Dear Ms. Kitty,
I’ve heard it’s better to keep cats indoors but they seem to be really happy outside. Why shouldn’t I let my cat outside to be a more natural cat?
Recently someone told us she had heard a cat crying for days. After days of searching, she finally found the cat caught in a trap in her neighbor’s yard. The neighbor was gone, either on vacation or moved. By the time the cat was rescued, she was starving and severely dehydrated. She weighed the same as a 3-month-old kitten. She survived, but it took lots of TLC to bring her back.
Cat as Prey
Cats are very small animals in a very big world. Cats are predators, but they are also prey.
Any veterinary clinic can tell you how vulnerable cats are to cars, wildlife, birds of prey, dogs and especially inhumane humans. Cats left outside can be maimed, mauled or killed. At the very least, they can be so terrified by these threats they develop a feline form of PTSD, far less capable of trusting humans, even kind ones.
The Wildlife Question
Cats are also hardwired to hunt. Without that instinct, they would starve in the wild. Some say that cats are a huge threat to wildlife populations, especially birds.
Research shows that birds make up only 16% of an average feral cat diet. This issue is controversial but in fact, humans—with their cars, pollution and habitat destruction—are a far greater threat to bird populations. It’s also been proven that the birds cats eat are ones who were less likely to survive anyway.
Birders and cat fans can agree that keeping cats indoors eliminates this issue. If a cat is truly feral, a Trap-Neuter-Return program (TNR) is the best solution for both cats and wildlife. TNR cats are fixed and returned to the outdoors to be managed by their human caretakers. A cat who is not starving will be less threat to all outside creatures.
Cats and Their Territory
Outside cats can threaten inside cats too. If an outdoor cat leaves his scent and threatens through windows, inside cats may feel the need to defend their space.
This can lead to misplaced aggression, where they can take out their frustration on other cats in the home. The threat of an outside cat can lead an inside ones to mark, setting them up for potential surrender if the issue isn’t resolved.
Outside cats are hardwired to compete with other cats for territory, which can lead to fighting, especially if either cat is intact. This exposes them to life-threatening viruses, not to mention abscesses and eye wounds which can turn serious. A female kitten of 4 months can get pregnant, leaving her and her babies even more vulnerable.
Fighting also sets up cats to be afraid of other cats. This can set them up to not have cat friends once they come inside.
Play with Your Cat
Most people have learned that cats are safer indoors. However, without replacing what they love about being outside, they can become bored and lethargic, leading to obesity and other illness. Only you can give them that in exchange for keeping them safe.
The easiest solution is to play with your cat every day. Even 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference to your cat’s health. Just like you’d take your dog for daily walks, exercising your cats with toys satisfies that hunting instinct. This can also strengthen your bond and give them more confidence in all kinds of situations.
We often hear people say their cat doesn’t like to play, but almost all cats will play with the right toy, especially one that moves! Some cats like toys that fly through the air and some like floor toys. Even the most shy cat will usually perk up with a stick under a rug. The best toys are those that have you on the other end of them!
Take Your Cat for a Walk
If your cat is confident, you can train him to walk on a halter or walking jacket. Don’t expect to be able to slap a halter on a cat and have him prance around like a dog right away. Cats are very sensitive to touch. Putting something unfamiliar on their necks or backs can make them feel like they’ve been caught by a predator, prompting them to freeze, flee or fight back.
Leash training is exactly that: something a cat has to be trained for. Getting your cat gradually used to the feel of the halter before you even head outdoors is the first step. Click here for many good techniques for leash training a cat.
Build a Catio
Yes, almost all cats love sunshine and fresh air. Probably the best way to give your cat that is to make him a catio. That’s right, a cat patio. This is a safe, enclosed space for him to be able to find fresh air, sunshine, and creatures to watch and hear.
Catios can be as elaborate as a complete, enclosed outside space or a simple, small area attached to a window. One of the simplest solutions is to screen in your own porch or deck, which can also give you outside time together. As long as your cat has access to the space and room to move around, he will probably love going there.
Make Your Yard Safe
Many cats love going outside in their own yard. However, without constant supervision, most cats can climb over fences. There are several companies that offer solutions for this, including unobtrusive extensions made of flexible fencing or rollers that can be attached to a fence to keep cats from going over. Click here to find out more about Purrfect Fence and here to find out more about Colorado Coyote Rollers.
Cats have the reputation of being loners but the truth is cats in their natural state will bond with family members in groups called colonies. Unless cats have had horrible experiences with other cats, they will usually tolerate and may come to love having another cat around. Cats who are friends will play with and entertain each other, much as they would outdoors.
Safe and Sound
No cat should have to spend a lifetime locked in a house without a chance to be a normal cat: playing, rolling in the sun and interacting with the world. With a minimum investment of time and love, you can give your indoor cat all those things and safety too!
Many thanks to Life After 50 for publishing our Ask Ms Kitty columns, including this one! Also headbonks to our Cat Behavior Consultants Melissa Shandley of Play & Treat Pet Service and Carole Galloway of Colorado Cats Hotel for their cat wisdom and commitment to keeping cats happy in their homes.