Many experts recommend keeping cats indoors to protect them from the dangers of the outdoors. Staying inside may help to keeps cats safe, but an indoor-only lifestyle has some downsides. Let’s examine the pros and cons of letting your cat outside.
Indoor Vs. Outdoors
The outside world poses many dangers to cats, whether related to human activity, other animals or the environment. Outdoor cats even have a shorter lifespan than their indoor-only counterparts.
Some common hazards for outdoor cats include:
- Predators/wild animals (coyotes, wolves, hawks, owls, and other dangerous wildlife)
- Poisoning (slug and snail bait, rodenticides, herbicides, fertilizer, antifreeze and other poisons)
- Animal traps
- Hit by car
- Theft by humans
- Being harassed or abused by humans or other animals
- Cat fights
- Injuries (falls, eye injuries, torn nails, etc.)
- Wandering off or becoming lost
- Parasites like fleas, ticks, and intestinal parasites
- Infectious disease from other cats or wildlife, including feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline distemper, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and rabies
- Exposure to bad weather and temperature extremes (heat stroke and hypothermia)
Cons Of Keeping Cats Indoors
After reading that long list of potential outdoor dangers, it may seem like a no-brainer to keep your cat strictly indoors so you can keep her safe.
But a life entirely inside can bring hardships to cats, including the following:
- Lack of exercise
- Weight gain or obesity
- Inability to express natural behaviors like hunting, climbing, scratching
- Lack of mental stimulation
- Excessive meowing/yowling
- Stress, anxiety or depression
- Behavior problems (urine marking, little box avoidance, destructive scratching)
- Fighting amongst household cats
- Aggression toward humans
The biggest issues for indoor-only cats are lack of mental stimulation, lack of exercise and the inability to express the natural behaviors that make a cat a cat. This can cause cats to become bored, stressed and depressed.
Bored cats often lie around much of the day, and the most exciting thing to do is visit the food bowl over and over for a snack. Inactivity and overeating lead to weight gain, which can contribute to health problems like diabetes and arthritis.
Stressed and depressed cats may develop behavioral issues like litter box issues, destructive scratching, fighting with other family pets or even aggression toward humans.
Pros Of Letting Cats Outside
The American Association of Feline Practitioners maintains a position statement regarding the indoor/outdoor debate, recognizing that although inside is safer, allowing your cat to explore outside can provide some pretty significant benefits to her physical and mental health.
Some of those benefits include:
- Exercise: Cats that go outside run, climb, scratch and play. This means they get more exercise, which provides lots of healthy physical stimulation, and also wards off unwanted weight gain.
- Expressing natural behaviors: Although owned pet cats don’t need to hunt for their food, being outside with leaves blowing in the wind and bugs or other tiny critters crawling around triggers your cat’s instincts to stalk, pounce and chase. Cats also do a lot more climbing, scratching and exploring.
- Mental stimulation: Being outside is just plain interesting! Cats find so much to see, smell, hear and touch, from grass to children playing to birds flying overhead and squirrels running through the yard. Even simply dozing in the sun and feeling the breeze ruffling her fur is more stimulating for your cat than resting inside.
- Overall reduction of stress and behavior problems: When a cat is active, stimulated and allowed to express her natural instincts, she is happier and more content, which leads to fewer stress-related behavior problems.
Best Of Both Worlds
There are ways to keep an indoor-only cat both happy and safe. Environmental enrichment can encourage your cat to exercise and explore inside your home. Try cat trees for climbing and perching. Put them in front of windows so your cat can climb up and watch the goings-on outside.
Some cat owners install wall ramps for cats to traverse and climb. Introduce different types of scratchers so your cat has plenty of opportunities for “approved” scratching. For variety, offer both horizontal and vertical scratching posts of different materials (carpet, sisal and cardboard).
Engaging your indoor cat in playtime is an excellent way to provide mental stimulation and exercise. Try playing with cat toys like feather wands, tossing jingle bell balls or catnip-filled toy mice, or having a chase and pounce session with a laser pointer (just be sure not to aim the beam near your cat’s eyes). Automatic toys that spin or roll can entice almost any cat to play.
Puzzle toys and that require your cat to work and use her brain to get to the treats inside are highly stimulating. Treat-dispensing toys that must be batted around to release their goodies provide both exercise and mental stimulation.
Feeding your cat’s meals from puzzle toys or treat-dispending toys can help mimic the hunting and foraging behaviors she doesn’t usually get to express. Plant some cat grass for your cat can enjoy nibbling.
You can also try some of these safer ways for your cat to experience outdoor time:
- Buy or build a “catio”: A secure enclosure in your yard or on your patio can allow cats to get some fresh air and see, smell and hear the great outdoors while protecting them from harm. Catios may be large and elaborate, with many different perches, or as simple as a large wire dog crate. Be sure your cat always has access to shade and water when she’s hanging out in a catio.
- Let your cat explore your safely fenced yard: A tall fence can keep your cat in your yard and deter predators from gaining access. To keep a better eye on her, stay outside with your cat while she’s outside.
- Try leash walks or stroller walks: Many cats can learn to wear a harness and go for leashed walks in your neighborhood. Make sure your cat is comfortable and happy with this arrangement—walks should not be stressful. Ensure the harness fits snugly so your cat can’t slip out, and keep your eye open for loose dogs or stray cats that might approach (pick your cat up if you see any danger). Some cats hate harnesses, but enjoy walks in an enclosed cat stroller. They can take in the sights while remaining safe and snug inside.
If you choose to let your cat outside, take some precautions to ensure she stays safe.
- Identification: Make sure your cat has a microchip and is always wearing a collar and ID tag with up-to-date contact information. GPS collars are an outstanding tech gadget that allow you to keep tabs on your cat if she roams.
- Preventive care: Keep your cat on year-round broad-spectrum parasite prevention that treats and controls fleas, ticks, heartworm and intestinal parasites. Also make sure she stays up to date on all her vaccinations (let your veterinarian know that your cat goes outside).
- Shelter: If your cat will be outdoors alone, make sure she has access to shade, shelter from rain and other weather, food and water, or ensure that she can enter the house through a pet door.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it bad to let my indoor cat outside?
Although the indoors is safest for cats, going outside can provide some mental and physical health benefits. To make time outdoors safer, get your cat microchipped and make sure she is always wearing a collar and ID. A fenced-in yard can keep your cat safely on your property and deter predators from entering your yard. Consider staying outside with your cat to keep an eye on her, or buying or building an outdoor “catio” so your cat can enjoy being outside safely.
Is it better to keep cats indoors or outdoors?
Keeping cats inside is the safest option, but indoor-only cats can become bored and stressed if not provided enough mental and physical stimulation. Make sure your indoor cat has plenty of toys to play with and things to climb and perch on. There are also many ways to safely let your cat explore the outdoors for a change of scenery.
Is it cruel to make an outdoor cat an indoor cat?
Cats that are used to spending much of their day outdoors might find indoor-only living a hard adjustment. However, it’s possible to transition an outdoor cat to an indoor lifestyle by providing lots of environmental enrichment indoors and letting the cat enjoy the outside via a fenced-in yard or enclosed “catio”.