Cat looking at door

Q. My cat tries to dash out the door every time it opens. He used to be an outdoor cat, but we've decided that it’s no longer safe to let him roam. How can I teach him to be comfortable staying in the house?  

A. Keeping your cat indoors can increase his life span, help protect him from infectious diseases and parasites, and shelter him from a gamut of other outdoor hazards, including predators, cars, toxins and the risk of being lost or stolen. With proper planning and some simple training, you can prevent door dashing and provide a stimulating inside environment for your cat.

Replace Dashing with Perching

One of the easiest ways to stop door dashing is to train your cat to station on a perch. Start by teaching him to follow a target, such as a wooden spoon, with his nose. Hold the target out in front of his nose and mark any movement at all toward the target with a verbal “good” or a click; immediately reward with a treat or toy. Work toward getting your cat to touch his nose to the end of the target.

Over time, move the target further distances and over small obstacles, such as a cat bed or the couch. Eventually, the target stick can be brought up to the perching area for your cat to follow. Some cats will automatically come to your hand if you move your fingers around, tapping the surface of the perch while using an excited voice, but you can also use a feather toy to lure your cat onto the perch if needed.    

Once your cat is on the perch, reward him for laying down or sitting. Step a small distance away and if he stays in place, reward him on the perch. If he jumps off the perch, move a shorter distance next time. Remember to keep all training sessions short to keep your feline interested. 

Practice Perching on Command

Once your cat readily follows the target to his station and stays in place, add a word such as “place” one to two seconds before you present the target. Adding the verbal command teaches your cat to go to his perch solely in response to the word. Fade your target by presenting it further away from the perch or by making it smaller. Once your cat performs the behavior entirely in response to the verbal command, gradually move yourself further away from the perch when you give the cue. Practice until your cat responds, even when you are standing next to the door.

Next, have your cat practice staying on the perch while the door opens. At first, you may only turn the knob slightly, without actually opening the door. Reward him for staying in place. Then open the door a crack and reward him for staying. Work up to having your cat stay on his perch even when the door is fully opened. If your cat jumps off his perch, shut the door immediately, reset him on the perch and try again. 

Once your cat jumps to his perch on cue and waits while you open the door, it’s time to practice the behavior as you come from outside to inside. Ask your cat to station and open the door, reward your cat on the perch with a treat, pet or toy as you are walking out, and then leave temporarily. When you come back, ask your cat to station as soon as you crack the door open. It may be helpful to have someone inside to guide your cat, as sometimes the jump from asking a cat to station when you’re inside to asking him to do the same when you’re on the other side of the door can be a big leap. Your goal is to have your cat target his area both when you leave and when you return. Be sure to practice with all members of your family. 

Make the Indoors a Fun Place to Be

Another way to keep your cat from dashing for the open door is to bring the excitement of the outdoors inside. Provide your cat with ample opportunities for exploration and play; think vertically in terms of cat perches, cat trees or even cat shelving to expand his space without having to increase the square footage of your house. Give your cat a variety of places to venture as well, such as cat tunnels, covered beds or even simple cardboard boxes. 

Cats spend a great deal of their waking time in pursuit of food, which is often distributed daily in the food bowl. Add spice to your cat’s life by hiding 10 percent of his daily ration in random places around your house (including on his perches) for him to find. Place treats or kibble in food puzzles, or freeze chunks of meat, such as tuna, in an ice cube tray with water to make meals and snacks a little more work. Grow cat-safe house plants, which can be found at specialty pet stores, to provide your cat with an opportunity to graze during the day. Single-cat homes with a cat-friendly feline may also benefit from adding a second cat to provide companionship.

A perch mounted on a windowsill allows your cat to sun himself and watch outdoor activity, such as birds, and gives him a small taste of the outdoors while keeping him safely contained. A Catio, which is netting and perches that allow your cat to be outdoors while safely held inside, serves the same purpose. Cat fencing gives your cat freedom to roam while keeping him safe from cars; however, he's still vulnerable to predators, such as large birds of prey or other cats (and the diseases they carry), so there is a risk involved.   

Finally, be sure to microchip your cat, which gives you the best chance of recovering him should he ever take advantage of an open door and escape.