Should You Let Your Cat Explore The Outdoors?

Picture of cat sitting on a tree

Your cat chirps at the window and lurks by the door, waiting for a chance to dash between your legs. She thinks she’s a tiger and wants to prowl and pounce. She may also want to meet the feral tomcat who slinks around the neighborhood. Should you indulge her curiosity and let her see what’s out there? That’s a decision that only you can make, of course. But the risks are significant and the rewards are few. Cats are truly happier and healthier when they stay inside, even if they might try to persuade you otherwise. Also remember that if you keep kitty inside from the start, she can’t miss what she never knew.

Indoor cats live much, much longer than their outdoor counterparts. The average lifespan of an indoor-only cat approaches 17 years while outdoor cats top out around five years and many don’t even make it that long. Not only do outdoor cats have shorter lives but their lives tend to be less pleasant as well, at least physically. Outdoor cats are highly vulnerable to injuries, both from being part of the circle of life and from distinctly human dangers such as cars and pesticides. They are also likely to be exposed to illnesses and parasites. It’s a scary world out there for kitties!

As much as cats hate visiting the vet, you’d think that they have a natural aversion to cars. This isn’t true, however. Cats generally do not recognize the danger that busy roads pose. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly five and a half million cats are hit by cars every year in the United States, and 97% of those accidents are fatal. Outdoor cats also sometimes seek shelter in warm engine compartments and this can also be fatal when an unknowing driver starts up the car. Cars are great for us but they are not great for our feline friends.

Besides the obvious hazards of vehicles, predators, and fights with other animals, outdoor cats are susceptible to disease and poisoning. You might not think that automotive antifreeze would be very appealing, but your cat does. It smells and tastes sweet and it’s very tempting to cats and other animals, but it’s also extremely toxic and you might not know that your sneaky kitty got into your shade-tree mechanic neighbor’s driveway until it’s way too late. Other potential hazards include pesticides and poisons that are deliberately placed to eliminate pests. Even if these are unappealing to your cat, they can get on her paws or her fur, and we all know that means they will be licked up.

Cats who spend time outdoors will naturally spend time with other outdoor cats, which increases their exposure to diseases such as feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. While responsible owners vaccinate their cats, the vaccines are not 100% effective but the diseases are 100% fatal. This is not a risk worth taking. Parasites such as heartworm can also be devastating to your cat’s health; at the very least, they can be quite uncomfortable. And the discomfort is not contained to your pet. If your cat gets fleas, you’ll probably get fleas too.

Most people who love their cats also love other animals. While it’s important to protect your precious pets from predators, remember that kitty can be a predator as well. Cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year as well as countless snakes, rodents, and other small animals. Keeping your cat indoors is not only kinder and safer for your cat but also for other animals in your neighborhood. It will also probably save you from the “gifts” that outdoor cats like to bring their human parents since humans are clearly inadequate hunters who can’t catch and mangle their own treats.

There are, of course, a few benefits to allowing your cat to roam occasionally. Indoor-only cats tend to be sedentary, which can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. However, this tendency can be easily mitigated by providing plenty of high-quality toys for running, scratching, and climbing. Buying cat toys is actually good for your cat’s health! Tell your spouse that we said so when the credit card bill comes in. And if you have only one cat, a companion would be an excellent way to increase that cat’s socialization and energy level. You can blame us for that too if you like.

The bottom line is that cats may act like they want to be outside, and they may be pretty convincing about it, but it’s not safe for them. If you truly believe that it’s cruel to keep your cat inside all the time (it isn’t!), please consider some alternatives such as harnesses and catios. It will take a while to get your cat used to being on a leash — the younger you start, the better — but it will keep your kitty safe from predators, poisoning, and accidental injuries. So will catios or free-standing enclosures where you can watch your cat pounce and play in the safety of her own backyard.

And, because cats are sneaky and mischievous, you should assume that despite your best intentions, your cat will escape your home at least once. Even if you don’t ever intend for your cat to be outdoors without you, prepare for any possibility by making sure that she is spayed, vaccinated, and microchipped. Declawing a cat is not only painful and unnecessary but it deprives the cat of any kind of defense if she should find herself in a situation where she needs it. Try to keep your cat inside but make sure she is prepared to survive if she disagrees with that decision. Don’t let a dash out the door become a tragedy.

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Marcy Howell

Marcy Howell

Marcy has been adopted by a wide variety of pets both exotic and ordinary over the years but there’s almost always been a cat or three in the mix as well as plenty of fur on the furniture. The current menagerie includes two cats, a floppy-eared bunny, and a step-dog.

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