cat from running out the door.
How can I make my home escape-proof for my cat?
Barriers are one part of the “how to keep cats inside” puzzle. By physically preventing escapes, you help your cat stay safe and stay with you. Gates are one tool that is useful in this way, but you may need multiple gates stacked to cover a doorway to a height that can prevent cats, with their superior jumping ability, from getting away. Another useful tool is garden netting, which can keep cats from escaping decks, balconies, and catios. Such barriers remain in place to control cats’ movements even when you are not present.
Portable barriers are also useful and can be used when you open the door for your own entrances and exits to your home. You can protect this open spot from becoming an escape route for even the most determined door darters with poster board or a piece of foam core. When you open the door, use these objects to block a cat’s access. The idea is not to frighten them, so you don’t need to approach or herd them. Just use the poster board or foam core as a portable barrier to block their path to the outside. You can keep these tools in your car, on the porch, or in the foyer, so they are always ready for use when you enter or exit your house.
How can I prevent my cat from running away?
There are lots of ways to prevent your cat from running away, and I think it’s best to take advantage of multiple methods: preventing them from having the physical opportunity to escape, developing in them the habit of moving away from the door when it opens, and making the indoors fun and stimulating for them so they have less motivation to take off.
Preventing trouble is a powerful way to protect our cats, and trainers spend a lot of time teaching people ways to manage problematic situations. There’s often some resistance to this approach, perhaps because it feels like a cop-out to some people. It’s not. Prevention and management are wonderful tools that can keep your cat safe in situations that are more than they can handle. As cats become able to handle a broader range of situations, they are not needed as often, but these techniques are often useful forever — at least in some contexts.
Prevention can be as simple as using gates or other barriers that physically block the door to the great outdoors so attempts at door darting don’t result in an escape. Another way to prevent having a cat on the loose when you enter the house is to text someone who is at home so they can keep the cat away as you enter. They can play with the cat, pick them up (only if the cat doesn’t mind), entice them to go into another room, or give them some treats to keep them occupied until you are inside and the door is safely closed behind you. (Obviously, this only works if you live with other people and at least one of them is already home.)
If a cat’s response to the opening of the door is to go away from it and head somewhere else, they can’t dart out the door. You can train your cat to go away from, rather than in the direction of, an open door. Teach your cat to go to a specific place when anyone opens the door by making good things happen when they do. A great option is a cat tree or other high place (on a bookshelf or the top of the fridge) because many cats enjoy being elevated and naturally seek out such perches.
This method follows two fundamental principles of training: to teach your cat what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do, and to teach them to perform a behavior that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Offer your cat a treat in the location you want them to go in whenever you open the door until going there becomes a habit. Make sure the treat is really, really good so your cat is highly motivated to go where you want them to go and really happy about it once they get there.
Another option that is especially effective with the most playful of cats is to toss them a toy they really like as you leave the house and as you come back in the door. By throwing a toy away from the door each time it opens, you teach your cat to associate the door opening with fun, and you teach them the habit of running away from the door when it opens.
Habit is the result of training, and that means you want to develop the right habits that will keep your cat safe and not any habits that make it more likely your cat will dash out the door when given the chance. One element of this is consistently greeting your cat and giving them attention only once the door is closed, you are well into the house, and neither of you is close to the door.
It’s common for people to ask, “Do cats run away if they are unhappy?” but perhaps the better question is, “Do cats run away if they are bored?” And the answer to that question is certainly sometimes yes. Many cats are bored with the limited options for activity, adventure, and fun offered at home, and they may make a run for it in order to add a little more fun and adventure to their life. This may be especially true for cats who lived outside before you welcomed them into your home.
How can I make my cat more comfortable indoors?
Cats often seek to dash out because of all the stimulating fun and adventure out there. The more satisfying their life is inside, the less eager they will be to head outside. With that in mind, increasing the options for mental and physical stimulation you provide can help keep cats from attempting to escape. Here are the things to add to your home, in order of importance, to make their life indoors as appealing as possible so they have less motivation to wander off.
Food puzzles keep cats occupied, requiring them to use their minds, paws, and mouths in creative ways to access the treats inside. Whether they must reach their paws in to get the food, roll a treat ball around until bits of tasty rewards fall out, open compartments, push a button, or flip a lid to reach treats, puzzle toys are good for cats. They offer cats a lot of ways to keep their brains and their bodies occupied doing interesting things.
More vertical space — in the form of cat trees or other elevated spots — offer many options, as do add-on components that allow cats to go through tunnels, leap to varied perches, or access bookcases, shelves, or any other high spot. Cardboard boxes can be tunnels or forts for cats and provide quite a lot of entertainment, even on the ground.
New toys can provide a lot of fun, as can increasing the amount of time you spend using them to play with your cat. Wand toys that are interactive are especially engaging for most cats. Toys cats can roll around and bat at allow them to play independently, as do those with tracks containing balls that can be pushed around endlessly so they can have fun even when you’re gone.
FAQs (People Also Ask):
Should I let my cat roam freely outdoors?
Cats are better off inside or in enclosed outdoor catios than roaming freely, and the environment benefits as well.
How can I make my home escape-proof for my cat?
Barriers such as gates, foam core, and garden netting are key tools in escape-proofing your home.
Is it advisable to use harnesses or leashes for outdoor time?
Leashes and harnesses are a great way to keep cats safe while allowing them the fun and enrichment of outdoor time.
What should I do if my cat does escape?
Search nearby and ask neighbors to help because most lost cats are found hiding close to home. Put food and water in a safe area and monitor the spot with a motion-sensitive camera.
How can I prevent my cat from becoming anxious or bored, leading to escape attempts?
Enrichment with catios, toys, food puzzles, playtime, and vertical climbing options all help keep cats happy and engaged.
Should I consider spaying or neutering my cat to reduce the desire to roam?
Spaying and neutering may make some cats less likely to wander away from your home and around the neighborhood, but it does not have this effect on all cats.
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Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.