So, you believe that cats with the fancy pedigrees are for someone else, thank you very much. You enjoy nature in its basic, pristine form, and the good old Heinz-57 All-American Cat is your companion of choice. Along with that choice, you are convinced that the basic cat, with his instincts fully intact because of natural rather than manmade selection, will be happiest if he is allowed to enjoy the great out-of-doors.
Whether pedigreed or random-bred, the vast majority of cats can be perfectly happy indoors, calmly watching nature from the safety of their home, as long as a stimulating environment is provided.
In fact, most United States cat experts – the Cat Fanciers Association, humane organizations and others – are continually trying to reach the public with the message that keeping a cat indoors protects him from disease and all manner and means of danger. These include the threat of contagious diseases such as feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline infectious peritonitis and rabies, besides the ever-present dangers from cars and larger predators.
However, some cat behaviorists in Great Britain believe that keeping cats indoors may contribute to behavior problems, such as house soiling. They claim that cats are not allowed to vent their natural expression indoors.
The dangers that a cat can face when allowed out unsupervised depend a great deal on where the cat lives – urban, rural, or suburban area. In general, an outdoor cat faces the following risks:
- Disease. Feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency syndromes are two diseases that cats spread from one another. Unaltered male cats are at particular risk because they tend to fight, and both diseases are spread by contact through the saliva.
- Unwanted pregnancy. Your unaltered female cat may return to you "in a family way."
- Parasites. Ticks, fleas and worms usually attack outdoor cats and can be brought into your home, where they can spread to both you and your other pets. Fleas and ticks cause allergies, skin irritation and anemia. In addition, trying to rid your home of these insects can get complicated.
- Accidents. Outdoor cats face the risk of being killed by motor vehicles. Naturally, this is more common in urban areas. They could also get caught in traps meant for other animals or consume poisonous substances. Far from home, they may not be able to get back.
- Predators. In rural areas, cats can fall victim to larger predators. This can include dog fights, cat fights and wildlife as well as humans. Outdoor cats can suffer torn ears, cut eyes and abscesses and have a much greater risk of gunshot injury than indoor cats.
- Laws. If caught in someone's yard, your cat could be taken to an animal shelter. Without identification, the shelter may put the cat to sleep after a period of time. In fact, euthanasia kills more cats than all other dangers combined.
Dusk and dawn are the most dangerous times for a cat to be out. In rural areas, these are the primary hunting times for many larger predators; in cities and towns, they are the times that visibility for drivers is particularly low. The safest time for a cat to be outdoors is during the daytime hours.
Keeping Your Outdoor Cat Safe
There is a compromise: Free-standing chain-link enclosure designed as a dog run can be adapted to a cat by adding a top. These enclosures are available from fencing companies and some hardware stores.
Another possibility is to train your cat to accept a harness and leash for supervised outdoor walks. The training process does require some patience, but is not nearly as difficult as generally portrayed, and both of you can enjoy the outdoors safely.
If you believe your cat should be outside, you can take steps to reduce the risks:
- Vaccinations. It is particularly important to protect your cat against rabies (which is the law and just plain good sense). It is important to know that feline vaccinations are neither complete nor 100 percent effective against the spectrum of fatal feline viral diseases such as feline leukemia.
- Make sure that your cat has access to an environment that is clean and safe. Do not leave antifreeze, lawn chemicals, rat poisons, or other harmful substances in the garage or shed where your cat can find them. You would not think that your pet would have any reason to consume these products but sadly they do, either intentionally or inadvertently, and these types of poisonings are all too common.
Before applying any product to your lawn, vegetables, or ornamental plants, remember to read the label and follow the manufacturer's instructions. Many of these products are designed to endure in the environment days to weeks after application, so a pet can have an exposure days to weeks after initial application.
- Curiosity often leads pets to consume the flowers and foliage of ornamental plants, which can produce irritating and sometimes life-threatening side effects. When planning a cat-safe garden, select plants that are non-toxic if touched or consumed.
- Provide shelter for your outdoor cat. Consider letting your pet in during extreme temperatures – hot or cold – and during severe weather. Otherwise, provide a porch, cat box, umbrella or some other type of protection.
- Neuter or spay outdoor cats. This is important for the health of your cat (and your own sanity) even if she doesn't go outside. It is also important in controlling unwanted cat populations. In addition, without the powerful reproductive urge, your cat is less likely to wander from her property. Male cats are much less likely to fight (which can lead to injuries and infection).
- Identify your pet.
Safety collars. A collar with your name and phone number will reduce the risk of your pet being euthanized as a stray. Without some form of identification, the cat is likely to become a victim of the system.
Microchip technology is permanent and relatively inexpensive. Microchipping is also a good way to identify your pet if he/she would appear at a local veterinary hospital, emergency clinic or humane society. Check to make sure that shelters in your area do scan for microchips on incoming animals, and that their reader is one that will at least detect the presence of a chip, even if the chip is a competitor's brand.
- Keeping your cat safe is not the only issue. Keeping birds safe from outdoor cats is also a concern. Thousands of birds are killed each year by prowling cats. In some areas, the populations of certain songbirds has been drastically diminished by cat attacks. To help keep birds safe, consider adding a bell to your cat's collar or provide your cat an escape-proof area so he can safely enjoy the outdoors without destroying it.