Downtime

My Cats Only Sleep Outside. How Should I Transition Them Indoors?

I’m worried about their safety.

A cat peeks out nervously from a tent, biting the edge of the flap.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

Two kittens bumbled into our backyard and our lives last summer, and what started out as my little project to make sure they got some food and got neutered—through our SPCA’s trap-and-release program—turned into something bigger. Now my husband and I have two cats.

They’re socializing well and they come inside a lot, even to sit on the couch and snuggle with us. They’ve been to the vet and had all their shots and get monthly flea treatments. For now, they sleep in a little heated tent on our deck, which they took to immediately and treat as their home base. But I would like to transition them to being indoors more. We’re aiming to at least bring them inside at night to keep them safer and so they won’t have to deal with temperature extremes. Do you have any tips on making this transition a smooth one? We’re considering installing a cat flap to see if that makes them more comfortable. Would moving their tent inside as part of their move be a good idea?

—Cats Under a Cold Tin Roof

Dear Cats Under a Cold Tin Roof,

Welcoming strange beings into your life is a scary proposition, so allow me to commend these cats for their bravery. Humans can be unpredictable and messy, but they’ve found two adoptees who possess great demeanors and a willingness to learn. It’s a perfect match.

You and your husband deserve praise as well. The strays may have adopted you, but you’ve accepted the responsibility of keeping them healthy and safe with compassion and patience. By the sound of it, you’ve done a swell job so far. I’m sure the cats feel the same, even if they’re too busy glamping in their heated tent to tell you so.

If you feel totally ready to keep the cats under your roof at night, then, by all means, go for it. “It’s certainly safer for the cats to be indoors at night,” certified animal behaviorist Mikel Delgado says. “There’s more risk of injury and other wildlife [encounters] during the dark hours.”

To habituate them to being inside, Delgado says it’s all about creating a welcoming environment that they will enjoy—especially since there will be more than one cat in the home. “Make sure there are enough resources for the cats to use,” she tells me. “That means multiple feeding dishes, multiple litter boxes, vertical space, things that they can climb, places to sleep.”

The tent you’ve pitched is a clear example of the kindness you’ve shown to these cats, but you don’t have to restructure some of your own indoor living space to accommodate this edifice. If it creates needless clutter, feel free to keep it on the deck. The cats will deal.

As with the tent, the cat flap isn’t necessary to facilitate a smooth transition. “I’m more of a cold-turkey person. Once they get used to the cat flap, great, but then that will have to change,” Delgado says. “If they truly want the cats indoors at night, then they should just rip the Band-Aid off.” In the long run, it will be less of a hassle than pitching a tent inside or punching a hole in your door.

Speaking of hassles, be prepared to deal with two cranky and put-upon cats at first. “They’re going to protest for a few days because of the change of routine, but that won’t mean they won’t adjust,” Delgado says. It is key that you ignore this behavior, because they will interpret any response—even if it’s just telling them to shut up—as encouragement to meow and whine even more. “Cats are very good at manipulating humans,” Delgado says. And how.

This is a big move, both for you and the cats, so now is the time to consider everything that this change in accommodations will entail. Because once you decide to upend their nighttime routine, it’s up to you to stay the course. “If these people have decided that this is the safest option for these cats,” Delgado says, “then they should just jump in and do it.”

The move may be difficult initially, but if you get them on a routine and make them feel comfortable in their environment, then the cats should warm up to the new digs. They may stay outside all day, but they’ll be happy to call your house their home at night. They adopted you for a reason, after all.