Indoor vs outdoor cat: Which should you have? This is a debate that has raged on in pet-loving communities for decades.
Cats were once kept not as pets, but as pest control. But increasing urbanization has meant there’s less need to have a cat to keep mice from getting into your pantry. Instead, cats have become the perfect pets for urban dwellers: Small, lower maintenance than dogs, and able to thrive in small spaces like apartments.
There’s just one problem: Many cats want to go outside to hunt and explore. Should you let them? That’s the big question.
When it comes to indoor vs outdoor cats, there are passionate arguments on both sides. We’re here to present all the facts and help you make the choice that’s best for your kitty — and to keep him or her safe no matter what you choose.
Indoor vs Outdoor Cats: What Experts Say
The consensus from most veterinarians and cat experts is that pet cats should stay indoors.
Vetstreet surveyed veterinary professionals who own cats and found that 76 percent of them keep their cats indoors — and many of those who said they let their cats go outside do so only when they can restrain them (like in a catio or on a leash) or closely supervise them.
“Though it’s true that it’s much easier for your cat to get enrichment outside, it’s still possible for a cat to live as happy of a life indoors without all the risks,” said Dr. Graham Brayshaw, Chief Veterinarian at Animal Humane Society.
Frequently Asked Questions About Indoor vs Outdoor Cats
Despite the consensus from professionals, many people still own outdoor cats. And if you’ve ever had a feline friend like my tabby, Pierogi, who dashes for the front door any time it opens, you’ve probably wondered if it’s really that bad to let your cat roam outdoors. Here are some frequently asked questions about indoor vs outdoor cats, and what you need to know.
Does My Cat Want to Go Outside?
The answer is maybe. You probably already have a good idea of this based on your cat’s behavior. If he or she hangs out by windows and doors, or runs for the door any time it opens, your cat probably wants to go outside. This is even more likely if your cat has ever been an outdoor cat before — like if you rescued him or her as a stray.
Will My Cat’s Behavior Change If He or She Goes Outside?
Again, the answer is maybe. Some cat owners report that letting their cats go outside resolved behavioral issues, like scratching furniture or peeing outside the litter box. But there are other ways you can address those kinds of issues, and other ways you can help your cat live a full and enriched life, even if he or she never goes outside (more on that below).
Do Outdoor Cats Have More Health Concerns?
Absolutely yes. Outdoor cats are at much higher risk for getting injured or becoming sick from things like parasites, toxins, and diseases carried by other animals. Indoor cats are exposed to those dangers far less, and therefore tend to be healthier overall.
Do Indoor Cats Live Longer?
Again, absolutely yes. The average lifespan for an indoor cat is 10-15 years, while the average lifespan for an outdoor cat is just 2-5 years.
What About the Environment?
Aside from all the concerns about your cat’s health and safety, something to consider when deciding whether to let your cat outside is its environmental impact.
Domesticated outdoor cats are recognized by conservation groups all over the world as a major threat to biodiversity, especially birds. In fact, cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 63 species of birds, reptiles, and mammals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists domestic cats as one of the most dangerous invasive species in the world.
When you let your cat roam outside unsupervised, it’s likely that he or she will give in to the feline instinct to hunt. This can have a devastating impact on your local environment, and that’s an important factor to consider when making this decision.
Common Dangers for Outdoor Cats
Why do outdoor cats have shorter lifespans and more health problems? It’s because of all these common dangers that they can face outside.
Outdoor cats get hit by cars. Indoor cats don’t. That’s just a simple fact. Cars are one of the deadliest dangers outdoor cats face. Even if you live in a very rural area, there will still be car traffic, making this a completely unavoidable danger for your outdoor kitty.
A danger that many cat owners don’t consider is cruelty from their neighbors and others in their community. The sad truth is that there are people who will trap or hurt a cat for coming onto their property. Some people will even put out poisoned food to eliminate stray cats in their neighborhood.
Loose dogs and cats
Yet another danger is other pets when they get loose. Roaming cats are territorial, so your cat is likely to get into fights with other outdoor cats in your neighborhood. And many dogs have a prey drive that compels them to chase and attack cats. If the wrong dog gets loose, it could prove deadly for an outdoor cat.
Cats make great prey for predators like wolves, coyotes, and cougars. Eagles, hawks, and owls can also prey on small cats.
While preventative medications can help prevent some parasites, there are others your cat still might encounter in the wild, including fleas, ticks, and internal parasites like heartworm or giardia.
Outdoor cats are exposed to more animals, including other pets, wild animals, and parasites, that can carry infectious diseases. This puts outdoor cats at an increased risk of disease compared to indoor cats. One particularly dangerous disease is feline immunodeficiency virus (sometimes called FeLV or FIV), which can spread rapidly among infected cats.
Toxins and poisons
Outdoor cats can also encounter toxins and poisons in the environment that can make them sick or even kill them. Things like chemical cleaners, automotive fuels like antifreeze, and pesticides are common outdoors, and your outdoor cat could encounter any of them.
There are many plants that are toxic to cats. One very common landscaping plant is lilies, which are deadly to cats if they eat or even just rub up against any part of the plant.
How to Keep an Outdoor Cat Safe
The only way to keep an outdoor cat safe is to keep him or her contained in a catio or other cat enclosure, or on a leash. Even then, your cat will encounter more dangers in the outside world than it would inside. But by keeping him or her under your supervision, you can step in and provide protection as needed.
If you decide to let your cat go outside unsupervised despite all of the dangers, here are some things you can do to help reduce your cat’s risk.
Get a microchip
Your outdoor cat needs to be microchipped. That way, if a concerned neighbor or animal control picks up your pet and takes it to a vet or animal shelter, they can retrieve your contact information so you can be reunited.
Give year-round flea and tick medication
All pets should receive preventative flea and tick medication, but for outdoor cats, it needs to be given at regular intervals all year. This will help protect your cat from some of the dangerous parasites it may encounter outside.
Keep your cat’s vaccinations up-to-date
Vaccinations for diseases like rabies, feline distemper, and feline leukemia virus can all help protect your cat against some of the diseases he or she might encounter outdoors. Make sure to get all vaccines your vet recommends, and keep them up-to-date with booster shots.
Get a Huan Smart Tag
Most pet trackers are too big for cats to wear. Huan Smart Tags are some of the smallest and lightest trackers on the market, allowing you to attach one to your outdoor cat’s collar and keep track of his or her location on a smartphone app.
Try to bring your cat in before dark
If at all possible, try to bring your cat inside before it gets dark out, and keep him or her indoors overnight.
Get pet insurance
Since your outdoor cat will be far more likely to get injured or become sick, pet insurance can help cover the large vet bills that are likely to come your way.
How to Keep an Indoor Cat Happy
Since cats are safest indoors, the best thing you can do is try to meet all your cat’s needs inside. It’s very possible to give a cat a great quality of life inside, even if he or she wants to go outside. Here are some tips.
Get your cat a companion
To keep your cat engaged and give him or her something to do, consider getting a companion — another cat is ideal, but a dog might be a good fit, too. This will ensure your cat has company inside even when you’re away from home.
Get plenty of interactive toys
Interactive cat toys provide many benefits. They help fight feline obesity and boredom. They give your cat activities that he or she can look forward to, even indoors. Catnip is another great treat for an indoor cat who needs some entertainment.
Give your cat places to climb
Cats are compelled to climb things. Make sure you have cat trees and other perches to help satisfy this need.
Give your cat places to hide
Cats also often like to stay low to the ground and hide, especially during play that mimics hunting. Give your cat beds, boxes, and other places where he or she can hide away during playtime or for a nap.
Provide multiple scratching posts
Cats use scratching as a way to keep their claws healthy, stretch, and mark their territory. Your indoor cat needs places to exercise this instinct, so provide plenty of appropriate scratchers made of different materials to give your cat some variety and choice.
Put a perch near a window
If you want your cat to be able to safely get some fresh air, provide a comfortable perch near a screened window that you can open on nice days.
Use “cat TV”
To give your cat a little extra enrichment, just up their screen time! There are many videos on YouTube that are made just for cats, with videos of birds, squirrels, and other scenes that are sure to catch your kitty’s attention.
Indoor vs Outdoor Cat: The Bottom Line
It’s much safer and better for your cat to live indoors. As much as some cat owners don’t want to hear that, it’s a more responsible choice to do everything you can to give your cat a happy and safe life — inside.