The first time you let your precious cat go out on their own is a nerve-wracking moment, but there are things you can do to make sure that all goes to plan.
No doubt about it, letting your cat go out on their own for the very first time is a challenging moment.
How can you let that lovable ball of fur out of your sight at all? Let alone into the great unknown of the far end of your garden, other people’s gardens… and who knows where else?
I’ve had cats my whole life and they have all been outdoor cats, able to come and go as they please during the day. But when we got our cat Rita a few years ago, I still found it daunting to let her out on her own for her first time. It had been many years since I had taken that initial leap of faith and I couldn’t quite remember how I had done it.
Eventually, we took the plunge and off she went… out of sight… Had we done enough training? Did she know where her home is? Within about three minutes we were panicking and calling her name in the neighbours’ gardens.
Of course, we hadn’t just opened the door, let her out, and hoped for the best! We had spent time building up to it and making sure it went smoothly and there are many things you can do in the weeks beforehand, as well as on the day itself.
Linda Ryan, a certified animal behaviourist with a wealth of experience working with leading feline organisations, certainly sympathises with how nerve-wracking it is to let your cat out for the first time.
“It’s so scary and I totally empathise with anybody going through it,” she said.But she explains that with the right planning and approach you can have confidence about it.
Get your cat used to coming in and out the cat flap.
The right age
The first thing to consider is your cat’s age. It’s not safe or appropriate to let an eight-week-old kitten outside on their own. “They can’t look after themselves, they’re just babies,” says Linda. Cats need to be at least in their adolescent phase, which can be around the four-to-seven-month period, depending on the breed, she explained.
“Then of course they’re old enough to have full physical ability and the cognitive processes to look after themselves,” says Linda.
And even if your cat is well beyond the kitten stage — perhaps you have rehomed an adult cat or you have moved with an established cat to a new area — keep them inside for at least a month and do all you can to make life indoors fun, so you can get them attached to their new home.
Linda strongly advises against letting any cat out before they are neutered. “They need to be neutered because neutered cats are much less likely to roam and go mate-seeking. The range in territory is so much smaller in a neutered animal.”
In addition, they need to be vaccinated, flea-treated, wormed and chipped, and have a snap-safe collar on with their details, so that if they do go astray, they can be returned to you. It’s also a good idea to let your nearby neighbours know that your cat is about to start going out and ask them not to talk to her or feed her so that she doesn’t get confused about where her home is.
Cats will enjoy heading out.
Before your cat’s first outing, make sure the area immediately outside the cat flap is cat friendly. Don’t leave them exposed. Cats like to be able to hide away from things that startle them or when they are unsure, so position a few pots and planters and some garden furniture around the area.
You could also consider making a safe, temporary confined area outside, immediately around the back door so that they can explore without the risk of going too far for their first few excursions.
It’s also important to make sure that you don’t let them out at dawn and dusk and certainly don’t let them out when it’s dark because their instinctive hunting behaviours will kick in and they may get distracted too easily.
Linda advises preparing the outside world for them by leaving some tasty treats just outside the back door. The purpose of this is to make them pause for a moment as you want them to take note of their surroundings. While they’re munching the treats and doing some post-snack grooming, they’re also getting their bearings and noticing the sights, sounds, and smells of the area just outside the door. Linda recommends then calling them back inside and giving another treat inside.
“You could practise that three. four or five times so that they’re learning and thinking ‘I go out and come in and go out and go in.’ They can take their time and have a look around, it’s not scary and it’s fun to come back in again,” says Linda.
You can do this every day for a week so that they really get the hang of it before widening the area they explore.
Practise your cat’s recall in the house, always rewarding them with a treat.
Once that is all taken care of it’s important to put a plan in place to get your cat ready for going out and make sure everything you do is fun and encouraging for your cat.
“Because I’m a trainer in addition to being a behaviourist, I would always say teach a really strong recall — make that part of your fun activities that you’re working on in the time before you let your cat out,” says Linda. “You want to be able to call your cat from anywhere in the house and they drop what they’re doing and come running to you. And you want that mega strong before you ever consider letting them outside because that can save their lives.”
You can do this by giving them a treat when they have responded to your call. This can be a tasty morsel, but it can also be a fun game. It’s important to never ever trick your cat and not give them the treat when you call them.
“Always think about positive reinforcement. So, if we’re teaching a recall, we want them to know, guaranteed every time for the rest of your life, that if I call you there will be something you love, a lovely game or some lovely cheese, or whatever,” says Linda. And keep it up once they’re in the swing of going out. Don’t call them in and give them nothing when they come home, otherwise they may learn that it’s not worth responding to your call.
During the indoor training phase, think about the area just inside the cat flap. It needs to be a place that they want to return to. Linda suggests that before they ever step a paw outside you regularly call them to this area to be fed. “That way they really get used to coming to the inside of the cat flap and getting fed, so it’s a wonderful place to be.”
Getting them used to the cat flap.
Letting them go
Eventually, there comes a day when you are no longer supervising and you take that leap of faith and let them simply go and be a cat.
Animal behaviourist and regular contributor to Your Cat Professor Peter Neville suggests making sure that when you do finally let them off on their own that you don’t do it immediately after they have eaten but wait until they are expecting a meal soon. Being a bit peckish could concentrate the mind if they are busy chasing an interesting leaf and they realise dinner is being served.
Peter also suggests that you associate calling them for meals with a sound such as a bell or tapping the dish with a spoon rather than calling their name. That way there is a distinct dinner call, which may be more compelling for them than just the chance to spend some time with you.
He explains that kittens (and puppies) have a period in their early weeks when they are fearless and anything they encounter during that time is taken pretty much in their stride and gets filed away under ‘that’s what the world is like.’ However, things they encounter after that period — such as going outside — can be potentially frightening.
“The cat is already
pre-programmed to be reactive, suspicious, perhaps even afraid of what’s outside,” says Peter. So, it’s important to take that into account and make sure that they have an easy route back indoors if they want to retreat to safety in a hurry. Eventually though, they will start to explore, build their confidence, and venture further out.
But how do they recognise home? Sights, sounds, and smells are part of it, but cats also sense things through their paws. “There is this thing about cats being sensitive to the vibrations in the ground. So, if there is a road, traffic going past, the cat feels that and that’s part of the way he maps his territory,” says Peter.
Ultimately, you must trust your training and trust your cat. Linda says: “A lot is hugely out of our control. We can only do our best to set them up for success and then cross our fingers.”
As for our Rita on her first trip out… after about five minutes of anxious waiting, we saw her trotting happily along the fence towards us having had her first solo experience of the outside world. What a relief and a joy to see her enjoying her time outside but also wanting to come home to us.