Should You Let Your Cat Outdoors?

Whether your companion cat should be an indoor-only kitty or be allowed to spend time in the great outdoors is a much-debated topic among U.S. cat parents — second only to the topic of declawing our feline friends. Both sides of the debate have relevant arguments, but they also sometimes lose sight of the wants and needs of the individual cat.

Writing for the Worms & Germs Blog, veterinarian Scott Weese explains that “there’s no simple answer to the indoor vs outdoor question.” A board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist and professor at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Canada, Dr. Weese advocates for cats to be indoor-only. He also encourages cat parents to base their decision on several factors, recognizing that there’s no single approach that works for all cats, households and areas of the country.

In fact, the vast majority of veterinarians, bird and wildlife organizations, and humane associations in the United States recommend indoor-only living for cats. (That’s not the case in other areas of the world such as the United Kingdom and Europe.) However, the key to a happy and healthy indoor-only cat is an environment that allows them to express their natural behaviors and provides mental stimulation.

In September 2016, the welfare committee of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) published an updated position paper that reviewed the risks and benefits to pet cats living exclusively indoors versus spending some time outdoors. The AAFP committee’s position is that indoor/outdoor living for cats in an environment that is safe is the best option for our feline friends.

Ultimately, the decision to allow your cat to go outside is up to you. This post will look at the risks and benefits associated with choosing an indoor-only, an indoor/outdoor or an outdoor-only lifestyle so you can make an informed decision about what’s best for your cat.

Safety is the primary reason for indoor-only living

A significant reason for keeping your cat inside is to keep them safe from possible dangers that can threaten their well-being and even their life. The great outdoors is filled with many situations that are potentially hazardous to cats, which explains why the average life span for an outdoor cat is 4.5 years, compared to nearly 15 years for an indoor cat.

  • Cars — Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t have an innate instinct to avoid busy streets. Even “street smart” cats get hit by cars.
  • Loose dogs and wild animals — While cats are well-recognized for their predatory prowess, they also can be prey for coyotes, foxes, eagles and other birds of prey, and even alligators (depending on where you live). Outdoor cats may also be attacked by loose dogs, raccoons and even cat-hating people. Injuries from animal attacks are very serious and often fatal.
  • Animal cruelty — Sadly, outdoor cats may be the target of cruelty. Incidents of torture, including shootings with BB guns or arrows, have been documented.
  • Toxins/poisons — Cats may be exposed to harmful substances, such as antifreeze, rodenticides and insecticides, through skin contact or ingestion. Mouse and rat poisons (rodenticides) are designed to taste good to rodents, and cats may accidentally consume the poison or the rodents that have ingested the poison. Outdoor cats may drink from puddles of antifreeze or antifreeze-contaminated water. Unfortunately, these toxins can be fatal when ingested. Finally, cats may be exposed to insecticides and other chemicals if they roam through newly treated yards.

outdoor cat

Indoor-only cats may be healthier and safer…

According to the AAFP, the number of free-roaming, abandoned and feral cats in the United States is estimated to range from 70 to 100 million. The health and welfare of these cats is significantly less than that of indoor-only cats. These cats can carry viral, bacterial or fungal diseases that can be passed to your cat through direct contact or biting/fighting:

  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • Feline panleukopenia virus (distemper)
  • Ringworm

Allowing your cat to go outside unsupervised or to roam freely increases their risk of contact with stray or feral cats, and as a result, their risk of exposure to these potentially serious diseases.

Keep in mind that cats are territorial animals. When a cat crosses into another cat’s territory or encounters a cat from a different social group, fighting and other acts of aggression can occur. Turf fights with other outdoor cats are common. Bite wounds can become abscesses and increase the risk of FeLV and FIV transmission between cats.

Outdoor cats also need protection from internal and external parasites, including intestinal worms, heartworms, fleas, ear mites and ticks. Some of these parasites pose a risk to you as well as your cat.

…But there’s a caveat

While indoor cats may live longer, healthier lives than cats allowed outdoors, they’re also more likely to develop behavioral problems that result in them losing their home or being euthanized. In fact, the AAFP reports more cats are affected by behavior problems than any other condition.

Today’s pet cats haven’t changed much from their ancestors, and their relationship with people and their nutritional, physical and emotional needs are unique. Behaviors such as stalking and catching prey, scratching, and urine marking are normal and essential cat behaviors. Many cat parents frown on these behaviors when done indoors — like to your new living room furniture. But when indoor cats can’t express normal behaviors

So which lifestyle is best for the cat?

Ultimately, the decision regarding lifestyle depends on your cat’s personality, where you live and whether an interesting indoor environment or a safe outdoor environment can be provided. Some cats are purrfectly happy as indoor-only cats. Other cats don’t do well inside 24/7 and their needs can be met in the right situations.

If you decide an indoor-only lifestyle is appropriate for your kitty, make sure their indoor environment is as interesting and exciting as outdoors. Providing scratching posts, perches and a variety of toys that get kitty running and climbing can help keep indoor cats active, healthy and happy.

If you decide an indoor/outdoor lifestyle is right for your feline friend, you’ll want to take precautions to ensure they are safe. Consider these options for outdoor cat adventures:

  • Train your cat to walk on a leash while wearing a harness, not just a collar.
  • Build or purchase an outdoor cat house that keeps your kitty safe while allowing them to enjoy the outdoors. It’s not just about keeping your cat from roaming freely, but about keeping other animals out.
  • Provide adult supervision.
  • Bring your kitty inside at night.
  • Make sure your cat is up-to-date on all appropriate vaccinations and internal and external parasite control.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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