Friday, March 19, 2010

The Great Cat Debate: Indoor Versus Outdoor

By Julia Williams

Should cats be allowed full access to the outdoors to roam at will, or should they be kept indoors 24/7? This question has likely been debated for as long as people have kept cats as pets. Some people are adamant that cats should never go outside, while others insist that not allowing a cat the pleasures and instinctual experiences of the outdoors borders on cruelty. Bird lovers, and gardeners irked by neighborhood cats digging in their flowerbeds, are understandably in the “cats should stay inside” camp. Veterinarians usually recommend that cats be kept inside too, because nearly every day they see firsthand the bad things that can happen to outdoor cats.

Others, like me, believe there are pros and cons for each side of the indoor versus outdoor cat debate, with no clear-cut “winner.” I think the decision of whether to keep your cat indoors or allow it to go outside is an individual one that every responsible pet owner must make for themselves. It does help, however, to be as informed as possible on the subject, so you can feel confident in the choice you are making – because this choice affects you and your feline friend.

It’s a fact that indoor cats live longer, healthier lives. Outdoor cats face many dangers, including getting hit by cars, attacked by dogs, coyotes and even cat-hating humans. Outdoor cats can be exposed to infectious diseases like feline leukemia, distemper and rabies. They can be poisoned by pesticides, herbicides, antifreeze, motor oil, rat bait, ice-melt products and toxic plants. Turf fights with other outdoor cats are common, and bite wounds can become infected. This is called an abscess, and it requires antibiotics and sometimes surgery. Parasites like fleas and ticks are more problematic for outdoor cats as well.

Even something as seemingly safe as a five-acre field with no car traffic can pose a threat to an outdoor cat. My cat Tiger got a foxtail sticker up his nose, which required an emergency vet visit. These nasty barbed stickers mimic a porcupine quill, and will migrate in only one direction after attaching to fur or finding a way into an opening – pulling it out of his nose myself was definitely not an option.

As you can see, the list of bad things that can happen to outdoor cats is quite long. However, I have to dispute the “average lifespan” figures I’ve seen claiming indoor cats live about 12-14 years whereas outdoor cats live only 3-4 years. I realize these are averages, but in my opinion they aren’t accurate. I’ve had outdoor cats that lived to be 19, 16 and 14, and many of my friends have had outdoor cats who lived similarly long lives.

If you have a pet door which allows your cat to come and go as they please, they may bring things into your house that you won’t like, including mice, rats, gophers, lizards, snakes, bugs, possums and frogs. Dead or alive, these are not things you want in your home. There is nothing worse than getting up in the middle of the night and stepping on something squishy in your bare feet. Trust me.

With all the dangers and disadvantages of allowing a cat outdoors, one might wonder why everyone doesn’t keep their cat inside 24/7. One reason many give is that they don’t think an indoor cat can be happy. Until a few years ago, I believed that a cat deprived of the outdoors would lead a miserable existence. This was primarily because I’d always allowed my cats the freedom of the outdoors, and I saw how happy it made them to climb trees, hunt gophers and sun themselves in my garden.

However, my viewpoint changed somewhat when we moved to Montana. I wanted to keep my cats indoors for several months so they wouldn’t get lost or attempt an “incredible journey” back to their old home. Then winter came, and when my California kitties felt snow on their paws for the first time, they decided for themselves that indoor life wasn’t so bad. In the winter, I don’t think they’d go outside if you opened a can of their favorite Felidae cat food and tried to lure them out with it. In the summer they have the freedom to choose, and they still stay inside about 85% of the time.

This arrangement suits me. My carpet stays a lot cleaner, my vet bills are much lower, and I like knowing they are safe. I think it suits them too, for the most part. Were they happier being outdoor kitties in sunny California? Yes, in all honesty I think they were. But I play with them and pet them often, and I find other ways to enrich their indoor lives that hopefully makes up for not being able to play outdoors.

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. I do realize that cats are much safer inside, but I am dealing with 18 cats that are all feral. Now most of them are tame and do come in the house to eat and some of them spend the night inside. But there are some that would rather die than have to live inside. But like you I have has many cats who all lived outside and they lived to be in their late teens, all of them. They got abscesses but those are easy to treat. Good article.

  2. There are plenty of things you can do to keep an indoor cat happy. I have many interactive toys for my cats. I have ones you fill with food and they have to figure out how to get the food out. I put bird seed right outside our front window and have a large bench for them to be able to sit there and watch the birds. On the same note I have feral cats outback, and can attest they live quite long lives with the proper care. All mine have been fixed, gotten their shots and I test them for diseases like FIV and Leukemia to make sure they are all healthy. I use flea sprays in the areas where they like to sleep and near where they eat to keep the bugs away. If I had a choice, I'd rather them be able to be inside cats, safe from the cars and bad people, but they were there when I got here and all I did was intervene to keep them from reproducing and to keep them healthy.

    Overall, you really are best off keeping your kitty inside. If your cat seems bored, adopt a friend for him. I have 10 indoor kitties, all rescues. They keep each other amused! And every time I see a cat hit by a car or attacked by another animal just confirms that I am doing what's best for them.

  3. Thanks for a positive article on indoor/outdoor cats. If you're worried about your cats killing wildlife, get a CatBib. Stops cats from catching birds. University tested and recommended by Audubon.

  4. Getting cat-in fencing is a great alternative if you want your cat outside, but don't want him to leave the safety of your yard. This doesn't work for ALL cats, but I have had good luck with it. My cat goes outside with me and the dogs in the backyard. He plays, gets petted, and sun bathes. He doesn't even need the fencing, as he stays right by me and comes in when everyone else does. I believe cats are most happy outside. I don't agree with letting cats outside to free roam when you live next to a street, but one thing I can say is I'd rather my cat live a happy life, even if it ended prematurely, then keep him cooped up and miserable for 15 years. I mean, we have to let our kids go at some point, and that is risky! We couldn't keep them in cages just to keep them safe. We don't keep dogs inside 24/7 either, and it is only fair to let cats get their outside time.

  5. In my opinion a cat shouldn't be restricted to being indoors only. I have one cat that is an outdoors cat and she is a healthy nine year old cat. She got into a fight with a cat over territory, but it is nature for cats to be territorial. Sure two of my cats died due to the outdoors, but it happens. My cat doesn't get lost because she knows the houses around here and doesn't go far. Some cats do, but at least they know their way home. An outdoor cat is better than an indoor cat, because they get to be a cat with their natural hunting instincts.
    I will also say that it is great being complimented and loved by your cat. How? She brings me dead birds. Boom. Let cats be cats!


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