It’s true that many cats who are outdoors can live long and healthy lives, but in my experience talking to cat owners who allow this, there’s also an incredibly high risk that they won’t live long and healthy lives.
As some of you may know, I have two wonderful cats for the past 3 years. A 4 year old gib and a 3 year old molly, if one wants to use the correct terms. (It really just means a fixed male and a fixed female but it sure sounds fancy.) One is white and deaf, the other is a relatively small tux, both European short hairs. As you can imagine, letting deaf and undersized cats outdoors is a bad idea by itself, but some of the reasons I wouldn’t let a big healthy cat go outside are pretty big too.
For starters there is traffic. I’ve seen enough dead cats smushed to pieces on the side of the roads and highways when I was still working and commuted daily. Then there are many acquaintances and friends whom have shared tragic stories of cats being lost to traffic more than once. I live in a country that fits 10 times in the state of California with a high density population of almost 17 million. There are no vast remote forests or deserts to live in here, the next city is 5 minutes over in most cases. But even if you live in a remote area, there are other things you need to look out for.
Predators. Whether those are (wild) dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes or other predators who can kill cats, there are a risk almost everywhere. I often hear people say “But my cat is smart/strong and stays away form them”, and I just shake my head. What if you cat gets caught up in a trap? What if they break a bone and can’t flee? There are so many reasons why a (hungry) predator will have the upper hand, it scares me to think people just shrug this possibility off as unimportant.
If it’s not other predators, what about other cats? FIV and other diseases are transmitted through fighting and reproduction. Not to mention the injuries that can be sustained from serious fights! I don’t know about you, but I really don’t enjoy seeing my furry babies be hurt, and I see no sensible reason in allowing that to happen when it’s not necessary.
There’s also a reason you need to be careful with indoor cats and plants – many plants are toxic, and quite a few of them are appealing to cats to nibble on and ingest. It’s not uncommon for them to be poisoned this way and either suffer immensely or even die. Indoors you can control the plants you keep (and even keep plants that are specifically for them to nibble on without any negative side effects).
Let’s not forget that the world is inhabited by really terrible people. Every now and then a story pops up in the newspaper that tells us about how a local cat population was poisoned, abused, tortured or even killed by some animal hating psychopath who found outdoor cats to be the most easily accessible victims for their sick pleasures. Even if your cat is shy towards strangers, it can still be caught in a trap. If your cat is friendly towards strangers, what will stop it from approaching? You can’t teach your cat to not take candy from a stranger the way you can teach a child.
But cats are SUPPOSED to be outdoors! It’s cruel to keep them inside!
This is a popular argument used for outdoor cats, and it’s one that is incredibly easy to debunk. No, cats are domesticated animals. If you put some time and effort into making your home suitable for cats and you work with them, you can meet ALL their natural needs and have a content cat who is not left wanting for a single thing. Saying a cat is a wild animal that needs to be outside is like saying our dogs need to be dumped outside to do as they please because they’re ‘just like wolves’ and can fend for themselves. By domesticating animals we’ve inevitably removed their ability to fend for themselves – domestication means they rely on humans to exist and thrive.
Territory – Simply place cat furniture around the house to give them their own territory to mark. Cats mark with numerous glands on their bodies, including the cheeks and paws. Scratching posts in different parts of the house are a good start. Tall cat trees work too. It’s also useful (and fun) for cats to have accessible, high shelves where they can observe their domain in peace. This will create confident cats who have their own territory established and are content with what they have.
Hunting – Play time meets hunting needs. Get feathers, mice or other toys on strings on a stick and trigger their instincts to hunt. If you exhaust them to the point where they lay down and rest or pant, you’ve met their need to hunt until tired. Following play time you can feed them (to reward them with their ‘caught prey’) after which they will groom themselves and go to sleep. If you do this in the morning when you get up and before bed time, they will also adjust to your schedule and not keep you up at night either.
Exercise – I know people feel silly doing this, but put some time into getting your cat to walk on a leash. If you have a kitten, get a small harness and get her used to it as soon as you can. Most cats will be very dramatic and first and ‘drop dead’ and act like they can’t move. Don’t be fooled by this! Before you attach the leash, get them used to the harness. Feed them treats and stimulate them to move while they wear the harness for about 5-10 minutes, then remove it and reward them with pets, verbal praise and playtime. Create a positive association. Do this daily and increase the duration until they move naturally and don’t even realize they’re wearing the harness anymore. If you create a positive association not a single cat will mind the harness, so it’s up to you to make ‘harness = good thing’ a reality. Don’t give up. After this you can attach the leash and go outside. Put your cat down and let it take the lead at first. It will be cautious if it’s not used to being outdoors, but if you do this every day it will become more confident and start walking. Give gentle tugs to encourage a walk and eventually your cat will understand that you’re taking a stroll together. (Please don’t drag your cat across the floor. If necessary use low-calorie treats to encourage your cat to walk). This is not always an easy process, especially on older cats, but I’m confident that every cat can do this. It’s a great way to get exercise in for your cat and let it experience the outside world without all the risks that are involved with it.
These are 3 basic needs that every indoor cat is met with if the owner puts effort into it. Many indoor cats are happy and fulfilled, but it’s no uncommon for pet owners to neglect their pets and let them fend for themselves out of laziness. There’s really no excuse for having an unhappy indoor cat.
To make matters even more shocking, the average lifespan of an indoor cat is anywhere between 13-20 years. An outdoor cat is only expected to live between 3-5 years, and that’s being generous. Do some outdoor cats exceed this and live happily? Sure. But a vast majority don’t, otherwise the average expectancy wouldn’t be so heartbreakingly low.
My cats are my babies. I don’t plan on having children of my own, but I consider my pets to be my children. (Don’t worry, I still treat them like cats, but I won’t deny the bond I have with them is extremely deep and as close to being my children as it gets.) When I research the risks outdoor cats have, a piece of me dies as I try to imagine letting my cats go outside. It’s so unnecessary, they go everywhere with me (to friends and family, on walks and so forth) so they see a lot of the world, I play with them, they are comfortable and confident with their territory – they aren’t unhappy in the slightest. They’re very happy, very relaxed, very easy going and content. Why would I even bother taking all these awful risks? There’s no benefit for them outside.
This is why I strongly encourage cat owners to keep their cats indoors. It’s up to everyone how to live their lives, but really, are all these risks worth it? These are not children who can be taught how to cross the street, which people are trustworthy, what plants are safe and which are not. They’re animals who act on instinct, even if they’re incredibly smart and do things that amaze us. When it comes down to it they are vulnerable creatures in a harsh world. We’re their guardians. We should be guardians in every aspect, not just by name.
Will I think poorly of an outdoor cat owner? I will be unhappy with it, but I won’t judge. I’m doing what I think is best for my babies and I know there are people who will disagree with me, just as I disagree with them. That’s fair enough for me. I just hope that this post will be useful to cat owners and cat owners to be and help make an informed decision. I’m not a cat expert but I am very knowledgeable and have very well trained cats, so if you have any questions about anything in this post, please leave a comment.
Here are some resources that have some extra information on the matter, too.