Should You Have an Indoor Cat or an Outdoor Cat?

WebMD discusses the positives and negatives of indoor and outdoor cats.

By Stephanie Watson
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by D. West Hamryka, DVM

Hobbes, a 10-year-old orange tabby, has gotten into his share of trouble over the years. Roaming around his Fayetteville, Ga., neighborhood he's had a few run-ins with the local wildlife. “One day he came in and he had part of his jaw missing,” recalls his owner, Lisa McWhorter. “One of his eyes was closed shut before, and he had an abscess on his back one time from where he got into a fight with something.”

Despite enjoying the freedom to roam, outdoor cats like Hobbes can lead a dangerous life. “Allowing cats outdoors increases their risk of being injured and exposed to infectious diseases such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV),” says Jane Brunt, DVM, veterinarian and owner of the Cat Hospitals at Towson and Eastern Shore, Md., and executive director of the CATalyst Council. Outdoor cats like Hobbes also can get wounded in fights with other animals, hit by cars, or killed when they inadvertently drink poisons such as engine coolant or antifreeze, she says.

Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats: Making the Decision

The consensus among veterinarians and organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is that it's healthier to keep cats indoors. “Considering the potential dangers outdoors, an indoor lifestyle is much safer for cats,” Brunt says. “Indoor cats have a much lower likelihood of becoming hurt or ill from outdoor hazards.”

As evidence, indoor cats live longer than their outdoor counterparts. Cats who are kept indoors can reach the ripe old age of 17 or more years, whereas outdoor cats live an average of just two to five years. Another reason for indoor cats' longevity is that it's easier for their owners to identify health problems early, before they become life threatening.

Gina Gentilozzi never thought twice about keeping her three cats indoors, particularly because she has some unpleasant memories about her own childhood pets. “When I was little, I had indoor-outdoor cats and they all had fleas,” she recalls. “And outdoor cats bring you home dead things and I don't like that either.”

McWhorter is well aware that Hobbes and his sister, Calvin, lead a riskier life than her two indoor cats, Lucy and Ricky, but she inherited them from her home's previous owner and was afraid it would be hard for them to make the transition from outdoor to indoor cats. “I really didn't want four cats in the house, and they [Calvin and Hobbes] were accustomed to being outside,” she says.

For Gentilozzi and McWhorter, the choice was relatively easy, but many other pet owners struggle with the decision of whether to keep their cats indoors or outdoors. They might be afraid that their indoor cats will become fat and lazy. Or, they may think it's cruel to keep cats cooped up inside, forced to spend their days staring out the window. Some indoor cats do seem to yearn for the outside world.

Once Valerie LaRussell and her husband, Greg, let their cat Odie outside for a “playdate” with a neighbor's cat, there was no going back. The 2-year-old grey tabby would “meow his head off” and tear up the furniture whenever he was kept indoors. They tried taking him outside with a harness, but he slipped right out of it. “We just became resigned to the fact that he's going to be an indoor-outdoor cat,” LaRussell says.