Is It Better to Have an Indoor or an Outdoor Cat?


If you’re a new cat owner, you might be wondering if you should keep your cat permanently indoors, or keep him outside, or perhaps allow him some combination of the two. Admittedly, this can be a difficult decision—keeping him indoors all the time might seem cruel, ignoring his natural instincts and keeping him from something he obviously enjoys. Letting him venture freely outside, however, carries risks of disease, parasites and environmental hazards like cars and attacks from other animals.

Here are some of the salient facts about indoor and outdoor cats, including the dangers of an outdoor life for your pet, as well as some of the ways you can make your indoor cat happier and more satisfied.

The Dangers to Your Cat of Living Outdoors

The simple fact is that living outdoors is potentially dangerous for your cat. According to WebMD, while on average indoor cats live to the age of 17, the average outdoor cat lives for just 2 to 5 years. The shorter lifespan of outdoor cats is the result of two principal factors: first, it’s more difficult for owners to identify potential health problems when their cat lives outdoors; second, outdoor cats are exposed to a wide range of dangers, including the following 7:

  1. Contracting diseases from other cats.
    According to the American Feral Cat Coalition, there are more than 60 million feral and homeless cats in the United States. Many of these cats carry potentially life-threatening diseases which your cat can contract from them. These include feline leukemia (FeLV), feline AIDS (FIV), IP (feline infectious peritonitis), feline distemper (panleukopenia), and upper respiratory infections (or URI).
  2. Picking up parasites.
    Although the several parasites to which outdoor cats are exposed are typically not life-threatening, they can cause discomfort and produce symptoms such as scratching, skin infections, vomiting, and diarrhea. In addition, once your cat picks up one or more of these parasites, they can infest your home. The most common parasites which outdoor cats pick up are fleas, ticks, ear mites, intestinal worms, and ringworm (a fungal infection).

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  3. Being hit by a car.
    Every year, approximately 1.2 million dogs are killed by cars, but the number of cats which die on the roads each year is much higher—close to 5.4 million. Many people believe that cats have an innate ability to avoid busy streets, and cars—this is simply untrue. If you allow you cat to live outdoors, you run the risk of losing him to a car accident.
  4. Becoming the victim of animal cruelty.
    It’s a sad truth, but not everyone cares as much about animals as you do. Some people think a cat which wanders onto their property is fair game, and that they have the right to harm him. Others victimize animals just “for fun.” Letting your cat stay outside could put him at risk for an encounter with this kind of person.
  5. Being attacked by another animal.
    The myth that cats have “nine lives” unfortunately extends to the belief that they can “handle themselves” if they encounter a dog or a wild animal—they often can’t. Your outdoor cat could become the prey of dogs, coyotes, raccoons or foxes. The injuries your cat might sustain in such an attack could be fatal.
  6. Ingesting poisons.
    An outdoor cat can easily come into contact with toxins and poisons, including antifreeze (ethylene glycol), which animals (and humans) sometimes accidentally consume because of its sweet taste. They could also ingest rodent poisons if they hunt and eat one of these animals after it’s ingested poison bait.
  7. Climbing trees.
    Tree climbing might seem like a relatively harmless pastime, but it can be dangerous. Cats frequently will climb a tree and be unable to climb back down. In these cases, the cat might remain up in the tree for hours or even days. In the most serious situations, a cat will stay in the tree until he becomes dehydrated and weak, and as a result suffer a serious, perhaps even fatal, fall.

If you want your cat to experience the outdoors, you can do so while keeping him safe. For example, you could keep him on a leash or secure him in a cage. You should always supervise his time outside and make sure he doesn’t come into contact with any other cats. Finally, if you let your cat go outside, you should take him to your veterinarian once a year at minimum so he gets his necessary lifesaving vaccines, as well as parasite screening and treatment.

How to Keep Your Indoor Cat Happy

Obviously, your cat will be much safer—and live longer—if you keep him inside. Fortunately, there are some proactive steps you can take to make his indoor life as satisfying as possible, including the following:

  • Add another pet to your family.
    Contrary to popular notions, cats are highly social animals and enjoy the company of other cats (many even love the company of dogs!). Another cat (or dog) will give your cat a chance to do many of the things he loves the most, like playing, chasing, snuggling, and grooming. Having a pet companion for your cat will also increase the amount of needed exercise he gets.
  • Give him interactive toys.
    Cats love toys, especially those that stimulate them physically and mentally. Some of the best toys to keep your cat active and happy include those which simulate prey, laser toys, and kitty fishing poles. It’s best to join your cat in his play activities—this will further stimulate him—and you’ll both have a great time. You should also consider giving your cat a scratching post (cats have a natural instinct to scratch).
  • Create a cat-friendly indoor environment.
    It’s easy to simulate the outdoor world inside your home, providing your cat with the kind of environment which will make him feel confident and happy. Make sure he has a sufficient number of climbing places (you could buy him a cat tree from any pet supplier); perches on which he can bask in the sun and look outside; and hiding places—cats instinctively love to hide; you could buy a cat tent or tunnel, or save some money and use a cardboard box or even a used paper grocery bag).

If you decide to let your cat (or cats) live outdoors, you should do so knowing that decision comes with significant risks to his health and longevity and take the necessary precautions to protect him as much as possible from the dangers that lurk beyond your front door.

If you decide to keep him inside, make his life as happy as possible by simulating the outdoors and providing an environment that feels natural to him. Whether yours is an outdoor or an indoor cat, be sure to take him to your veterinarian regularly for health checkups and to get any needed shots.

At South Boston Animal Hospital, we are committed to giving your cat the loving treatment he needs to stay well and live the longest and happiest life possible. To learn more about our services, or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.