The Great Debate: Indoor Cats Versus Outdoor Cats

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It used to be that domestic cats were on the outside looking in. Wild and free, they roamed the great outdoors, utilizing both their independent streak and their predatory powers.

In recent years, however, this trend has shifted. Today, many U.S. pet owners opt to leave their cats indoors exclusively, reaping the many health and safety benefits therein, and many cats found outside are assumed to be stray.

But even as the societal pendulum shifts toward indoor cats, this long-held debate remains: Which outcome truly is better for our feline friends? Should indoor cats rule the day? Or should outdoor cats make a resurgence in popularity, returning felines to their native habitat?

While merits exist to both strategies, it’s important first to acknowledge the causation behind our nation’s collective shift from having outdoor cats to having indoor cats.

Why do Indoor Cats Reign Supreme in Modern Society?

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.

The Case for Indoor Cats

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.

(Related Link: Are outdoor cats under attack?)

The Case for Outdoor Cats

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.

(Related Link: Is your indoor cat bored?)

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.

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