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Does my indoor cat need outdoor access?

cat looking outside the window

If you recently brought home a cat or kitten, you’re probably in seventh heaven while simultaneously debating how to be the best pet parent to your new fur baby. From food to health to litter, there’s a lot to consider – especially for first-time cat owners. One of the major questions surrounding cat care concerns outdoor access and whether to keep your new pet as an indoor, outdoor, or hybrid pet. There’s plenty of debate among the cat-owner community, so it’s easy to get tied in knots pondering things like: Does my cat need outdoor access? If so, how much and how often? What if I choose to keep them indoors full-time, will they feel deprived? And, who lives longer and healthier lives: indoor or outdoor cats? 

Table of contents 

Indoor cats vs. outdoor cats 

It’s common for new cat owners to debate the merits of indoor/access because they feel concerned that an indoor-only lifestyle would deprive their pet of fresh air and sunlight and the instinctive urges of an animal to explore natural environments. But it’s important to consider that, along with the freedom that outdoor access grants, comes plenty of risks to both your cat and its health, and the ecosystem into which it is venturing. Let’s explore what the experts suggest when it comes to your kitty and the great outdoors.  

According to several animal care organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as the majority of veterinarians, cats are best confined – whether that is to an indoor space or an enclosure or leash outdoors. There are many reasons for this decision, but the statistics speak for themselves: Indoor cats live an average of 10 to 15 years, compared to outdoor cats who live an average of only two to five years, according to UC Davis Veterinary Medicine.  The main reasons are the number and variety of potential risks that face a cat venturing outdoors alone. Known for their independence, studies have shown some cats venture as far as half a mile per day. At this range, no matter whether in an urban or rural environment, a cat may come across any number of dangers from which you’re unable to protect them.  

Health risks for outdoor cats 

Diseases: A house or apartment is a relatively clean, controlled place for a cat to live, where exposure to disease remains unlikely. Conversely, outdoor cats face a high risk of infection from the environment and from contact with other cats. Allowing a cat to roam outside risks exposure to infectious diseases such as rabies, heartworm disease from mosquito bites, feline immunodeficiency virus, and feline leukemia, all of which can be fatal.  

Parasites: When an outdoor cat returns after a long day of exploration, there’s no guarantee they’re coming home alone. Parasites like fleas, ticks, and tapeworms are easily picked up by roaming cats – along with the pathogens they carry. Diseases like Bartonellosis, Cat Scratch Disease, anemia, and flea allergy dermatitis are easily transmitted to cats from fleas; while ticks can transmit tularemia, Lyme Disease, and anaplasmosis, as well as the often fatal cytauxzoonosis blood disease. Preventative medicines like Frontline can help your cat fight infection, but there’s no surefire protection against parasites-borne disease. And that’s not all – your cat can unknowingly carry these unwanted guests into the home, where they can easily jump between human hosts.  

Risks to outdoor cats 

There are other dangers to contend with as an outdoor cat, whether in the city or the country. The size, agility, and independence of cats make them far more elusive than dogs, which are more easily identified and returned to the family home.  

Other animals: Beyond its backdoor, a cat will cross paths with a multitude of other animals – among them feral cats and predators. Predation, territorial attacks, infection from bites and scratches, or exposure to rabies are all risks that face a domestic pet outside of the home. A study at the University of Illinois that tracked outdoor cats over several years, found catfights were the leading cause of death. Predators like coyotes, fisher cats, raptors, snakes, and even raccoons will target a domestic cat for food or in defense of its young.  

Cars: When it comes to dangers facing felines outside the cushy comfort of home, road traffic accidents present one of the greatest threats. A 2001 study by authors Olson and Allen revealed that 51% of outdoor-access cats who died suddenly and unexpectedly were victims of car collisions. Further research reveals younger cats between seven months and two years are most likely to be hit by a car, a figure that drops each year as a cat gets older and more sedentary.  Male cats are also 1.3 times more likely to suffer injury or death on the road than females because of their tendency to roam greater distances.  

Toxins: Without direct human supervision, an outdoor cat may be tempted to ingest materials that can cause serious illness and death. Common domestic items that are widely used around yards and garages like rat bait and antifreeze, which have properties that make them appealing to cats, are highly toxic and can quickly kill a cat if enough is eaten without medical intervention.  

Environmental exposures: It’s not just manmade materials that threaten the life of outdoor-access cats. A large portion of plants are toxic to cats at certain dosages, these include species commonly found in gardens and wild areas such as buttercups, daisies, lily species, bittersweet, ivy, dock, yews, foxglove, and geranium to name just a few. In other cases, cats can get stuck in trees when they’re unable to descend and don’t have a nearby owner to help extricate them from the branches, ultimately risking injury jumping from a significant height.  

Environmental impacts of outdoor cats 

It’s important to bear in my mind not only the risks outdoor life might pose to your pet but also the impact of your cat itself on the wider environment.  

It’s speculated that since the history of cat-human cohabitation is much shorter than that of dogs, they have retained more of their wild and predatory instincts. According to the Smithsonian, “cats entered into the human sphere relatively more recently, probably around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.” Some experts even prefer to refer to housecats as “semi-domesticated,” since they retain many of the same characteristics as their wild brethren. There are a huge number of feral cats living in the United States, approximately 73 million, surviving on the margins of human communities but without any direct support for survival.  

As a non-native predator, domestic house cats have a huge impact on wildlife populations, particularly those of songbirds. According to a study published in Nature Connections, “Free-ranging domestic cats kill as many as four billion birds and 22.3 billion mammals annually […] Findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.”  

Protect your outdoor cat 

If you are still determined to allow your cat to roam at will, it’s essential to ensure they are protected and easy to identify in the case of diseases or loss. While a collar may break or get removed, a microchip is a reliable way to identify your cat if picked up by animal authorities. Contact your veterinarian to arrange for microchipping, and while you’re there, make sure your cat is up to date on its vaccinations. Shots protect against rabies, feline panleukopenia virus, feline rhinotracheitis virus, feline calicivirus, and feline leukemia. 

Controlled outdoor access for cats 

If you’re still dedicated to offering your cat some measure of outdoor access, some useful compromises offer your feline friend fresh air without an unlimited license to roam.  

Enclosures: Since cats are nimble escape artists, it’s almost impossible to keep them confined to a backyard unsupervised using fences alone. For peace of mind, a fully gated enclosure is necessary. This can be only a few feet in size, known as a cat house or “catio,” which allows them to travel indoors and out via a cat door. These models can be built to spec or bought online and will enrich your cat’s daily life with views of the outside world and wildlife.  

Leashed walk: Leashes aren’t just for dogs! An accompanied outdoor walk with your cat is a great way to provide exercise and stimulation, especially if introduced young. It may take a few tries to get you both comfortable with the harness and the act of walking as a pair – not to mention overcoming any feelings of self-consciousness you might experience! – but many cat owners have an enriching experience building a daily walk into their cat’s routine.