Dr. Justine Lee, PetMD
I’ve talked before about avoiding the “hit-by-car” emergency by keeping your dog or cat under control: either on a leash or by keeping them indoors. I got a lot of grief from some feline owners and veterinarians when It’s a Cat’s World … You Just Live In It came out. Why? Because I stated my opinion: that cats should be kept indoors.
First, there are several medical reasons for why to keep your cats indoors. Let the statistics do the talking: the average outdoor cat lives to two years of age, while the indoor cat lives to a more geriatric age (approximately 15 to 18). So ultimately, it depends on how long you want to have your cat around.
As a veterinarian, I’ve seen too many cats succumb to the “trauma of outdoor living”: being mauled by dogs, maimed by cars, shot by BB guns, etc., only to have pet owners who couldn’t afford to have them treated (resulting in euthanasia).
Risks for Outdoor Cats
- Increased exposure to outdoor poisons (e.g., a few bites out of your day lilies or licks of antifreeze from your neighbor’s driveway can result in life-threatening acute kidney failure)
- Increased risk of catching deadly cat viruses like feline leukemia (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
- Increased risk for pet overpopulation (If your cat’s not neutered or spayed yet, please don’t let him or her out!)
- Contributing to the spread of toxoplasmosis all over your neighborhood
- Contributing to the killing of migrating song birds
Believe it or not, outdoor cats don’t necessary have more fun, and yes, indoor cats can be just as content living indoors. If you’ve already decided to let your cat outside, just be aware that once cats have tasted the “great outdoors,” it’s harder to keep them from crying for it, begging for it, or running out when that screen door opens. For that reason, it’s always the safest approach not even to let your cat experience the great outdoors to begin with.
Also, if you decide to let your cat outside, just be prepared to have him snatched away — permanently. A good-intentioned neighbor may think they have found a sweet cat and decide to keep your cat as their own … right after you paid for the spay/neuter and vaccines! Hence, all the “Lost Cat: Reward!” signs in the ‘hood.
If you decide to keep your cat indoors, keep your cat content by committing to exercising your cat more. It’s the simplest way to add environmental enrichment to your cat’s routine. If you love your cat (yes, I’m trying to use guilt here!), exercise your cat for at least ten minutes, once a week. First, exercising your cat allows him or her to bond to you more (and hopefully, vice versa). Second, it’s a great way to help your cat lose weight and stay trim and healthy. While the majority of cats I see are overweight and sedentary, it’s not their fault — it’s because they lack exercise by their owner. Third, exercise is important because it’s great mental and physical stimulation. Make sure your cat has plenty of cat-safe toys, catnip, cat grass, scratching posts, and laser pointers to chase.
For all you naysayers, don’t get me wrong — if I lived in the perfect environment (at the end of a cul-de-sac with minimal traffic, on a farm away from roads, etc.), I’d consider letting my cat outdoors … so there are some situations where I think it’s OK. However, most of my clients are from an urban environment, where cats and roads don’t mix. If you have a fenced in yard, or can teach your cat to walk on a leash, I think supervised outdoor time is great — provided you’re there to get them out of a bind if necessary (after all, curiosity killed the cat!).
Vaccinate Outdoor Cats
If you do let your cat outdoors, please consult your veterinarian about appropriate vaccine protocols. I normally don’t recommend the FeLV or FIV vaccine, but that’s because the FeLV vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective and has very rare but potentially severe side effects (like a cancer called fibrosarcoma at the site of injection). That said, if you allow your cat to go outdoors, the vaccine is a must (as it is for all the other cats in your household, regardless if they go out or not!).
Declawed Cats Don’t Belong Outside
Finally, if your cat is declawed, please don’t let him go outside. While this seems like common sense to me (as it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and sending a declawed cat outdoors is like sending him to war without a gun), I’ve seen lots of pet owners do it. Common sense may not be so common, as I often see bird feeders in the yard also. Want to keep your cat outdoors? You lose the right to use bird feeders!