Is it safe for your kitty to venture outdoors? Learn the pros and cons of having an indoor versus outdoor cat, including how it affects their behavior and lifespan.

By Kristi Valentini
August 24, 2020
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Cats yearn for the great outdoors. They rush to the front door every time it opens, or sit at the window yowling like the world's saddest cat because they can't go outside. No doubt, cats want to roam. But is it safe?

There are pros and cons on both sides of the indoor/outdoor cat debate. Your kitty’s environment can affect their behavior, health, and lifespan. Read on to get the information you need before making a decision about letting your cat explore the great outdoors.

Will My Cat’s Behavior Change if He Goes Outdoors?

It’s possible! Cats that are allowed outside may be less likely to develop behavior problems like urinating outside the litter box and stalking and “attacking” people in the home. According to International Cat Care, these actions can be the result of boredom and frustration. They’re also less likely to scratch furniture since they’re already clawing trees and other things outdoors.  

Does That Mean I Need to Let My Indoor Cat Roam Outside? 

Not necessarily. Cats who are kept indoors can still get the stimulation they crave without stalking the neighborhood songbirds. You just have to make an effort to create an environment they enjoy, according to the cat experts at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Cats need to climb, scratch, hide, and jump. 

To keep your indoor kitty busy, provide toys, a scratching post, and a cat tower with hiding holes. Cats also love to watch what’s going on outside. Encourage the habit by giving your fur baby a window seat or perch. Having a bird or squirrel feeder right outside the window will keep your cat entertained for hours, too. There are plenty of ways to enrich your cat’s indoor environment!

Credit: Andrea Marini / EyeEm / Getty

Do Outdoor Cats Have More Health Concerns?

Your cat’s lifestyle increases their risk of certain health conditions, so whether she's an indoor or outdoor kitty will change the kind of risks she's exposed to. Indoor cats are typically less active, which increases their rate of diabetes, obesity, arthritis, and heart disease, Douglas Payne, DVM, medical director of VCA East Penn Animal Hospital in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, says. “But cats that spend a significant amount of time outdoors are at a much higher risk of a completely different set of problems.” 

Being out in the elements, the environment, and having contact with other animals and people creates a long list of concerns, including:

  • Heatstroke and hypothermia
  • Bacterial, viral and fungal infections
  • Wounds from fighting with other animals
  • Contagious diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia, and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • Parasites such as fleas, ticks, ringworm, and roundworms
  • Trauma from being hit by a car or abused by people
  • Poisoning from ingesting toxic chemicals like antifreeze and rat poison

What About Lifespan? Do Indoor Cats Live Longer?

If your feline friend likes to roam free, you may want to brace yourself. Because outdoor cats are exposed to more dangers than indoor cats, their life expectancy is greatly reduced. According to UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, indoor cats live an average of 10 to 15 years while outdoor cats typically live only 2 to 5 years. 

Are There Ways to Keep My Cat Safe When He’s Outdoors?

Given the hazards cats face outside, a responsible cat owner like yourself should seek out ways to keep your kitty safer. The Animal Humane Society has a few tips for reducing some of the risks. You can:

  • Microchip your cat in case they get picked up by animal control or taken to a veterinary clinic
  • Administer year-round flea and tick prevention medication 
  • Try to get your cat inside before it gets dark
  • Keep your cat’s vaccinations up-to-date
  • Get pet insurance because outdoor cats will require more veterinary visits 

So, Is It OK to Let My Cat Outside?

Some people believe that letting cats go outside gives them a better quality of life. But most experts agree that staying indoors is the healthier choice for cats. 

If you want to give your cat the best of both worlds, you can try leash-training your kitty with a specially designed cat harness to help keep them safe. You can also make or purchase a cat patio (catio)—an enclosed area that lets cats get fresh air and sunshine without the risks of being entirely free.  

“Ultimately, it’s really up to you to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of letting your cat go outside,” Payne says. “Talk to your veterinarian for help evaluating what is safest and in the best interest of your pet.”