Should You Let Your Cat Go Outside?
Pet owners often let their cats go outside. Some people feel that cats are meant to be outdoors because it is their natural habitat and feel that to keep cats indoors all of the time is cruel. They feel that cats cannot be happy when they are kept as indoor only cats. This is not true. Cats can be very happy when kept indoors and it is much safer for them than letting them go outside where they may encounter numerous hazards. This is especially true if you live in an urban area where there is a lot of traffic.
In fact, just last week while I was taking a walk to the store I saw a cat who was attempting to cross a very busy street. I managed to lure him away to a safer area and then got him to follow me to the house where I knew he lived. Thankfully, his owners don't know how close they may have come to never seeing him again, had he actually tried crossing the road where I found him. He is a sweet little thing and it would have been a real shame had something happened to him.
Life Expectancy of Outdoor Versus Indoor Cats
According to Childs and Ross (1986) cats in urban areas that go outdoors have an average lifespan of about 3 to 5 years. In contrast, cats that are kept indoors only, frequently live 20 years or more, with most indoor cats living to at least 12 years.
Outdoor Hazards For Cats
There are many hazards that outdoor cats may encounter. One of these is of course the risk of being hit by a car. This happens more frequently than one might think. Also, there is the risk of being exposed to diseases, such as feline leukemia, FIV, infestation by internal and external parasites, and injury due to fights with other cats and animals.
In addition, outdoor cats have access to toxic plants and other toxic substances that may be in your neighbor's trash or on the ground.
Cats can also get into all sorts of other trouble outdoors. Recently I heard about a cat that was let outside that got stuck under a house. Eventually someone was able to get the cat out and she is fine now, but she was stuck under there for about 3 days. Cats will also sometimes get under the hoods of cars and will become severely injured when someone starts the car.
Also, cats that are let outdoors will sometimes annoy your neighbors by walking on their cars, digging up their gardens, and killing the local wildlife.
What If Your Cat Is Used To Going Outdoors?
People often rescue strays who were, of course, outdoor cats. Just because they were once outdoors doesn't mean that they won't be happy indoors. In fact, some stray cats were having such a difficult time fending for themselves that they don't want to go outdoors once they are rescued.
However, some cats do seem to want to go outdoors, especially if that is what they are used to. They will sit by the door expecting someone to let them outside. However, if you tell them that they can't go out, and then don't let them out, they will eventually get used to staying indoors. They may not like it at first, but eventually they will adapt. The key is to keep your cat entertained indoors.
For example, when your cat is crying by the door because he or she wants to be let outside try diverting your cat's attention by entertaining him or her with some other activity. If your cat has not yet been spayed or neutered, then spaying or neutering your cat will also keep your cat from wanting to go outdoors as badly.
How to Entertain Your Indoor Cat
There are several ways to do this, but one of them is to simply play with your cat. Cats enjoy being played with. If you find interactive toys for you and your cat to enjoy together this will keep your cat entertained. Also, often having more than one cat will help your cat with boredom. I find that my cats enjoy looking out the window and so I put a birdfeeder near the window for them to watch. This often keeps them entertained for hours (see the article How to Entertain Your Indoor Cat With a Birdfeeder.
If You Do Decide to Let Your Cat Go Outdoors:
If you truly feel that your cat is unhappy being kept indoors only and you choose to let him or her outside, then please make sure that you have your cat spayed or neutered. I am always shocked at the number of people who don't realize the importance of this. There are far too many unwanted kittens and cats to let your cat breed with the neighborhood stray population or your neighbors' cats (also see the article Reasons to Spay or Neuter Your Cat or Kitten.
In addition, make sure that your cat is up to date on all of his or her vaccinations, including feline leukemia. You will also need to take stool samples from your cat to the veterinarian on a regular basis to have your cat checked for worms. Typically, once indoor only cats are worm-free they remain that way. However, this isn't true of outdoor cats because they have constant exposure to parasitic organisms. Outdoor cats will also need to be treated for fleas on a monthly basis. Don't use over-the-counter products, but get something from your veterinarian or some product that your veterinarian recommends, such as Advantage.
Finally, know that everytime you let you cat outdoors that the potential for injury or disease does exist, especially if you live in a high traffic area. I believe that if you make your cat's indoor environment rich enough and fun that your cat can learn to be happy indoors.
If your cat absolutely will not adjust to being kept indoors then there are outdoor cat enclosures that are made specifically for cats that you can buy. These enclosures enable your cat to go outdoors without the fear that your cat can get into trouble or get run over by a car. I have not used one, but my veterinarian has one for her cats and she says that they love it.
Here is a picture of a stray cat who once lived outdoors that now lives as a perfectly happy indoor only cat:
Here she is again now living indoors as a very much loved pet:
J.E. Childs, J.E. and Ross, L. (1986). Urban cats: Characteristics and estimation of mortality due to motor vehicles. American Journal of Veterinary Research 47:1643-1648.