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.
Outdoor Cat Health
Although it's not the lifestyle vets recommend, LaRussell says keeping Odie outdoors has trimmed him down to what her vet says is an ideal weight. Plus she doesn't have to clean the litter box as often as she once did.
If you do make the decision to have an outdoor cat, it's important to take precautions to ensure that your cat is safe. “Whenever possible, try to get them in at night. Most problems, such as getting hit by a car or having a wild animal like a coyote after them -- it seems most of the problems occur at night,” says Bernadine Cruz, DVM, associate veterinarian at the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Hills, Calif., and member of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“If they won't stay in the house, maybe put them in the garage and put out food and water.” Another option is to build outdoor cat houses to keep your cats safe and protected day and night. Calvin and Hobbes have their own little houses. “They have blankets in the wintertime and lots of food and water,” McWhorter says.
Every cat -- whether indoor or outdoor -- should see the vet at least twice a year for an exam and regular regimen of vaccines, and all cats need to have some form of identification, Cruz says. You can either buy a collar with a tag (but make sure the collar has a safety clasp that will release if your cat gets caught on something), or invest in a microchip that is implanted between your cat's shoulder blades. Identification can increase the odds that your cat will be returned to you if he wanders away. “I've worked in emergency clinics when a cat comes in that obviously belongs to someone,” Cruz says. “I may not be able to get the owner immediately, but I know that owner cared enough to put the chip in and I'll go that step further [to locate them].” Finally, make sure your pet is spayed or neutered to prevent an unwanted litter.
La Russell understands the dangers that Odie can encounter outside, so she makes every effort to follow all of these guidelines. “We don't let him go outside when it's dark,” she says. “We treat him for fleas every 30 days, and we take him to the vet for his regular check-ups.” Those check-ups include vaccinations for diseases such as rabies and feline distemper, as well as heartworm medications.
Indoor Cat Health
Although living inside is generally considered healthier, indoor cats need special care, too. The indoor cat diet, which often involves grazing on an open bowl of food all day, plus a sedentary lifestyle, can lead to obesity and may predispose a cat to diabetes. That's why it's important to keep indoor cats active by providing scratching posts, perches, and a variety of toys to get them running and climbing.
If your cat is intent on getting outdoors, fit him for a harness. You might feel silly walking around your neighborhood with a cat on a leash, and your cat may protest at first, but once he gets used to it your cat might actually enjoy walking with you. Those who really want to pamper their pets can attach cat enclosures to their home, to give their cats the feeling of being outdoors without the dangers of being exposed to the outside.
Bottom line: Ultimately the decision of whether to have an indoor or outdoor cat is up to you. Most vets will tell you to keep your cat indoors, but if you do want your cat to stay outdoors, make sure your pet is safe by keeping up with all scheduled vaccinations, parasite prevention, and bringing your outdoor cat indoors at night.
Whenever you adopt a new cat, try to keep him indoors. It's much easier to go from an indoor to outdoor cat than to go from an outdoor to indoor cat. Once cats have had that first taste of freedom, it's tough to convince them to go back inside.
Jane Brunt, DVM, veterinarian and owner of the Cat Hospital at Towson and the Cat Hospital at Eastern Shore, Md., and executive director of the CATalyst Council.
Bernadine Cruz, DVM, associate veterinarian at the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Hills, Calif., and member of the American Veterinary Association.
Gleich SE, Krieger S, Hartmann K. Prevalence of feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukaemia virus among client-owned cats and risk factors for infection in Germany. J Feline Med Surg. 2009 Jul 17 [Epub ahead of print].
American Veterinary Medical Association. “AVMA positions address animal welfare concerns.”
Daily Health News
Pet Health Resources
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter