One of the biggest debates among cat owners is whether cats should live indoors or outdoors. This debate brings on strong feelings on both sides—so is either side right or wrong? Is there a middle ground, and if so, where is it?
Is it better to keep cats indoors? While your cat will likely want to go outdoors, it’s arguably more cruel to let them than to keep them outside. That’s because cats can catch parasites, get in fights with other cats or with dogs, or be hurt by people or cars when outside. Outdoor cats have shorter lifespans for these reasons. Keeping cats indoors requires toys, stimulation and socialization, otherwise your cat may become depressed. If your cat refuses to stay indoors, leash training is an alternative to free roaming.
The guide below will explore each of the reasons why cats should be indoors, one by one, plus some reasons you should consider letting your cat out. It will also look at the differences between keeping cats indoors permanently or just keeping them in for the night, and how to keep an indoor cat happy.
Should Cats Be Let Outdoors or Kept Indoors?
There are good arguments to let your cat out, and good arguments to keep it in, and this is a topic with strong feelings on both sides.
The sections below look at both the pros and the cons of each approach. While there are some reasons to consider allowing your cat out, there are many more reasons to keep it indoors, and in the name of your cat’s welfare.
Is It More Natural for Cats to Live Outdoors?
It’s undoubtedly more in keeping with your cat’s nature for it to live outdoors rather than indoors.
Domestication is a fascinating process—it’s not something that happens instantly, and it’s not something that either is or isn’t the case. Cats have been partly domesticated, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to or can’t live outdoors.
Domestication is one and the same process as breeding. All animals were domesticated by selective breeding: cattle, for example, were selected for their size, milk production and docile natures. Only those that best fit what farmers wanted were bred, and so over time, the cattle we have today are completely different to the animals they came from, both in their anatomies and their personalities. The same applies to pets like dogs and cats.
What seems to be the major difference between cats and other domesticated pets is that cats are predators. That’s why the housecat’s anatomy has changed, while its personality has only changed in certain ways. Cats retain their hunting instincts and ‘loner’ personalities while many other pets accept more readily the change from wild animal to house pet.
All of this is to say that even today’s housecats are still very comfortable outdoors, and if allowed to choose from birth, would choose to live outside.
Are Indoor or Outdoor Cats Happier? (Do Indoor Cats Get Depressed?)
On the one hand, outdoor cats can express natural behaviors like hunting and socializing/playing with other cats. It’s typically best for any pet’s mental and physical health to express natural behaviors like these.
On the other hand, there are many reasons why an indoor cat will be happier, even if it doesn’t understand them. Indoor cats don’t have to deal with:
- Parasites and pests caught from other cats. Fleas, lice, ear mites and worms can all spread from one cat to another through direct contact. An indoor cat kept alone cannot catch pests like these.
- Diseases like Feline Herpes Virus caught from other cats. Cats experience issues like cat flu and herpes virus that, again, spread from one cat to another. Without contact with other cats, there’s no chance of an indoor cat catching them.
- Traffic accidents. Keep your cat indoors and it will never have to cross the road.
- Fewer incidents of cruelty. Some people like to mistreat cats, for example by shooting air guns at them or kicking them. Keeping your cat indoors keeps it away from these people.
- No cat fights. While your cat would enjoy socializing with other cats on occasion, it could also fight with them.
- No dog fights. Some dogs like to chase cats, and others like to attack cats.
An indoor cat doesn’t understand that these problems await it outside, so it will still beg to be let out. But an outdoor cat that experiences these problems would definitely be more miserable, even if it can go and do what it wants.
Do Indoor or Outdoor Cats Live Longer?
From the laundry list of things that your indoor cat ‘misses out on’ above, it should be fairly obvious that indoor cats live longer. They aren’t affected by health issues that lower their condition, such as worms and other parasites; they avoid all sorts of unpleasant accidents at the hands of cars, other pets and other people. There is a minor tradeoff in that your indoor cat won’t get as much exercise, but it should still live a lot longer.
The other benefit of this is that you won’t have to pay as much in vet’s bills. Your cat won’t get sick or hurt as much, so won’t require as much veterinary care. Any health problems that your cat does experience will be easier to understand, as you’ll know exactly what your cat is eating and doing throughout the day.
Cats and Cars
Accidents on the road are a leading cause of injury and death in cats.
What’s also true, though, is that cats can learn that cars are dangerous. An outdoor cat can learn that cars are big, loud and should be avoided; it will know not to cross the road when there’s one coming, or at least to look before it does so. But an indoor cat that’s let out for the first time won’t have any idea what cars are, and could dart out in front of one without understanding the approaching danger.
That isn’t to say that outdoor cats are entirely street-smart, as outdoor cats are killed or injured by cars all the time. But they at least understand traffic better than indoor cats do.
Cats and Wild Bird Populations
This is a point less about your cat and you, and more about the environmental impact of keeping a cat. The American Bird Conservancy estimate that housecats kill somewhere around 2.4 billion wild birds per year. While there is some debate about whether cats pick on weaker, smaller birds rather than stronger nest-mates, these numbers are shocking; it’s no surprise, then, that cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 63 species of bird, mammal and reptile.
Given the precarious existence of many endangered bird and mammal species, then, this is an argument in favor of keeping cats indoors. And that’s beside the fact that your cat will bring home its prey, meaning you have to clean up its mess.
Is It Cruel to Have Indoor Cats?
From the list above, it should be clear that there are lots of reasons to keep your cat indoors, and only a few to let it outdoors.
If anything, it’s arguably more cruel to let your cat outdoors frequently. That’s because it will catch more diseases, get into more fights and more scrapes, and have a shorter lifespan. While it will experience more of the richness of its life, that comes at a cost.
Is It Cruel to Keep a Cat Indoors at Night?
What’s even less of an issue is to keep your cat indoors at night. It’s at night that your cat is most likely to get into trouble, either with other cats or with other cars.
What complicates matters is that your cat will ask you to be let out. It can be difficult to say no to your cat because of equal parts cuteness and persistence, but just like with children, you have to do what you know to be in their best interest. It can conversely be cruel to give in to those demands when those demands harm the quality of your cat’s life, its health and its happiness.
Is It Cruel to Keep a Cat in an Apartment?
There are a couple of reasons why keeping a cat in an apartment is worse than keeping it in a house.
One is that it could fall from the window. You would have to be careful not to leave the windows open around your cat, just in case it jumped up to the window ledge and fell. This can happen even with ‘sensible’ cats that seem like they would never do such a thing.
Another is that apartments are generally smaller than houses. The less room your cat has to explore indoors, the more bored it will be. There will also be less room for you to provide it with things like scratching posts, beds and so on.
This means it is possible to keep a cat in an apartment without treating it cruelly. It’s just harder, and easier to make a mistake that might endanger it.
How Do You Keep Indoors Cats Indoors?
Just because there are good reasons to keep your cat indoors, that doesn’t mean your cat knows that!
1) Don’t Make an Outdoor Cat an Indoor Cat (If Possible)
Raising a cat to be used to the indoors isn’t cruel, as you can keep any indoor cat happy using the tips explored below. What you can’t do is turn an outdoor cat into an indoor cat.
The problem is that it is undoubtedly more natural for a cat to spend its time outdoors. If you allowed your cat outdoors frequently when it was younger, it will have grown used to going outside, and will enjoy its time there. When you then take away your cat’s freedom to go outside, it won’t know why, and will beg incessantly for you to let it out. Its mental health will be affected negatively, its social life with neighboring cats will be entirely removed, and its playtime either hunting or playing outside will be curtailed too. It will beg to be let out and may display low mood.
A cat that’s raised indoors won’t know any of these things. It will have learned to enjoy playing indoors, socializing with you, and being happy without having to go outside. It won’t know what it’s missing.
This means that if you want to get a cat, and you want it to be an indoor cat, it will be much easier if you get a young cat rather than an older one.
2) If You Do, Transition Slowly
You can try to turn an outdoor cat into an indoor cat if you have to—so long as you know that the process will be more difficult, will take longer, and may not be successful.
If you do plan on doing this, do so gradually. Start by keeping your cat indoors for longer and longer periods of time: one hour at a time this week, two hours the next. Keep going until your cat spends most of its time indoors.
It will help to work with your cat as much as possible at this time. Give it as much to do indoors as possible with reference to the sections below. Also, try to make the switch during the fall and winter, when it gets colder. That’s when your cat will want to spend more time indoors anyway!
3) What Do Indoor Cats Need?
While it’s not cruel to raise a cat indoors, it is cruel to keep one indoors without any stimulation. If you were to allow your cat outside, it would make its own fun by hunting or socializing with other cats. When you take that freedom away, you should replace it so that your cat is just as happy as it would be if you hadn’t.
This isn’t difficult to do. Start by giving your cat lots of toys, scratching posts, cat beds and other cat paraphernalia that will keep it happy.
What’s most important, though, is to allow your cat to simulate hunting. You can do this by playing with your cat and offering it something to chase. Cats begin learning how to hunt from a young age, when they playfight with one another. But chasing something like a feather can provide the same experience. That’s why when chasing something:
- Your cat will lower its body to the ground. This is so that it’s more difficult to spot.
- Your cat will hide behind cover. It may hide behind a chair so that the ‘prey’ can’t see it.
- Your cat’s eyes will open wider than normal. Especially as it lowers its body. This is your cat trying to get a better view of its prey.
- Your cat will bite and kick at the toy when it catches it. This is simulated killing.
These are all behaviors that cats show during hunting. So, having your cat chase a toy is, for your pet, like letting off steam: it won’t feel as much need to get outside, because its need to chase and ‘kill’ is being met through play. It’s for this reason that having your cat chase a laser pointer is a bad idea, because it can’t ever catch the laser’s spot. It’s far better to play with something like a feather or some string which your cat can physically catch.
If you raise a cat this way, it won’t want to go out as much as it might, because all of its needs are being met indoors.
4) Provide Your Cat With Hiding Places
As well as toys, your cat needs hiding places.
Cats are reasonably social creatures. They learn how to play and interact from a young age. But that doesn’t negate the fact that cats, in reality, are solitary creatures. They were domesticated from cats that spend most of their lives on their own, only coming together to reproduce, or if environmental pressures are great, to hunt large prey together. They aren’t like lions that live in prides.
This means that your cat needs its own space. While you may be a thoughtful and kind owner, your cat may still want to be on its own much of the time. This varies from cat to cat, as some are more clingy with their humans than others. But even clingy cats will want alone time occasionally.
There are two ways to provide your cat with space. The first is to give it beds for it to sleep on. As it uses them, they will start to smell like your cat, which is comforting to it: it recognizes the bed and the space around it as its territory, making it feel safer, and quite literally at home. The second way is to allow your cat to be alone in rooms doing what it wants for periods of time. So long as it isn’t knocking things over or ruining your furniture, leaving it alone will give it some much needed breathing room.
5) Socialize With Your Cat
Hunting isn’t the only thing your cat is missing out on. As stated above, cats are largely solitary animals, but can enjoy some socialization, even just to alleviate boredom. Since your indoor cat can’t meet other cats any more, you should socialize with your cat instead.
That doesn’t involve doing anything out of the ordinary. All you have to do is pet your cat for a while, be at home, and be around it. Seeing you will stop your cat from getting too bored, at least if it likes you!
6) My Indoor Cat Wants to Go Outside…
If your cat still wants to go outside, despite what you provide, that’s not a problem. There are still options available to you:
- Build an outdoor enclosure for your cat to run around. This would be like an enormous hutch that your cat could enjoy. It will smell the outdoors, feel the feeling of grass under its feet, and play with toys that you put in there—but all in a safe environment.
- Teach your cat to walk on a harness. It takes time for a cat to learn to wear a harness, but once it understands that the harness isn’t a threat, it will wear it. You can then walk it. This will give your cat the feelings of being outdoors, but again, in a way that you can control.
- Don’t reward your cat’s ‘negative’ behaviors. If you teach your cat that any time it yowls, you let it out, it will keep yowling. If you do your best to avoid giving in to these behaviors, you stop rewarding them, and your cat will stop displaying them as much.
- Let it sit somewhere that it can see the outside, but not access it. Cats can find great joy in sitting and watching birds, with their tails swishing, and their eyes as wide as saucers. It’s like a kind of window shopping. Allowing your cat more time to do this could give it a quick taste of the outside, without all the dangers.
As stated above, it’s up to you to be responsible and to do what’s best for your cat. You’re like the cat’s parent in that way. You have to make the choices you know are right for your cat’s health and well-being, so even if these ideas don’t work, it’s still going to be best to keep your cat indoors.
If kitty is still intent on giving you problems, it may be worth considering giving your cat up. That may seem extreme, but your cat may start spraying, yowling at all hours and generally making your life a misery. It may be worth giving up your cat so that it can have the life it prefers with somebody else, and so that you can finally get some sleep.