Your City Kitty Survival Guide: 16 Expert Cat Tips and Tricks
This article was published as part of a partnership with Zipcar’s online magazine Ziptopia.
It’s an established fact that cats rule the internet. And—if you’ve got ‘em—you know they rule your home, too. Mercifully, no matter how big (or microscopic) your city-living quarters are, cats are always a great fit.
That said, there are still tons of tips and toys that can make cohabitation easier for everyone involved. After more than a decade living comfortably with two kitties in a one-bedroom apartment (and with the help of several knowledgeable cat friends and experts), I’m psyched to share these 16 tried-and-true ways to keep city felines happy, healthy, active, eco-friendly, and entertained (and your own possessions clean and safe, too).
1. Make sure your landlord or realtor is OK with cats.
This is a pretty obvious point, but an important one. Whether you’re apartment-hunting or already settled in, your cats are gonna need the stamp of approval from appropriate higher-ups. (Lucky for them, they won’t need to get credit checks or pony up first and last month’s rent.)
This is essential not just to ensure that your fuzziest family member can stay for good, but also so in the event of any maintenance work, the workers know to mind the door (and keep it closed as much as possible) so your precious furball doesn’t make a run for it.
Do any of your housemates or apartment-building mates also have cats? If so, it's super convenient to team up and exchange info, so you can feed and help take care of each other's kitties when you’re away. (Cat owners are also really, really cool. It’s an indisputable fact, you don’t have to look it up.) Neither of you will have to go out of your way to pitch in, since you already live in the same place. (City living’s great like that.)
LA-based comedian and cat lover Jake Weisman (whose mini panthers have been featured in popular—and hilariously relatable—Twitter and BuzzFeed videos) agrees, with an additional tip: “It’s important to have a circle of cat-sitter friends for when you go out of town. Also, when you reciprocate, you get to take care of and spend time with other cats. Win-win!”
Frankly, cats aren’t quite as street savvy as we are. Critters living in the city have a significantly higher chance of being hurt or killed if they venture outside. However, they’re intrigued by motion and smell, so a securely screened window (aka Cat TV) can give them a taste of the outdoors and provide hours of entertainment for watching birds, squirrels, trees, cars, and pedestrians. (Don’t have a screen or need to shut the window for heat or the AC? Just pull aside the curtains or blinds; a closed window will do just fine.)
If your windowsill is wide enough, it can provide a perfect, built-in surface. But if your cat needs more space, the experts at Modern Cat magazine suggest installing a window perch, made just for kitties. This model is minimal, can accommodate two cats, and attaches via sturdy suction cups—ideal if you aren’t allowed to make permanent changes to the walls of your rental.
Another option is to adapt your existing furniture and make even better use of limited space. For example, I have a table that is primarily for my cats to access the window above it…but it’s also useful for the cats’ feeders and water bowl to nestle below, out of the walkway. Chairs, cabinets, stools, filing cabinets, low bookshelves, and benches work just as well.
4. Microchip your kitty.
If your cat doesn’t go outdoors (see previous point), it probably doesn’t wear a collar. However, despite your best efforts, the more adventurous cat may still manage to escape. To make a happy reunion all the more likely, have your kitty outfitted with a microchip. The tiny—but critical—tech can be implanted during a routine visit to the vet, without anesthesia. (If you’re adopting from a shelter, it’s often included as part of the whole package.) It hurts only as much as a typical vaccination, lasts a lifetime, and can be scanned at a shelter or vet to reveal a unique ID number that—through a registered database—can connect kitty back to (a hugely relieved) you.
5. Bring the outdoors in.
Whether or not you have any greenery in your city dwelling (if you do, make sure all plants are non-toxic to your fuzzy ones), there’s still space for a touch of the great outdoors for kitty, even if your place is the size of a shoebox. (Coincidentally, cats love hanging out in shoeboxes.)
Cat grass is a fun, natural, fiber-filled treat that—lucky for you—is a cinch to grow and maintain, without impacting your square footage. My kitties love snacking on this small, simple kit, which includes pockets of organic oats, wheat, rye, and barley, all in affordable, replaceable refills that you can pop in when you need new plantings. Modern Cat magazine adds, “Catnip gardens are great for indoor cats! There are a number of easy kits you can buy that make a small, cat-friendly indoor garden for your cat.”
In addition to munchables, cats also need steady access to hydration. Keep nearby water on tap in a bowl like this; its rubber “moat” ensures that even if it gets tipped, pushed, or sloshed around, the H2O won’t make it onto your floors and damage them.
6. Automate morning meals.
Speaking of snacking…anyone with a cat has been woken up by a cat. At an ungodly hour. In an ungodly way.
Whether meowing endlessly (sorry, next-door tenants, for the unwelcome wake-up calls), scratching up the door to your bedroom (goodbye, security deposit!), or scooting empty food bowls around the floor (apologies, downstairs neighbors), when your cats are hungry, they will let you (and anyone else nearby) KNOW it.
Thankfully, the most advanced minds of our time created this essential tool: the automatic digital feeder. Load it up with breakfast before you hit the hay, and your fuzzy buns will be all set to chow down before the sun (and you) might rise. The digital aspect to this marvel is key; it ensures that your kitties stay on a proper timetable (turn-dial ones aren’t nearly as precise) so they won’t bug you if their delectable feasts are a few minutes late. (Yes, this happens.)
The digital element also ensures that with multiple devices for multiple cats, the feeders all open at the same time, so the dominant cat doesn’t gobble up everything if the feeders open at separate intervals. (Yes, this also happens.) It’s also super handy for setting up several advance meals at once, if you’re going to be out of the apartment for a day or two, or if you have a cat-sitter who can’t swing by on the daily.
The best part: These feeders are built like tanks, so your cat can’t knock ‘em around or upside down, keeping the food in, the neighbors unbothered, and your sanity intact.
7. Keep smells under wraps.
On the opposite end of the feeding spectrum: litter boxes!
When you live in an apartment, you likely don't have a spare room exclusively for your cat's potty set-up...which means their bathroom is somewhere in your living quarters. (How fun for us.) Fortunately, there are some super slick, somewhat compact—and covered!—options on the market, including this futuristic dome (with a replaceable carbon filter in the roof) that I’ve dubbed “the spaceship.” (Yes, I gave my litter box a nickname. No shame.)
If you want to save space even further, there are a number of covered litter box choices (like this functional bench) that blend with your décor all the more. No matter what your litter box looks like, keeping smells and litter inside the box where they belong is a city-living lifesaver. You’ll breathe easier for sure (and so will the city dwellers who share your hallway). Trust me.
8. Bag it up.
Getting the right covered litter box is just one part of the equation. There’s also the task of emptying it.
Many cities now have plastic bag bans, which place a fee when you purchase one from the grocery store. Since you're hopefully being a super-green shopper and bringing reusable bags anyway, this means you're paying for plastic grocery bags…just to dispose of cat poop. This is especially wasteful because you only need about a third of each plastic bag for kitty litter cleanout. (Note: If your cleanout bags are filled to the brim with pee craters, you should get your kitty to a vet, as this could be a sign of kidney disease, a serious [and sadly common] condition, especially for aging cats.)
Instead of paying for—and throwing away—way more plastic than I need, I use these scented, biodegradable diaper bags. They're the perfect small size, so you're not being as wasteful, and the handles make it super easy to tie up before disposing, for even better odor reduction. They come in a compact box (far preferable to a stockpile of plastic bags under the sink, which adds to more apartment clutter), and the scent helps neutralize odors, so your trashcan (which should also be covered!) won't stink up your whole apartment. One box goes a looooong way—I've only had to order one box per year for two cats.
9. Fall into a black hole.
If you're renting, you know you need to keep your floors in great shape. (Don't wanna lose that security deposit!). This Blackhole Cat Litter Mat is genius. Place it under your litter box and it captures any stray litter bits that your kitty may kick or walk out. Every now and then, you lift it up, separate the two layers, and shake the collected litter grains loose, right back into the litter box.
This process keeps your floors from being worn down by errant litter granules, keeps yourself from walking on stray litter (which—if you live in a small space—will track all over your place), and preserves more of the litter to be used later, rather than simply swept or vacuumed and disposed of—so it cuts down on cost and waste, too.
10. Think vertical.
Cats love climbing and chilling at high levels. Unfortunately, if you rent an apartment, you may not be able to install fixtures (aka make holes) in the walls, which means you can't fully "catify" your joint with deluxe shelves, walkways, and perches. (But if you’re allowed to, jump on it! As Modern Cat magazine says, “Floating mounted shelves can increase the space your cats have to tear around the room—and there are some amazingly gorgeous ones that look super cool, too!”)
Whether or not you can get shelf-happy, you can still think vertical, whether it's leaving space open on desks and tables, or using bookends to keep books in place on only part of a shelf, while leaving some pockets open for cat lounging. (Note that anything fragile on any surface WILL get knocked over…so keep important breakables in spots that are inaccessible to curious paws, like in display cases or cabinets.)
Also be mindful of how you arrange furniture, as you can create “steps” for your kitty to go safely from one item to another (say, from a low cabinet to a taller dresser), especially if one perch would otherwise be too tall to jump to without an intermediary. Modern Cat magazine adds, “Use what you have during playtime. Have your cat chase a toy all over your couch and your bed—wherever there are new levels for your cat to play.”
11. Create spaces within spaces.
Just as much as cats love going up, up, up, they also adore squeezing and snoozing in little nooks and crannies closer to the ground. Many of these options are already part of your apartment set-up, or can be easily integrated with minimal impact on your furniture’s footprint. Modern Cat magazine recommends pieces like the hammock-esque Cat Crib, which can “repurpose your existing furniture by turning the area under a side table or chair into a cozy cat lounge.”
Pop-culture blogger (and frequent cat photographer and joke writer) Anne T. Donahue can attest to this. “Some of my cat’s favorite spots include a tiny basket under a chair, the lower level of his super-small cylindrical cat tree, any shoebox, atop a coat, and a shelf in the linen closet.”
12. Make it scratchy.
Chances are, you proooobably don't have a ton of extra furniture lying around. And if your cat's indoors, you don't have trees nearby for him or her to scratch away. A great cat scratcher is thus all the more important to keep your city kitty from ripping the living daylights out of your essential couches and chairs.
Modern Cat magazine shares a classic: “While they may not be the longest lasting, corrugated cardboard scratchers are great, and most cats love them. Once they have reached their limit of use, they can be recycled with normal cardboard recycling.”
My fave? The Purrfect Post. It comes in a boatload of sizes—some with chunky perches—and since both the base and post are covered, it satisfies your felines’ need to scratch both horizontally and vertically. Best of all, the post twists into the base, so when one part wears out (the post much more likely so), you can just reorder that component and replace it, rather than buying the whole dang thing over again.
13. Create a (temporary) playground.
Whether a kitten, young’un, or senior, your cat is gonna get busy with at least some playtime throughout the day (and night). For a space-squeezed homestead, Modern Cat magazine recommends “tall cat towers, which are always favorites. They give lots of places to play and jump and explore, but don’t take up a lot of the floor space.”
You can also create a playground of the temporary variety. Boxes from packages you’ve just received are always a hit, though, inevitably, those are going away with the next recycling pickup. That’s where the ingenious Ripple Rug comes in. Made in the U.S. of 24 recycled plastic bottles (so eco), it’s comprised of two scratchable mats. The bottom one (with a nonslip underside) is the base, and the top one has hidey holes and Velcro tabs a plenty. Lay ‘em out and layer them, by using the top mat’s holes and Velcro to create tunnels and caves.
Each time you use it, you can set it up differently (making it all the more novel for your fuzzy ones), and the holes can be easily sliced to create more space if your kitty’s on the tubbier side and has trouble squeezing through. Best of all, when playtime’s over (or you, y’know, need the space), the Ripple Rug folds up into a compact 16x18x2.5 (smaller and flatter than a couch cushion).
14. Take cats to toy town.
While you’ll always want some toys accessible for entertainment, for the most part, cats enjoy their playthings in phases. That’s why I suggest putting some toys away after a few weeks, or soon after a kitty seems to lose interest. (My kitties particularly dig these fake hairbands [they can choke on real ones, so these keep ‘em occupied and safer], mylar crinkle balls, plastic lattice balls, and kickers.) After you've stored the toys for a while, release them back into the apartment. Your cat will go nuts all over again—especially if you store the goodies in a container with some catnip. ;)
This method helps cut down on clutter, as well as wear and tear of the toys. That said, do dispose of and replace toys that are clearly on their last legs, especially if they create small parts that cats can choke on, like the plastic nose, eyes, or under-the-fur-body of a toy mouse, after it's been chewed to smithereens.
15. Don’t get into a hairy situation.
Unless you have a hairless breed, your kitty is going to shed. And if you have a small place, there's not a lot of space for stray fur to go...so it will accumulate. Beat back some of the hairy mess (and upchucked hairballs) with a must-have cat brush—it's enjoyable for kitties to experience, and super easy for you to use—plus keep a Magik Brush on hand to keep your clothes and any fabric furniture fuzz-free. (It lasts longer and is way more green than a traditional adhesive lint brush with disposable strips.)
Another tip: Place pillowcases or a thermal cat mat on particular surfaces (hard or soft) where you either want to cut down on fur build-up or encourage kitties to roost (rather than, say, on top of your computer keyboard). You can throw the fabric in the wash or wipe it off with the Magik Brush, keeping nicer surfaces (like a good chair) more fresh and clean, without having to kick your cats off their favorite nesting spots.
16. Go on a #ziptrip.
As much as your cat’s world exists within your apartment, there’s also the outdoors to contend with…at least from time to time. If you’re picking up a cat for adoption (congrats!), going to the vet (hope everything’s OK!), or housing it at a kennel or with friends while you're on vacation (have a great time!), give Zipcar a spin.
Kitties can be easily spooked by public transit (strange smells, sounds, people, and movements) and if you can’t grab a seat, it’s enormously stressful (and difficult) to balance on a packed—and moving—subway or bus with one hand, while simultaneously trying to clutch 10+ pounds of a scared carrier-enclosed kitty in the other.
Zipcar eliminates all of that stress for both you and your fuzzy one, can often make the trip itself far shorter, and makes the whole experience a heckuva lot more comfortable. As long as you use a carrier, you are good to go! Zipcat!
Allison Tanenhaus is a Boston-based cat mom of two. In addition to working for Zipcar, she designs cat-themed apparel and products, posts cat-centric street art in various cities, and often tweets cat jokes (one of which made a BuzzFeed listicle). Cats!