The Cat at the Window

Why do cats like to look out of the window?

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

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.

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 much time does the average domestic cat spend at a window? 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.  

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

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You might also like: How to pet cats and dogs and 5 things to do for your cat today.

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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  1. I live in a basement apt with no windows. How can I help my cats? I feel terrible.

    1. We lived in a basement for several months with our cat, and she displayed signs of increased boredom and stress during that time. What seemed to help was giving her extra attention in several ways. We made sure she got plenty of water and gave her wet food as an occasional treat (she primarily eats dry kibble), to make sure she was well hydrated, and made an extra effort to play with her every night, to give her stimulation and exercise. If there is any kind of view from your entry way, you could also try getting a portable screen or gate so your cats can sit at the door when you are home. Some cats also take well to leash training, which you could use to get them outside. We were renting the basement of a house, so our cat was occasionally allowed to "explore" upstairs, which she seemed to enjoy. Any of these would help, but in the long run, if you're able, it would be best to find a renting situation that was more ideal for your cats.

  2. My cat stares at nothing. Literally. She will hop up on a table by a window and just stare at the curtain, though sometimes she does move it aside to see a big tree right in her field of view. She also likes hopping up onto a sill to a bathroom window that is frosted. She can't see out of it. Why does she do that?

    1. She could just be sleeping with her eyes open...I'm convinced they can do this! Lol x


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