Should cats go outside? It’s a question that stirs up lively debate, on both sides of the argument. In some countries, like the United Kingdom, it’s generally believed that keeping cats strictly indoors is cruel, while here in the U.S. many believe that indoor cats are much safer and healthier than their outdoor counterparts. In 2015, several Australian cities even passed “kitty curfews” that prohibited cats from running wild outdoors – although technically these laws weren’t passed to protect the cats, but to protect several native wildlife species whom the cats preyed upon.
There are pros and cons to both scenarios. So what’s the best option for your kitty? Here are several things to keep in mind when making the decision to either allow your cat to go outside, or to keep him indoors.
Risks To Cats Who Go Outside
Statistically speaking, the numbers are firmly on the side of indoor cats. The average lifespan of an indoor cat averages 10-12 years (or longer), while cats who spend much of their time outdoors have a lifespan of only 2-5 years. This is mainly due to the sheer volume of potentially dangerous situations faced by cats who spend time outside.
These risks include:
- Being hit by a car.
- Being attacked by wild predators, including coyotes (which are found even in urban areas), snakes, hawks, owls, foxes, and if you live in the south, alligators.
- Getting into fights with other cats, which can cause severe injuries and abscesses.
- Being attacked by dogs.
- Exposure to contagious diseases, such as rabies, feline leukemia and FIV, feline distemper, FIP, ringworm, or common herpes viruses that cause upper respiratory and eye infections.
- Picking up and spreading parasites, both external (fleas, ticks, ear mites) and internal (roundworms, tapeworms, giardia, and coccidia).
- Becoming trapped in garages or sheds and being unable to get out.
- Exposure to toxins such as antifreeze and rat poison. Cats who eat a rodent that has consumed rat poison can die.
- Getting stuck in trees. This happens more often than you might think, and cats who become trapped in trees can remain there for days. If they’re not rescued, they can become weak and dehydrated until they eventually fall, causing serious injury or death.
- Exposure to toxic pesticides/herbicides sprayed on lawns and gardens.
- Sunburn and skin cancer (especially in white or light-colored cats).
- Hypothermia/freezing to death.
- Becoming trapped in a leghold trap meant for wildlife.
- Animal cruelty. Sadly, cats who are outdoors are always at risk from humans who wish to harm, poison, torture, even kill them.
Additionally, letting your cat go outside may not be so neighborly. In a suburban area, cats can dig up flowerbeds, stalk and kill songbirds around bird feeders, cause excessive barking in neighborhood dogs, and walk across neighbors’ clean cars with muddy paws. Even if you don’t care what the neighbors think, you certainly wouldn’t want anyone to become angry with your cat just for doing what cats do and retaliate against your cat (or you).
Risks To Keeping Your Cat Indoors
To be fair, confining a cat to the indoors also comes with risks, although they are much less dire than the risks faced by cats who go outside. These include:
- An increased risk of obesity (which can lead to diabetes) due to lack of exercise.
- Boredom, which can cause the cat to engage in destructive behavior like clawing furniture.
- A higher risk of cats in multi-cat households developing territorial aggression issues.
And although it’s certainly not a “risk”, keeping your cat strictly indoors means that you will have to keep multiple litter boxes around, and keep them cleaned regularly. Although no one likes to scoop poop, there is an upside: having access to where your cat does his business every day can alert you to potential health problems like chronic diarrhea and urinary obstructions.
The Best Of Both Worlds
So is there a happy medium, one that allows your cat to be safe inside yet still occasionally enjoy the outdoors with minimal risk?
Fortunately, there is. For cat parents who don’t mind investing the time in training, cats can be harness-trained to walk alongside when you take a walk. A Figure-8 or H-type harness works best for cats, and it needs to fit well – you should be just barely able to get your finger between the cat and the harness. Start off slowly, putting the harness on for just a few minutes at a time (while giving treats or playing with your cat so he associates it with something pleasant), then taking it off. Once he tolerates the harness, add the leash and let him drag it behind him while you give lots of treats and praise. Then during the next sessions, pick up the leash and let him take the lead walking around the house. Finally, choose a quiet area outdoors (where your cat won’t be surprised by loud noises, strange dogs, or children) and keep your first session short. You can gradually work up to walking down the sidewalk and increasing the length of your walk. This entire process can take several weeks; the trick is to not rush it and be patient.
Another option for bringing the great outdoors to your cat is to create a “catio”, a safely enclosed area outdoors. This can consist of an enclosure made from wood framing and chicken wire or wire mesh, or be as simple as installing cat-proof netting to the top of traditional fencing. If you create a catio for your cat, try to construct it so that there is partial shade available, and include fun structures for climbing and resting. And for safety reasons, never leave your cat alone and unsupervised in an outdoor enclosure.
Jackson Galaxy’s website provides great examples for how you can create a customized catio for your cat.
Keeping Your Indoor Cat Happy
So how can you make sure your kitty has a rich, fulfilling life indoors? There are lots of ways to provide environmental enrichment to keep your cat mentally and physically stimulated.
- Provide a playmate. Contrary to popular belief, cats are social creatures who enjoy the company of people and other pets. Another cat or dog can be a snuggle buddy and keep your cat company when you’re not around.
- Spend dedicated one-on-one playtime with your cat. This not only helps your cat to bond with you, but it also increases his confidence – and it’s fun!
- Choose interactive toys. Cats love toys that simulate moving prey, like wands with feathers attached to the end, or chasing the little red dots from laser pointers. This also helps them burn excess energy while getting additional exercise.
- Create a fun indoor environment by “catifying” your home. This can include window perches so cats can watch wildlife outside while sunning themselves, cat trees so they can climb, multi-level kitty condos, scratching posts, cat hammocks, beds shaped like little caves, and shelving attached to walls to create vertical “kitty highways.”
- Give your cat unexpected presents to discover. Leave treats in various places around the house for your cat to hunt down using his sense of smell.
- Offer the option of Cat TV. There are lots of videos designed specifically for cats that contain beautifully recorded scenes of birds, squirrels, and swimming goldfish to keep your cat entertained.
- Harness-train your cat to accompany you on walks. Not all cats enjoy walking in a harness, so take cues from your cat as to whether this is a good option for you.
- Provide water features like cat drinking fountains or tabletop fountains. Cats are fascinated by running water. Plus it’s been shown that cat drinking fountains keep water fresh and aerated, so your kitty drinks more – which is great for his health.
- Make sure your cat gets plenty of exercise, and don’t overfeed. You can slow your cat’s eating pace (as well as exercise his brain) with puzzle feeders and meal-dispensing feeder toys.
Inside Or Outside?
So when it comes to cats going outside, in which camp do I fall? I can answer that question with a simple story.
When I was growing up in Ohio many years ago (how long ago are we talking? Let’s just say I grew up watching the Brady Bunch. On network TV. In primetime. Feel free to do the math.) my parents, along with every other family on our block, let our cats go outside. I’ve previously written about our family cat Carla, who used to walk my sister and me to and from the school bus stop every day.
However, I learned pretty quickly about the dangers lurking outside when Carla disappeared once for 3 days. We searched everywhere for her, my sister and I calling her name for hours, but she didn’t come home. We were devastated… until the morning of the fourth day. Carla showed up on our back patio, crying pitifully with her back leg dragging a still-clamped-on muskrat trap behind her. It had rained hard the night before, apparently softening the ground enough so she could pull the legtrap out of the mud and come home for help.
We removed the trap from her leg and immediately took her to the vet. Eventually she fully recovered – but stuck very close to home after that. It still breaks my heart to think about how she was trapped for days, suffering, with no food or water, and how if it hadn’t rained, we would have never known what happened to her. When I grew up, I was determined to protect my cats and keep them safe from anything that could harm them – especially the things I can control.
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