Last Updated on: February 27, 2023 by Crystal Uys
While we may love our cats, many of us also acknowledge that living with them can be challenging. Not only do you have the mess and smell of litter boxes in your house, but cats also shed, scratch furniture, and sometimes pee in inappropriate locations. If your cat has developed bad habits, you’ve probably been tempted to make them an outdoor pet.
Many cat owners struggle with whether cats should be indoor or outdoor pets. In my own life, I’ve owned fully indoor cats, outdoor cats, and indoor-outdoor cats, so I’m also familiar with this dilemma. In this article, we’ll look at the arguments for and against cats living outdoors, as well as what experts and researchers say on the topic.
Reasons Owners Keep Cats as Outdoor Pets
Veterinary experts and researchers agree that uncontrolled outdoor access is dangerous for cats and recommend they be kept indoors. We’ll go into the reasoning behind this recommendation later in this article, but many owners continue to let their cats outside despite the risks.
In some cases, owners may worry that keeping cats inside is cruel and prevents them from using their instincts and skills as predators. Others may believe their cat will get more exercise and stay at a healthy weight more easily if they’re allowed outside. Another common reason cats transition to outdoor pets is persistent behavioral problems such as urine marking or aggression.
Sometimes, owners will adopt or assume the care of a cat that has already lived outdoors for years. For example, you decide to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning property in the country only to find that your new purchase comes complete with one or more barn cats. In these instances, owners may feel that the outdoor cat will struggle to transition to life indoors and choose not to force the issue.
What the Research and Experts Say
The Humane Society and veterinarians agree that keeping cats indoors is the safest option. On average, indoor cats live as many as 10 years longer than outside cats. Cats with uncontrolled outdoor access not only face many dangers, but they can also pose a threat to the environment and a nuisance to humans.
Personally, I spent many years working as a veterinary nurse and witnessed firsthand the traumatic reality of life for many outdoor cats. While living in a rural area, our family lost two outdoor cats to mysterious circumstances. They just never came home. Here are some of the dangers cats who live as outdoor pets may encounter or cause:
The biggest threat to an outdoor cat may be vehicles, even if you live in a rural area. Research shows that car accidents are a leading cause of death and injury for outdoor cats worldwide.
Outdoor cats are much more susceptible to catching dangerous diseases like feline leukemia virus (FeLV,) rabies, or feline distemper. Even vaccinated cats aren’t always safe, especially from FeLV. Cats often pick up these diseases by fighting with other cats, which is a behavior that carries an additional risk of injury and infection.
Outdoor cats are more likely to be infested with parasites like fleas and ticks, which can also carry diseases or lead to dangerous blood loss. They can pick up internal parasites like worms more easily outside and, in turn, pass them to other cats or even people.
Cats may be efficient predators, but that doesn’t mean they won’t serve as prey too. Neighborhood dogs are a constant threat, and outdoor cats in dense urban locations (like Los Angeles, where I currently live with exclusively indoor cats) may fall victim to coyotes or mountain lions.
Outdoor cats may encounter a variety of poisonous substances while wandering free. Antifreeze, toxic plants, or rat poison are all common threats to roaming cats. There’s also the risk that outdoor cats may be deliberately poisoned by humans who find them a nuisance.
Humans with Bad Intentions
Unfortunately, outdoor cats can easily be a nuisance to the humans around them. Nighttime vocalizing and fighting often occur. Cats may also stalk chickens, outdoor pet rabbits, or other owned prey. And, of course, there’s the issue of outdoor cats using yards and gardens as litter boxes, elevating the risk of humans becoming infected with parasites like Toxoplasmosis or roundworms.
Fed-up humans may take it upon themselves to deal with nuisance cats, with bad results for the kitty.
Even if you try to take precautions like microchipping your cat, there’s still a significant risk that outdoor cats could get lost and not come home. Most of the cats who end up in animal shelters are picked up as strays. Once in shelters, cats are statistically far less likely than dogs to find their way back to their owners.
Threat to Birds and Wildlife
Outdoor cats, owned or stray, pose a significant threat to birds and wildlife. Globally, cats have contributed to the extinction of entire species. According to estimates, outdoor cats in the United States kill billions of birds and wildlife each year. They may also compete with other predators for these food sources, causing harm to their populations.
Ways to Keep Outdoor Cats Safer
If your cat lives outside at least part of the time, here are some steps you can take to keep them and local wildlife safer. First and possibly most importantly, keep your outdoor cat confined at night. The night is the most dangerous time for your cat, and keeping them somewhere behind closed doors in the dark is the safest option.
Microchip your cat and keep your contact information up to date in the database. Put a cat-safe collar and ID tag on your cat for an extra layer of protection. Adding a bell to the collar can help warn birds and wildlife of your cat’s approach and keep them safe.
Treat your outdoor cat with a monthly parasite preventative that is effective against fleas, ticks, and internal worms. Take them to the vet at least once a year for an exam and all recommended vaccines. Outdoor cats often need more shots than indoor ones because of their higher exposure level.
If possible, only allow your cat supervised access to the outdoors, such as leash walks or playtime in a “catio.” You could also use cat-safe fencing to keep your cat in the yard and most predators out.
Ways to Keep Indoor Cats Entertained
If you’re worried your cat will be bored, lazy, or gain weight if it can’t go outside, there are ways to keep your pet entertained and slim safely.
Provide your cat with various toys, especially those that encourage natural behaviors like stalking and hunting. Actively play with your cat daily to provide further stimulation and build a bond between you.
Keep your cat’s indoor environment interesting by providing vertical play spaces like cat trees, towers, or shelves. Give them lounging spaces near windows so they can see outside and be safely entertained by birds and wildlife.
Carefully monitor your cat’s caloric intake to ensure it’s appropriate for its size, age, and activity level. Your vet can help you determine this number, as well as help you calculate how much to feed your cat.
While keeping your cat as an indoor pet is the safest and recommended option, the reality is that’s not always possible, and some cat owners can’t or won’t follow this advice. If you must let your cat outside, follow our tips to keep them as safe as possible. Indoor cats don’t have to lead boring, unathletic lives, but keeping them entertained may take more effort from their owners. If your cat starts misbehaving, see your veterinarian for help and advice before giving up and turning them into an outdoor pet.
Featured Image Credit: Seregraff, Shutterstock
About the author
Cat mom to Ivy – a feisty little rescue kitten that is her one and only child. For now! Throughout her life, she has been introduced to the special love that can be found in the bond with a cat. Having owned multiple felines, she is more than certain that their love is unmatched, unconditional and unlike any other. With a passion to educate the public about everything, there is to know about felines, their behavior, and their unique personalities, Crystal is devoted to making sure that all cats and their owners know the importance of conscious living – and loving!