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Can indoor cats really be happy? Cat lovers can -- and do -- maintain vehemently opposed opinions on this issue. But you can't disagree with the fact that the free-roaming life can be dangerous for a cat.

My friends who let their cats roam free have had their pets run over by cars (too many times to count), pulled apart by dogs (once), by coyotes (twice) and poisoned (a half-dozen times, most times accidentally but at least once suspiciously). And those are just the deaths they know about. Mostly, my friends' cats just disappear, with sad and frequent regularity.

Such tragedies don't happen to indoor cats, who are statistically likely to outlive free-roaming cats by a about a decade. Compared to an existence filled with cars, foxes, traps, poisons and cat-hating neighbors, the life of an indoor cat is relatively risk-free.

Still, keeping a cat inside is more difficult, both in terms of the time spent maintaining the animal, and the effort and imagination required to keep the animal mentally and physically happy. But I've seen enough indoor cats to know that they seem perfectly content, especially if they've never been allowed to roam.

Since you've taken away a large part of the cat's natural world when you keep them inside, you need to put in "environmental enrichments" to make up for the loss. If you're going to have an indoor cat, you need to think about ways to make your home more entertaining to your cat, engaging as many senses as possible.

Your first investment should be a cat tree, a place for your pet to scratch, climb, perch and generally feel superior to the beings below. Cats love to scratch -- it keeps their claws sharp, gives them a good stretch and allows them to mark their territory with scent. With patience, most cats can be trained to use a cat tree or post instead of furniture.

Next up: toys. You'll need an interactive toy you can use to play with your cat, such as a "fishing" pole. Add some toys for batting around, such as small stuffed animals or balls with bells in them. You don't even need to spend money: Cats can be kept entertained with empty boxes or shopping bags, corks from wine bottles or the tops of milk containers.

Don't forget to jazz up the scent of toys with catnip or valeria, both of which you can grow yourself, so you'll always have a fresh supply. And while you're planting, be sure to keep fresh grasses growing for your cat's nibbling pleasure.

You can also work on ways to give your cat safe access to the outdoors, such as with a cat door into a screened-in porch. You can also buy kits for portable outdoor pens, completed with tunnels for connecting to the house. I know of several people who have put together some grand outdoor spaces, including a two-story enclosure clinging to the side of the house with areas for climbing, sunbathing and hiding. These needn't be expensive, especially if you're a capable do-it-yourselfer.

Yes, it's hard to convert a free-roaming cat to a life indoors. If your cat is used to coming and going when he pleases, conversion is best done when you move, rather than suddenly restricting your cat's territory -- a change no self-respecting cat will quietly accept. But if you're patient and firm, even the most stubborn of cats will eventually adapt.

When my friends tell me they simply cannot keep their cats inside, I say this: The next time one of your free- roaming cats disappears, promise me that the next one will be kept safe inside. Just try it, and see how it works.

Whatever a cat loses by not roaming free he'll gain from the pleasures you can pack in your home. And he'll really benefit from the long, healthy life enjoyed by so many indoor cats.

Bark back: Do you have suggestions for making life better for your indoor cat? Let me know!

If you have a digital image (jpeg, please) of your pet, send that along as well, to