Cats love the outdoors. Some people even think it’s cruel to keep cats indoors all the time. So should you allow your indoor cat outside occasionally, or even often? If not, why not?
Can indoor cats go outside? There are reasons to let indoor cats out: outdoor life is more natural even though cats are domesticated. They can hunt, play and establish themselves a territory to make themselves feel more secure. They get more physical exercise and more stimulation, more things to be curious about. However, traffic is exceptionally dangerous for indoor cats who aren’t aware of it. Outdoor cats are more likely to get hurt, get into fights, pick up parasites or health issues. Consult your vet and make an informed choice.
The guide below looks at each argument in turn: all the reasons indoor cats should be let outside, and all the reasons indoor cats should be kept indoors. We’ll then go over a few quick pointers on how to decide what’s best for your cat (like by talking to a vet).
Should Indoor Cats Go Outside?
While there is a fractious debate over indoor and outdoor cats, there are good reasons to let your cat outside. These are no less true despite the dangers your cat could face.
An Outdoor Life is Natural
Cats are domesticated animals. While each breed is different, some have been domesticated for thousands of years. This has changed the cat’s behavior: cats meow at people, but very rarely meow at other cats, indicating it’s a vocalization they use specifically to communicate with us. The appearance of breeds has changed, too.
But the word ‘domestication’ is, in itself, misleading. It implies that an animal either is or isn’t domesticated, when the reality is that there is a big gray area—a sliding scale—where some animals should be considered more domesticated than others.
The upshot of all of this is that cats have not lost their natural instincts. Cats were domesticated from a solitary species, and still like to spend much of their time alone. The wild cats that our cats come from are obligate carnivores, meaning they need to eat meat to survive; housecats still thrive on meat and struggle to digest grains and carbs.
Cats allowed outside can display behaviors they can’t necessarily show at home, at least without good care on your part. Outdoor cats can:
- Hunt for rodents and birds, both for food and for fun
- Establish a territory that they feel secure in
- Get away from people for long periods of time and lead a solitary life
- Play, hunt and do whatever they like at night without disturbing you (cats are largely nocturnal)
When an animal can’t express its instincts, it becomes unhappy, arguably even depressed. You can provide for these needs at home but it’s more effort and expense than simply allowing your cat outdoors.
Physical Exercise is Good for Cats
No matter what you do, though, outdoor cats invariably get more exercise than indoor cats. That’s because outdoor cats can explore, can hunt without you having to play with them, have more opportunities to climb, and can chase and fight other cats. As is the case for people, physical exercise is beneficial for cats, and keep them in good condition.
There’s also the question of food. Cats are trickle feeders, meaning that they like to snack rather than eat big meals. Cats would rather eat six or seven small meals in a day than two big ones. If your cat is at home all the time, and you free feed it, then it will be able to eat any time it likes. But if the cat is outdoors most of the time, it will have no choice but to hunt for food. This a) requires physical effort on your cat’s part, and b) isn’t always successful. This keeps your cat’s weight down.
Cats Are Curious
Allowing your cat outdoors also gives it the chance to be curious. Cats are famed for being curious, and love to explore new places, investigate noises and smells, find new hiding spots and so on. Outdoor cats have much more to be curious about than indoor ones.
The benefits of this are less clear than of physical exercise. It doesn’t have a direct effect on your cat’s health. However, it does provide stimulation and stop your cat getting bored. And in a general sense, cats that are stimulated and can express instinctual behaviors avoid feeling down or depressed.
You Get Time Alone
Letting your cat outdoors means that you get time away from each other. This can be a good thing both for your cat and for you.
Again, cats are solitary creatures. While they can learn to enjoy spending time with people, this fundamental nature is very rarely erased, so it’s likely that your cat will benefit from alone time. This may make your interactions together more meaningful, as your cat doesn’t feel that it’s seeing too much of you.
This is also good for you in that your cat isn’t under your feet all the time. The most obvious example is if your cat is constantly begging to be let out; well, if you do let it out, it won’t be begging any more! But if your cat is restless, always running around, always making noise, and can get on your nerves, then letting it out will help you let off steam too.
Why Shouldn’t Indoor Cats Go Outside?
All that being said, there are very good reasons why you shouldn’t let an indoor cat outside. Most relate to your cat’s health.
Indoor Cats Don’t Understand Traffic
Cats are reasonably intelligent pets. However, like people, they go through a critical learning period early in life. Between the ages of about 2 and 7 weeks, kittens learn most of the things they need to know for later in life: they learn how to groom themselves and others, how to play with their litter mates, how to fight, and how to hunt.
Relevant here, though, is that they learn what’s dangerous and what’s not. Cats which aren’t socialized during this period, i.e. don’t spend time with people, grow up feral and will never fully trust humans. In the same way, if your cat grew up indoors, it won’t have learned how dangerous traffic is. Traffic accidents are therefore common and likely to be serious for indoor cats making their way outdoors for the first time.
Indoor Cats Don’t Understand Getting Lost
Another thing your cat might not appreciate is that it can get lost. If your cat has lived inside its entire life, it won’t appreciate just how big the world is, and how easy it is to get lost. It won’t even know what it’s like to be in an open space without any walls. This increases the likelihood that your cat could get lost. That’s opposed to outdoor cats who mark their territory and can recognize their own houses.
Your Cat Can Catch Parasites
It’s good for your cat to meet other cats so that it can display natural behaviors. But there’s a darker side to this too: they can fight, of course, but they can also catch parasites like fleas from one another. These can be spread by direct contact between cats; the fleas jump from one cat’s back to the other. Cats can also catch ear mites in the same way.
What’s worse is that for most pests, direct contact isn’t even required. Feral cats can harbor large populations of parasites which they shed in their environment. So, if your cat passes by somewhere that a feral cat slept last night, it could pick up fleas from it. Worms can also be transmitted by fleas, so your cat can catch these too. It’s also possible for your cat to catch these parasites from wild animals like foxes.
There are also parasites that don’t require their hosts to spread them. Ticks display a behavior called ‘questing’, which is where they climb to the top of blades of grass and wait for potential hosts to pass them by. When the host brushes past, the tick is transferred to its coat.
If you keep your cat indoors, there’s practically no chance of it catching any of these parasites. The only way it would is if it caught them from you!
You Can Meet Your Cat’s Needs Indoors
Besides all that it’s possible to meet your cat’s needs indoors anyway. You don’t necessarily need to let your cat out to allow it to display natural behaviors. With the right tools (toys and cat furniture) you can make your cat happy without exposing it to dangerous conditions outside. Consider the natural behaviors your cat might like to display, and how you can help it without letting it out:
- Hunting. When your cat chases a toy like a feather, it uses its hunting instincts to chase it. That’s why it lowers itself to the ground, wiggles its behind, opens its eyes wide, and pounces—these are all things cats do when they hunt prey.
- Socializing (e.g. play fighting). Cats are solitary creatures but can enjoy time with other cats. But your cat can also socialize with you, whether that means you spending time with your cat, petting it, or pushing it around playfully when you play fight together.
- Quiet time. Cats like to sleep most of the day and hunt at night. They like sleeping somewhere quiet where they feel safe. It’s easy enough to provide that with a cat bed in a calm corner of the house.
- Stimulation. Cats can get bored, but plenty of toys and socialization can stop that happening. Sometimes your cat will like quiet time, but sometimes it likes when there are things happening, whatever they might be—a family dinner, the TV chatting away, and so on.
- Keeping their claws short. Outdoor cats keep their claws short by walking on rough surfaces and climbing trees. Some people think you need to trim indoor cats’ claws to make up for that, but you don’t. A scratching post works fine.
With these five needs met, as well as basics like food and shelter, your indoor cat can thrive.
Should I Let My Indoor Cat Outdoors?
Whether you let your cat outside is your choice.
It’s much safer for your cat if it’s kept indoors: indoor cats have longer life spans and lower vet bills. They don’t get into cat fights and can’t get lost, unless you let them out. But that doesn’t change the fact that letting your cat out can make it happy. If you’re still unsure, consider the following points…
Talk With Your Vet If You’re Unsure
Vets can help with any cat-related question. You may want to keep your cat indoors, but if it constantly begs at the door and seems depressed that it can’t go out, that can be a major problem both for you and your cat.
It’s not a guarantee that your cat will get into trouble if you let it out. You should therefore talk to your vet about how likely it is that your cat will encounter something bad in the big, wide world—this can vary depending on where you are. There might be a lot of foxes near where you live, for example; or there might be people that hunt with traps. Or, there might not be a lot of traffic, and there’s little chance of encountering wild animals. Your vet can tell you how often they see outdoor cats that have caught fleas or been injured by traffic to get a rough idea of how much of a problem these things will pose to your cat.
Ultimately, it’s your decision. You should do whatever you think is best for your cat, and there are circumstances in which the best thing might be letting it out. But at least be aware of what could happen if you do.
Occasional vs. Frequent Trips Outdoors
Your cat doesn’t have to either be an indoor cat or a fully outdoor cat. Your cat can live between these two extremes if you only let it out occasionally. You can still control your cat’s outdoor time by locking the cat flap, or not having one installed, and only letting the cat out by opening the door.
Admittedly, this will encourage your cat to beg frequently to be let out. But it does make it less likely that the cat will be in an accident, since it’s spending less time outdoors in total.
Set Up a Safe Space for Your Cat
As well as controlling the time you allow your cat out, you can also control the space. You can let it out but stop its access to dangerous places like the road, for example.
One way of doing this is by setting up a ‘run’. This is a protected outside space like a big hutch. You can have all sorts of fun cat stuff in there to keep your cat entertained, while still letting it sniff the fresh air and explore a new space. It’s a lot of effort to set one up, but you can then let your cat outside any time without worrying.
Another way of doing the same thing is securing your back yard. You can do this with roller fences. These are regular fences with special bars at the top that roll on an axle. When a cat tries to get over it, it can’t, because the bar rolls underneath its paws. They’re like security fences but without the razor wire. If you also cut off any other potential exits, e.g. under the gate or over the shed, you can let your cat into the yard but it will still be safe.
Leash & Harness Training
You could also consider training your cat to walk on a harness and leash. This doesn’t always work, but if your cat is comfortable with it, you could comfortably and safely control your cat’s time outside.
Harness training has to begin indoors. You start by just putting the harness on your cat and letting it get used to the feeling of it. It may walk funny for a little while, but if it’s securely attached without being too tight, it should be comfortable enough. Your cat will get used to it. You then have to attach the leash to the harness—never attach it to your cat’s collar. Practise ‘walking’ your cat indoors a few times first to get it used to the idea of being pulled along.
Not all cats like being walked in this way. Yours may not understand that pulling on the leash means ‘come this way’. And you’ve no doubt seen the many, many, many funny videos online of cats refusing to walk and having to be dragged along… But if it does work, you can entirely control your cat’s outside time. You can keep it out of the road and away from other pets; if it ever gets into danger, you’re there to pick it up straight away.