Wild Ideas: Entertaining the indoor cat with cat TV

Entertaining a cat can be not only cheap, but easy. All you need is aluminum foil, a throw rug or two and windows — or what I think of as cat TV.

I’ve been fostering a little cat for RappCats. Although estimated to be four- to six-years-old, Golda — a small female — weighed only 3.5 pounds when she was rescued. After months under a vet’s care and on a healthy diet, she’s up to almost six pounds, a good weight for her small frame.

Golda watching cat TV — a window giving a good view of wildlife in the author’s yard.
Golda watching cat TV — a window giving a good view of wildlife in the author’s yard. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

A pretty little cat who obviously was used to attention from humans at some point in her life, Golda was quite wild when she was rescued. Although still skittish, in the months she’s been staying with me, she’s relaxed and warmed up remarkably. She loves to be rubbed and is learning that my every move is not a threat; she now actively seeks me out when I’m home.

Although I have had quite a few cats over the years, having one has become problematic for me. All my life, my cats were strays or rescues that were quite used to, and adamant about, being outside, which was normal for cats when I was a kid. However, as a conservationist, I’ve increasingly become aware of the toll cats can take on wildlife.

Unlike dogs, which have a more wide-ranging diet, cats need fresh meat every day. Feral cats and many strays aren’t neutered or spayed, and are prolific breeders. It’s not hard to do the math on how much wildlife the wild cat population needs to kill to survive — when they do have the skills, and many do not. Although cats are born with the instinct to hunt, they generally learn from their mothers the skills necessary to be effective hunters. Cats born in captivity are usually taken from their mothers before they hone those skills, so many never become effective enough hunters to survive in the wild.

While the hunting ability of my cats has varied, they’ve all been avid hunters. When I was a little kid, the family cat regularly took long hunting trips to the field down the street from our tract house in Fairfax. Another cat we had was so intent on cleaning out the nest of a pair of mockingbirds in a holly bush next to our house every spring that the birds systematically poked a hole into her head. We ended up confining the cat during the birds’ nesting period.

A Wyoming stray I took on not only cleaned out an infestation of mice in the old farm house I’d just moved into — which did not hurt the environment and made me happy — but went on to deplete the populations of grasshoppers and other wildlife in the yard.

My last cat, a 17-pound Maine coon, came with a spinal injury that limited his ability to jump, so he never went after birds. But he was death for small mammals, from voles and mice to rats and even small rabbits. Like most well-fed domestic cats, he was just as likely to bring his catches into the house to play with (and let loose when he became bored) as to perform any real pest-removal service.

While I’ve gotten pretty cold-blooded about the nonnative house mice that met their doom in the jaws of my cats, the native wildlife are another issue. They have an important place in the environment — if nothing else, to serve as food for other wildlife. My cats were well fed and didn’t need to hunt. Beyond the issue of food, life can be really hard and brutal for cats in the wild, who can easily fall prey to other predators and to many diseases and parasites.

Golda at rest, after a full schedule of cat TV, ball swatting and rug surfing.
Golda at rest, after a full schedule of cat TV, ball swatting and rug surfing. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

With indoor cats, there’s the issue of maintaining a litter box and keeping them entertained enough so they don’t get into mischief (shredding curtains, for example). Fortunately, Golda seems to have no problem amusing herself without tearing up the house. She loves to bat around little balls I make for her out of aluminum foil, as well as play with “store bought” toys. She also thoroughly enjoys rug surfing — racing at full speed, jumping on throw rugs and riding them across the room.

But Golda’s favorite activity, which can keep her entertained quietly for hours, is cat TV: Sitting on a window sill and watching the abundant wildlife in the yard and forest beyond. Even with the window closed, she enjoys the show, but it’s much better with the full audio an open window provides.

During the day, Golda’s favorite shows on cat TV are the bird adventures. Phoebes and wrens that nest on or near the house put on quite a show, often flying so close to the window in search of bugs that she ducks. She also has a fascination with a cottontail that regularly dines in the yard. At night, she will occasionally attempt to “hunt” bugs through the screen; fortunately, she’s not large or enthusiastic enough to damage it.

I find myself occasionally watching Golda watch the wildlife. As with most cats, close proximity to potential prey elicits a bit of involuntary shaking and chirping. While I don’t know the evolutionary purpose of this adaptation (if any), all my cats have done it.

Golda has also proven to be a highly effective mouser, although this service can have its downside. She eats all of what she catches, and most mice carry fleas, which in turn carry tapeworm. Part of my litter box maintenance now involves checking for signs of this parasite.

Although Golda had lived in the wild and is keenly interested in life beyond the window, she shows no interest whatsoever in going out — not surprising after her last experience in the wild. She is now quite content now to stay inside, playing with her toys and rug surfing, getting regular meals and watching cat TV.

Golda is turning into quite the Velcro cat, spending most of her down time in my lap or sleeping next to me. It’s good to see how well a cat can do inside, with the right entertainment. I highly recommend cat TV.

Anyone interested in adopting Golda or any of the other cats at the RappCats’ shelter should contact the organization at 540-987-8099 or rappcats@rappcats.org, or visit rappcats.org.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”