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The Great Debate: Indoor Versus Outdoor Cats

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Most U.S. cat experts – the Cat Fanciers Association, humane organizations and others – are continually trying to reach the public with the message that keeping cats indoors protects them from disease and all manner of dangers. Risks of outdoor life include exposure to infectious diseases, such as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline infectious peritonitis, and rabies; injury or death occurring on busy roads; and attacks by predators. Not only does keeping cats indoors protect their health, it also protects the lives of countless birds that they would otherwise kill. In some areas, cats have severely reduced the populations of certain songbirds - almost to the point of extinction.

However, cat behaviorists in Great Britain believe that keeping cats indoors may contribute to behavior problems, such as house soiling. They claim that indoor cats are not allowed to express their natural behaviors and suffer as a consequence. Let's consider the facts.

What Has Changed and Why

Many things have changed since the days when most cats ran wild and caught mice for a living. Here are but a few of them:

  • Cat owners today view their cats as family members and cats have become incorporated into many aspects of their owners' lives. No longer are cats simply kept as ratters to protect the grain supply.

  • House cats of today are often given the very best of medical attention – and, sometimes, at quite an expense for their owners. Because of this and because they are fed better, cats now live longer, healthier lives than ever before.

  • The average life span of indoor cats is about 14 years – though this is reduced to 4 years in cats that are allowed to roam free, exposing themselves to the hazards of outdoor life.

  • Family structure has changed so that both owners often work, spending long hours away from the home. Cats are viewed as independent and able to cope better than dogs in this situation.

  • The population of pet cats has rapidly increased so that there are now some 73 million cats in the United States.

  • We have progressively become a nation of city dwellers. Country life is becoming a thing of the past. With cities come roads, traffic, and increased density of human and animal life. Dangers abound for free-ranging pets and diseases thrive better in crowded urban environments. Not all can be fully protected against with vaccines and no vaccine is 100 percent effective.

    Letting Your Cat Out: The Cons

    If lifespan were the only factor due for consideration, no one in his right mind would let a cat outside – ever. It just doesn't make sense to risk your cat's health, even life, in a world fraught with ever increasing danger. If you live on busy streets, which most of us do, letting your cat out subjects him to the risk of being injured or killed by passing traffic.

    Besides traffic, there are risks posed by exposure to other cats. The #1 disease of outdoor cats is an abscess resulting from a bite wound. Bite wounds usually become infected, causing large volumes of pus to accumulate beneath the cat's skin, sending the cat's temperature soaring and making it feel out of sorts. Antibiotics and sometimes surgery are often necessary to help resolve the problem.

    Highly infectious viral diseases, like feline AIDS and distemper, are transmitted between unvaccinated cats. And there's the risk of rabies (again more so in unvaccinated cats) and predation posed by wildlife. The most recent wildlife threat comes from coyotes – that can tear a cat to pieces in very short order. Coyotes have migrated into highly urbanized areas, such as Manhattan, and should be considered a hazard for outdoor cats almost everywhere in the United States.

    Some people are a threat to cats, too. Irresponsible, cruel children have been known to do heinous things to cats - in the name of having fun. Cat-hating adults may also harm cats and many outdoor cats harbor the telltale signs, air gun slugs or BB pellets seen on X-ray. Finally, inclement weather in northern climes can be a death sentence for cats.

    Viewing things from another perspective, when cats are allowed outside it's bad news for the small wild animals on which they prey. While no one really seems to mind when cats catch mice and other small rodents, when cats' predatory instincts are directed toward beautiful songbirds, bird lovers naturally become enraged.

    Keeping cats inside can avoid all of the above risks and disasters.

    Letting Cats Out: The Pros

    There really isn't too much of a case here, unless you are a cat – and a particular type of cat at that. Confident cats, particularly those with prior outdoor experience, may well vote for freedom and its attendant risk over the alternative – a long, but boring, healthy life of incarceration. For cats of such persuasion, it seems that the New Hampshire state motto - "Live Free or Die" – might easily apply

    Some indoor cats develop neurotic habits, such as wool sucking and psychogenic alopecia, while others become reclusive. Behavior problems of this type are rare in households, indeed in countries, where cats are regularly allowed out of the house. The highest incidence of neurotic behaviors in cats is in the United States where keeping cats inside is the most prevalent style of ownership (greater than 50 percent keep cats inside).

    Conclusion:

    The answer to the question about whether to keep cats inside or allow them outside on occasion, is not black or white but rather a shade of gray. If forced to vote one way or the other (which we are, on an individual basis), the answer would have to be to keep cats indoors. This is a far more healthful situation for the cat. But with great care, certain cats under certain circumstances, might be permitted brief, well-supervised excursions outside, perhaps on a harness and long lead.

    For those cats that must remain indoors all the time, or even most of the time, it is an owner's duty to make sure that his cat has copious daily opportunities for exercise, games, fun and interaction with family members. To this end, it is imperative to design the indoor cat's environment to be cat-friendly and biologically appropriate.

    Environmental Enrichment for Indoor Cats:

  • Company for your cat (another cat, or two, as long as they all get along well)

  • A rotation of well-designed toys for the cat's entertainment and to dissipate predatory energies (moving toys are best)

  • Food puzzles – e.g. Busta cube for cats, pieces of meat or fish frozen in a block of ice, kibble-filled, cardboard toilet roll with holes punched in it and the ends sealed, to allow slow disbursement of the kibble, etc.

  • A three-dimensional environment (provide climbing frames and panoramic viewing stations)

  • Fish tanks (lids firmly in place), window bird feeders and even videos. There are some videos, featuring rodents running in wheels or fish swimming in place, that are specially made for cats.

    The idea is to create an environment in which the cat is happy and gainfully occupied. If this can be done, and the cat does not constantly pine for the outside world, indoors is definitely a safer place. Even for a chronic complainer, it is best to keep working to distract and entertain him than give in to the pressure and allow him outside for what might be a short and unhealthful life outdoors.

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