Why it's Safer for Your Cat to Stay Inside
Ah—the great outdoors! Nature is wonderful to experience, but it may not always be the safest bet for your cat. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that the life span of the typical free-roaming cat (one that doesn’t spend much time indoors) is less than three years. Indoor-only cats, on the other hand, can live 15 to 18 years or more—and that is a huge difference.
THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING INDOORS
“It’s a personal preference to want cats to be indoor/outdoor, but from a medical perspective, there is no advantage to it,” says Cori Gross, DVM, who practices at Meow Cat Rescue in Kirkland and Feline Behavior Housecalls in Bellevue, both in Washington. “Indoor-only cats have an advantage: We know that they live a lot longer.”
But not all cat owners want to keep their cats inside. “Many people do let their cats outside on a part- or full-time basis, no matter what we tell them,” says Nancy Peterson, the Cat Programs Manager of HSUS. “They believe it’s cruel to deprive cats of what nature intended. They believe the quality of life is so much better. But the fact is, it’s safer to keep cats inside or safely confined while outside.”
“Indoor-only cats have a lower risk of being exposed to toxins, such as antifreeze and rat poison, and they aren’t the victim of pranks,” says Dr. Gross. “The risk is just much lower, and they live longer.”
Country or city, it doesn’t matter. In the city, cats may be more at risk for being hit by a car, while in the country, they are more at risk for attack by predators. “These days, as we’re encroaching on natural wildlife habitats, we’ve got coyotes and foxes even in urban areas,” says Peterson. Many wildlife organizations and bird groups urge that cats be kept inside to keep them safe from wild animal attacks.
According to a study done for HSUS in 2001, two out of three veterinarians suggested that their clients keep their cats indoors. Veterinarians’ primary concerns about letting cats outside were the danger from vehicles (65%) and the possibility of catching diseases (56%).
An indoor cat is also less likely to be exposed to contagious diseases or to pass on an infectious agent. “Some of the diseases that cats can pick up strolling around the neighborhood are zoonotic. That means people can catch these diseases, such as ringworm, roundworms, and hookworms, from animals,” says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Los Angeles, which has an indoor-only adoption policy (unless the cat is protected through appropriate vaccinations and parasite preventives). “Cats can also pick up more serious diseases that are not zoonotic but are still very dangerous, such as feline leukemia virus and upper respiratory illnesses. In addition to parasites, bacteria, and viruses, there is also the chance of exposure to or ingestion of poisonous plants.”
HOW TO MAKE STAYING INSIDE STIMULATING
The things that your cat enjoys about being outside can actually be reproduced in a much safer, indoor environment. Essentially, you just have to satisfy your cat’s basic needs—to scratch, climb, hunt, roam, and explore— and you will end up with a happy cat. Here’s how:
Give your cat places to perch on and to scratch. “Cats need to be able to scratch and climb,” says Dr. Gross. It reduces their anxiety when they can get up above a situation or look out a window. Cats also like to have vertical space to travel through. One of the best ways to keep your kitty happy is to have a giant cat tree that she can climb (and scratch). Alternatively, you can make sure you have a scratching post, furniture, and window sills that your cat can use as a perch. Also, weather permitting, you can leave a window open—with a secure screen, of course—in a sunny location (or just leave the shades up).
Satisfy your cat’s hunting needs. Hunting is a natural, important, strong urge for cats. However, it is quite simple to fulfill their hunting instincts inside, without the bother or mess of live prey. The solution? Toys! “Cats are predators, so you want toys they can chase,” says Peterson. Wands, laser lights, and even a foam ball thrown across a room will provide a cat something to chase and pounce on.
Cover the basics. Cats need food, water, space, and plenty of litterboxes. As long as you have enough space, there’s nothing wrong with having multiple cats inside. “But if you have multiple cats, it’s essential to have multiple litterboxes,” says Dr. Gross. “It’s critical for their anxiety levels. The best recommendation we have is one litterbox per cat, plus one. If you have four cats, you should have five boxes. It’s all about allocation of resources.”
HOW TO KEEP YOUR CAT PROTECTED—INDOORS OR OUT
Keep vaccines and preventives up-to-date. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends that every cat get the core vaccines for upper respiratory diseases, panleukopenia, and rabies. Even indoor- only cats should be vaccinated for rabies. “They are potentially at risk because bats or raccoons can get into the house,” Dr. Gross says. In addition, most states and municipalities require cats to be vaccinated against rabies. All kittens and some adult cats (depending on exposure risk) should be vaccinated for feline leukemia virus as well. The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) also recommends keeping cats on year-round heartworm preventives that have broad-spectrum activity against zoonotic parasites, as well as having a fecal test done once or twice a year (depending on the pet’s health and lifestyle factors) to make sure cats are free of parasites. Outdoor cats should be tested more frequently. Ask your veterinarian which vaccines and preventives are appropriate for your cat.
Stay current on flea and tick control. Fleas can be a big problem for cats, even those that aren’t exposed to the outdoors. “I see indoor-only cats with fleas a lot,” says Dr. Gross. “Humans can bring fleas and ticks home on their shoes and clothes. Cats that live with dogs can also be exposed to fleas and ticks.”
Identify your cat. Make sure your cat has a collar with an ID tag and, ideally, a microchip as well. “An ID and chip will tip off an animal control officer that it’s your cat,” says Bernstein. “You can write on a tag: ‘If I’m outside, call this number.’ You can also mention that the cat has a microchip.”
Spay or neuter. It is imperative that your cat be spayed or neutered whether she lives inside or outside. “Cats can become pregnant at five months of age,” says Bernstein. “They can also get pregnant while they are nursing.” Talk to your veterinarian about what is best for your cat.
Keep your cat from roaming freely. If you do decide that you want your cat to see the outdoors, keep her safe. Free-standing, enclosed catteries with perches are available. You can also fence in your backyard; just make sure that it is a fence the cat can’t get under, over, or around. “Some people even train their cats to walk on a harness and leash, which is kind of fun,” says Peterson.
According to the 2007–2008 American Pet Products Manufacturers Association’s National Pet Owners Survey, there were 88.3 million pet cats in 2006:
- 33% were obtained as strays.
- During the day, 63% of cats were kept indoors, 9% outdoors only, and 27% both indoors and outdoors.
- During the night, 70% of cats were kept indoors only, 8% outdoors only, and 16% both indoors and outdoors.