Educational Resources

Indoor Versus Outdoor Cats

Many owners encounter a difficult decision when deciding whether or not to let their cats go outside. While this is their natural environment, there are many health and safety issues that must be addressed if cats have outdoor access. Conversely, indoor-only cats can become stressed or bored in an environment that is unchanging and environmental enrichment (adding interesting stimuli to the environment) is recommended. Ultimately, it is the owner’s decision to let their cat go outdoors. This handout will discuss the pros and cons of outdoor access and ways to enrich the lives of indoor cats.

Health Concerns of Outdoor Cats

Cats that go outside are more likely to come into contact with stray or feral cats. These cats can carry viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases that can be transmitted through direct contact or biting/fighting:

  • Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
  • Feline panleukopenia virus (distemper)
  • Upper respiratory viruses
  • Ringworm

Cats may also become infected with internal (intestinal worms, heartworms) or external (ear mites, fleas, ticks) parasites from either contact with other cats or from the environment. Some of these parasites may pose a health risk to humans as well.

Safety Concerns of Outdoor Cats

Other Cats
Cats are territorial animals. When a cat crosses into another cat’s territory or a cat that is not part of a social group of cats is encountered, fights or aggressive incidents can occur. Injuries, like abscesses or wounds, are common. Fighting also increases the risk of disease transmission (especially FeLV, FIV).

Busy streets and roadways are dangerous and many cats, even those considered to be ‘street smart’ are injured or killed by cars.

Wild Animals
Dogs, coyotes, raccoons, and other wild animals pose a significant risk to cats. Injuries from animal attacks are serious and can be fatal.

It is natural for cats to explore their environment. Cats may be exposed to toxins or poisons through oral ingestion or skin contact. Rodenticides are designed to taste good to attract rats and cats may accidentally ingest the poison or rats that have ingested the poison. Antifreeze also appears to have a pleasant taste for cats. Ingestion of these toxins can be fatal. Cats may also be exposed to pesticides or insecticides from roaming through treated yards.

Human Dangers
Outdoor cats may be the target of animal cruelty. Incidents of torture, including shootings with BB guns or arrows, have been documented in stray cats.

How Do I Keep My Indoor Cat Happy?

Providing various environmental stimuli that engage your cat's instinctual behaviors will help keep your indoor cat happier in its environment.

Hunting or stalking is a natural behavior that cats use to find food or prey. Cats and kittens that are playing will often ‘hunt’ each other as a way to practice hunting and engage socially.

Using toys that stimulate your cat hunting instincts will help provide exercise and playtime. Some examples are laser pointers, toys attached to strings, and self-moving toys.

Rotate toys so your cat doesn’t become bored with them. If your cat has had access to a toy for a while, put it away and provide other toys to play with. This will give your cat the ‘new’ toy experience over and over again.

Hiding toys or treats within the house in acceptable locations will encourage your cat to explore its environment.
Using treat or puzzle balls will both engage your cat’s hunting instincts and provide a small reward.

Scratching is a natural behavior of cats, whether they are declawed or not. Scratching serves to shorten and groom claws. Cats also have scent glands on their paw pads, so scratching deposits these oils and serves as a form of territorial marking.

Provide a variety of scratching posts or materials that are acceptable for your cat to scratch. Cats will have individual preferences on what type of material they use and whether the surface is vertical or horizontal. Scratching posts may use sisal fiber or rope, carpet, cardboard, or cloth.

In the wild, cats will climb trees for safety or look for prey. Providing cat trees or cat perches will allow your cat to seek higher ground, especially in situations where it may feel nervous. Placing the climbing areas or perches near a window will also allow your cat to sunbathe and look outside. Bird feeders or birdbaths near the window also provide additional visual stimulation.

Cats also love to seek the shelter of hiding places for either protection or shade from the sun when they are outside. Cardboard boxes, paper grocery bags, or cat tents or beds placed in quiet locations will provide your indoor cat with this opportunity.

Many cats will enjoy having a companion within the house. This could be another cat or possibly even a dog or other animal. Another pet allows your cat to engage in playing, chasing, grooming, and other social interactions while you or your family are away during the day.

Restricted Access to the Outdoors
In some instances, cats will beg for outside access. Training your cat to accept a harness, so that it can be walked outside on a leash provides your cat with the opportunity to be outside without the risk of exposure to the dangers listed above. Cat fences, outdoor cat enclosures, or kennels also keep your cat safe from other animals or other safety risks while allowing them to explore outside.

Adapted from: ‘Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats’ from the American Humane Association

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