The Cat at the Window

Why do cats like to look out of the window--and what can you do to ensure it is enriching, not frustrating, for them?

Why do cats like to look out of the window, like this pretty white cat with a red collar? Windows provide important enrichment and there are ways you can improve them from the cat's perspective.
Photo: Diane N. Ennis / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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I think all cats like windows. Even outdoors cats will still spend time sitting on a window ledge, watching the world outside. For indoor cats, windows become even more important. Since cats that live exclusively indoors can easily become bored or frustrated, it is important to provide environmental enrichment for them.

The five pillars of a healthy feline environment include providing safe spaces for cats, and a safe space with a view outdoors is a great place for cats to spend their time.

Windows as enrichment for cats

In a review of enrichment practices, Sarah Ellis (2009) says that windows with an interesting view provide important visual enrichment for cats. Of course, it’s what the cat finds interesting that counts. It’s possible that being unable to reach or interact with things on the other side of the window could cause frustration.

As with any enrichment practice, you have to take the cat’s perspective.

How long do cats spend looking out of windows?

Some cats seem to spend a lot of time by the window, while others don't so much. In a survey of 577 cats by Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, caregivers reported that their cats spent less than five hours a day at the window, with the median time reported as two hours. So on average, pet cats spend 2 hours a day at the window.

This doesn’t surprise me, since even an indoor cat will have other activities to keep her busy: napping, grooming, playing with toys, sitting on someone’s lap or next to them on the settee while they watch tv, interacting with fellow cats and any other pets in the home, and so on. I was surprised to read that almost 16% of the cats were reported as spending more than five hours a day looking out of the window.

Does your cat like to look out of the window? Here's what they look at, and why they like to spend time there

This study also asked what the cats did at the window. The most common activity was watching birds, small wildlife or foliage. Reported less often, but still common, were watching other cats, people, vehicles and insects.

This is useful information since it helps us work out what will provide visual enrichment, from the cats’ point of view; it suggests that they would prefer a green outlook that is attractive to birds and other wildlife.

How to make windows interesting for your cat

There are several ways you can make windows more interesting for your cat. If you feed the birds in winter, you could position a bird table in sight of the window so the cat can watch birds coming to feed. A bird bath would also encourage birds to come. Hummingbird feeders placed appropriately could also give your cat something interesting to watch.

In summer, if there is a window close to an outside light, you could put the outside light on at dusk and leave the curtains open for a while. The cat can watch the moths and other insects that are attracted to the light. My cats love this and one of them will even come to find me if I have forgotten to turn the light on for him. He leaps up at the window trying to catch insects on the other side, so it’s a great game for him and gives him some exercise as well.

"The most common activity was watching birds, small wildlife or foliage."

Another idea is to make sure that cats have a choice of windows, or to let them use a window ledge that is high up, since cats like to be in an elevated position. And if the window can be safely left open, the cat can enjoy the scents that drift in on the breeze - cats have amazing noses.

Catios and playtents for cats

In addition to windows, catios can be another way of giving your cats an interesting view. Since they are often made of mesh or wire, smells can waft in, even more so than through a window. Depending on the layout of your house, it may be possible to convert a porch into a safely enclosed catio, or to build a catio with access via a cat flap. Make sure your catio is strong enough to protect your cat from potential predators. 

Remember to think about providing shade on hot days, and (if you live in a cold climate), whether you need to provide warmth in winter. You can also make good use of vertical space within the catio by providing walkways and shelves, so even a small space can make a successful catio. If you want to build one, a local woodworker may be able to help, but you can also buy self-assembly catios, such as the Trixie Outdoor Cat Sanctuary or Trixie Outdoor Cat Run

Another option is a cat tunnel and tent designed for outdoor use, that will allow your cat some safe pace outside. Since these are typically not permanent structures, like a catio, it's best if you are there to supervise while your cat uses their tent or tunnel. Options include the Outback Jack Kitty Compound or the Kittywalk Outdoor Net Cat Enclosure

Windows as enrichment

Ultimately, then, windows can be useful enrichment for cats, especially those that are indoors-only. 

If you want to provide extra enrichment for your cat, you will find lots of enrichment ideas here. It is a great idea to give your cat food toys, provide different scented items such as catnip and silver vine, and make sure they have a good scratching post.  

For more tips on how to have a happy cat, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!"

Does your cat spend much time at the window? What does your cat like to watch?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Ellis, S. (2009) Environmental enrichment: Practical strategies for improving feline welfare. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 901-912.
Shyan-Norwalt, M.R. (2005) Caregiver perceptions of what indoor cats do “for fun”. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 8(3), 199-209.

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