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Should Cats Be Allowed Outside? Key Points From Both Sides of the Debate

Jane Harrell specializes in helping pet-focused businesses connect to their clients, enhance customer loyalty and become industry leaders – all while making a tangible difference for pets and their families. Prior to becoming President o...

Whether or not cats should be allowed outside has been debated for years

Should you let your cat go outside? In my 16-plus years working with pet professionals and animal welfarists, there are few questions that can spark serious debate and even hurt feelings like this one. But the reasons may surprise you and few cat parents know about the compromises available that can help increase benefits and decrease downsides to both.

Today, we’re going to dig into why that is, some of the key points from both sides of the argument and then some ways that you (as an awesome cat mom!) can compromise to keep your cat happy, healthy and with you as long as possible.

Beginning of indoor cats is more recent than you think

Cats and people have relied on each other for thousands of years, but it was only since the creation and mass production of cat litter in the mid-1900s that indoor litter boxes became a common thing.

Edward Lowe, the inventor of the first granulated clay litter for cat boxes, discovered the product’s use for cats in 1947. Before that, occasional use of substances like sand, ash and sawdust were provided to cats in a pinch who couldn’t make it outside, but weren’t effective enough at reducing smell to keep the human household members purring at the idea of indoor-only.

Now that indoor-only is possible, U.S. cat parents and experts are loving it

Since 1947, U.S. cat-parenting households have had a major overhaul, with as many as 3 in 4 households keeping their cats inside exclusively (Source: Vetstreet 2014 survey). Cats continue to migrate inside in the U.S., and according to Vetstreet’s poll, nearly a third of cat owners who keep their cats outside know their cat was at one time an outside cat. Likewise, most cat experts in the U.S. will agree that indoor-only is the best way to keep your cat safe and healthy as long as possible. (Check out Dr. Christie Long’s article "5 Great Reasons Why Life Indoors is Best for Your Cat.")

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The reasoning behind it is simple — outside is dangerous.

Here are just a few benefits to keeping your cat inside:

  • Keeping wild animals, toxins and cars at bay: Whether you live in the city, suburbs or a remote rural location, outside has dangers for the average house cat. Between predators, poisons and cars, there’s no truly safe roaming for house cats. In fact, during my days as a shelter worker, I heard plenty of stories from cat parents who learned this the hard way. The lucky cases made it home and had some high veterinary bills. The unlucky ones sometimes made it back as well — causing a heart-wrenching decision and scene for their families. One even saw their cat get picked up and carried from their yard by a large bird of prey. (Thankfully, her cat escaped and didn’t fall too far to the ground. He was a lucky one…)
  • Indoor cats can’t fight free-roaming cats for territory: “Cat bite wounds are some of the nastiest wounds you’ll ever see,” notes Long. However, a bite from a neighboring feral is one of the better-case scenarios for indoor-outdoor cats who express their natural instinct for territoriality. (Which many cats do.) Bites are generally treatable, though expensive and painful, while infectious cat-to-cat diseases like feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia virus and feline infectious peritonitis can ultimately be deadly.
  • You and your family are exposed to less: Indoor-only cats simply don’t have the same exposure to things like parasites and infections that indoor-outdoor cats do. Some of these can even pose a problem for you and your family. This goes beyond just fleas and ticks coming into your house and can pose a health problem for some people. (Check out these common diseases that pets can transmit to people.) The good news for indoor-only cat parents is that once your cat is screened for these things, keeping him inside makes it very unlikely that he’ll encounter them — keeping you both safe.
  • It’s easier to monitor what’s going in and coming out: “Knowing your cat’s urinary and bowel habits is important to getting those early signals that something might be going amiss with his health,” says Long. “Not enough urine, too much urine, hard stool, loose stool — it all means something, and if your cat is going outside, you’re missing important clues.” Likewise, cats that go outside may eat things that are toxic without their parent’s knowledge.
  • The wild birds and small mammals will thank you: Whether you cat is hungry or not, he’s likely to hunt as a form of mental enrichment. This can spell trouble for wild birds and small mammals in your area. In fact, it’s estimated that cats kill between 1.2 and 4 billion songbirds every year.

But indoor-outdoor is still all the rage for some cat parents — especially in England

Despite the above, about a quarter of cat parents in the U.S. and many more in countries like the U.K. are avid advocates for letting cats outside. In fact, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ cat-care guide states, “The RSPCA doesn’t recommend keeping a cat that is used to going outside, as an ‘indoor-only cat’, unless it is for health reasons.” This is in sharp contrast to animal welfarists here in the U.S. who often help cat parents transition their cats indoors.

So why do some insist an indoor-outdoor life for cats is best? It’s all about mental health.

While some cat parents let their cats go outside for reasons that have to do more with the humans (family members have allergies or don’t like the hair), the majority of avid outdoor cat advocates will talk about the benefits to the cat. These can include:

  • More mental stimulation: Indoor-outdoor cats get to explore and “own” areas that are typically much larger than just their homes. Likewise, they get to experience things changing and encounter novel challenges. “Remember, cats are intelligent so can get bored if they don’t have enough to do!” notes the RSPCA’s handout on cat care — and going outside can provide cats with a never-ending expanse of things to do and explore.
  • More exercise: “Cats with outdoor access are able to exercise more readily, either through hunting, climbing trees and fences or simply by having the extra space to utilize,” says the cat-care handout Indoor and Outdoor Cats from U.K.-based cat advocacy group Cats Protection. “Active cats are much less likely to become obese and suffer from associated health problems.”
  • Fewer behavior problems: While I couldn’t find anything statistically to back this up, it’s a reason given by many cat parents who strongly believe indoor-outdoor life is better for cats. And in some ways, it makes logical sense. After all, cats who are more mentally stimulated and get more exercise are less likely to “act out” in undesirable ways. “Cats with outdoor access are able to express their natural behaviour and can do so in a setting that is more ‘acceptable’ to the owner. For example, scratching and spraying are normal behaviours for cats and these traits often go unnoticed by owners of cats that have outdoor access,” says Cats Protection’s guide.

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Why the disagreement?

Truth be told, there was a time in my life when I fell staunchly on the indoor-only side of this debate. After all, years of working in shelters, with feral advocacy groups and with wild bird protection groups, showed me firsthand a myriad of horrors of letting cats outside. I simply couldn’t justify the risk to my little furry family — nor could I sleep at night imagining all the possible dangers my cats could encounter.

Those same years have taught me the true value of environmental enrichment for any animal. Mental stimulation, keeping our family members challenged and their minds active, is a crucial part of quality of life.

So here’s both the rub and what’s inspiring:

No matter which side of the debate you’re on, you’re trying to do what’s best for your cat — and that is amazing.

Compromises: Keeping your cat safe and his mind active

Luckily for us all, the options for cat parents are continuing to evolve. There have never been better options for those who want to both keep our cats safe and their minds active. It just takes a bit more work than opening the door. The trick is giving your cat ample opportunity to express natural behaviors appropriately while keeping his mind active.

  • In the house: Check out these great ways to stimulate your cat’s brain and keep him entertained. One longtime favorite in our household are treat balls that provide a challenge for our cats to “hunt” their treats. Also, be sure to provide plenty of places where he can scratch, jump and climb — or your cat will find not-so-great places to do so.
  • Take your cat for a walk: Contrary to popular belief, cats are trainable. While not all cats will enjoy the outdoors, you can provide those who love it the chance to explore and get some really unique photos of them at the same time. Check out these tips for walking your cat.
  • Consider a "catio": Catios, a form of enclosed outdoor space for cats and their humans, are a great option for those of you who can’t always supervise. Catios can be customized to the needs of both your cat and you — ranging from the size of an air conditioner window box to something the size of your backyard. The idea is to give your cat a place outside where most of the dangers are kept out while most of the mental benefits are still available.

All in all, the decision about what’s best for you and your cat needs to be a personal one. For me, the opportunity to enrich my cat’s environment, take them to the park on-leash and (hopefully someday) provide a catio gives my family and me the chance to bond even more with our felines. We look forward to indoor playtime, watching the birds together from the window or an occasional trip to sit in the sun together on-leash, and I get to keep my peace of mind knowing they’re safe.

More: Do You Need to Worry About BPA Levels in Dogs?

Have a question about transitioning your cat to be indoor-only? Ask the experts at PetCoach below.

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