Cats have worn collars for as long as we’ve kept cats. While there’s increasing evidence that old-fashioned collars are dangerous, there are also good reasons to fit one. So, are cat collars safe, and should your cat wear one?
Why should my cat wear a collar? There are reasons both for and against. Collars and their tags serve as a way to identify a cat that’s gone missing. They can also be fitted with bells (to stop the cat catching birds/mice) and infrared or magnetic tags (for infrared or magnetic cat flaps). Reflective collars also help cats avoid road traffic accidents, and aid in searches for lost cats. However, collars that are too tight can cut off circulation, and collars that are too loose can get snagged on branches, or your cat’s limbs and jaw. They also aren’t suitable for kittens, because kittens grow too fast. If you plan on fitting your cat with a collar, fit it correctly: you should be able to fit 2 fingers snugly between the collar and your cat’s neck.
The guide below will address each of these reasons in much more depth, both for and against cats wearing collars. We’ll also make a final recommendation (quick-release collars!) and explain how old a cat should be when it has a collar fitted, and how tight a cat’s collar should be. So, are cat collars a good idea? Let’s find out!
Should Cats Wear Collars?
There are arguments for and against cats wearing collars. They’re useful, and they can save your cat’s life in emergency situations; but they can, in some circumstances, cause more harm than good. On the one hand, the ID information on a collar can be used to return a lost cat to its owner, or to identify the cat in the event of an accident. At the same time, though, collars can get caught on branches, caught on your cat’s limbs or jaw, or cause painful chafing.
Overall, it’s better for an outdoor cat to wear a collar than to not wear one. Each of the problems that collars pose can be avoided if you take care to avoid them. If you buy the right kind of collar (quick release collars) and fit them correctly, your cat won’t experience any health issues from wearing one.
Reasons Cats Should Wear Collars
Cats have worn collars for centuries, and there are good reasons why. There are still good reasons to have your cat wear a collar, even if some people experience problems with them.
Identifying Runaway Cats
The core point of a collar is to serve as identification. The small tag attached to the collar will have a phone number, a name and/or an address on it so that a runaway cat can be returned to its owner.
This tag can either be a small metal disc with the details engraved on it, or a small capsule with the details inside. Failing that, the tag might just have the cat’s name on it, which is essential information for a ‘Cat Found’ poster. If you have an outside cat that enjoys roaming, then a collar is essential. These tags serve another, more morbid purpose. If an outside cat is in an accident, without a collar and tag, there’s no way for the cat to be returned to you.
Even if the collar loses its tag, it will still be recognizable. Collars come in distinctive colors and patterns, and can provide a useful clue even in the absence of other details.
Should Cats Wear Collars with Bells?
Before we had infrared collars, the earliest collar accessories were bells. Lots of people still attach bells to their cats’ collars. But they aren’t for your cat’s sake.
The point of attaching a bell to a cat’s collar is so that garden birds can hear your cat coming. They aren’t a perfect solution, and your cat will still be able to catch some birds with a collar bell on. But most of the time, the bird will hear the cat leaping and get away in time.
The problem with your cat attacking birds isn’t just that you’ll have to clean up the mess they leave behind. Billions of garden birds are killed each year by house cats, and many species of bird have actually gone extinct because of this. Housecats are considered the most widespread invasive animal in the world, and have had a particularly bad effect on island habitats like Hawai’i.
Magnetic and Infrared Cat Flaps
If you have an outdoor cat, and you want it to get out without you letting it out, you need a cat flap. While old fashioned cat flaps were just like tiny doors, today’s are electronic gadgets—like everything nowadays!
There are two kinds of modern cat flap. One is the magnetic or infrared kind, and the other is the microchip kind. Microchip cat flaps can be programmed to recognize your cat’s microchip, like a unique ID card, and only open for your cat.
But the other kind—magnetic or infrared cat flaps—work by recognizing a small tag attached to your cat’s collar. Only a cat wearing a tag that the flap remembers will be let in, again like an ID card. So, if you want one of these cat flaps, you’ll need your cat to wear a collar.
Reflective Collars Help Cats Be Seen
Last but not least, a collar can help your cat avoid road traffic accidents.
Not all collars, but some, are fitted with reflective panels. These are like the reflective material that workers’ jackets are made from, and they shine back brightly when a light is shone at them. When a car’s headlights point at a collar covered in this material, it can be seen very easily. This helps drivers spot your cat and avoid hitting it.
Another benefit of collars like these is that they help you find your cat. Say your cat goes missing, and you search for it. You can shine a torch around while you look, and if the beam lands on your cat’s collar, it will be instantly visible. That’s important because cats love to hide, so you may miss it otherwise.
Reasons Cats Shouldn’t Wear Collars
All that being said, there are good reasons to consider not making your cat wear a collar, or at least, being very careful in how you put one on your cat. The core problem is that the collar may not fit properly: it can be either too loose or too tight. There are also ways to achieve the same ends (e.g. tracking down a lost cat) without fitting it with a collar.
Microchips Identify Lost Cats
Your cat doesn’t need a collar to be identified. Microchips were invented as the perfect way of identifying a lost cat. Each microchip has a unique ID number that can be crossreferenced with a database by a vet. This database will tell the vet who the cat belongs to. Microchips are fitted when the cat is young, and never run out of battery (because they don’t need batteries). There’s also very little chance that the microchip will hurt your cat, unless it migrates from its injection site.
All of this means that a microchipped cat doesn’t need to wear a collar to identify it.
Cat Collars Don’t Choke Cats (But Not As Frequently as People Think)
The core problem people have with old-fashioned collars is that they pose a choking risk. This could occur either because the collar is on far too tightly, or it gets caught on something.
Scientists have assessed this risk, and it isn’t as common as people think. A paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at precisely this issue:
Cats were randomly assigned to wear 1 of 3 types of collars: plastic buckle, breakaway plastic buckle safety, and elastic stretch safety. Each cat was fitted with the assigned collar, and a microchip was inserted SC between the scapulae. Owners completed questionnaires about their experiences and expectations of collars at enrollment and at the conclusion of the study.
391 of the 538 (72.7%) cats successfully wore their collars for the entire 6-month study period. Owners’ initial expectations of the cats’ tolerance of the collar and the number of times the collar was reapplied on the cats’ necks were the most important factors predicting success. Type of collar likely influenced how often collars needed to be reapplied. Eighteen (3.3%) cats caught a forelimb in their collar or caught their collar on an object or in their mouth. Of the 478 microchips that were scanned at the conclusion of the study, 477 (99.8%) were functional.
In other words, none of them were choked, even those wearing old-fashioned collars. This doesn’t prove that it never happens, of course, and lots of people have stories of it happening; but it’s at least not that common.
What is true is that this is why collars aren’t suitable for small kittens, as kittens grow fast, and their collars can become too small for them. Whereas one day the collar fits perfectly, in a week’s time, it will fit snug against the skin. A week after that and it would be far too tight, and could cut off the kitten’s circulation. This is a particularly annoying issue because you don’t want the collar to be too loose, either, or the cat could get its feet caught in it.
Tight Collars Can Cause Pain & Fur Loss
While a collar wouldn’t choke your cat if it was slightly too tight, it would still cause problems. It would chafe against your cat’s coat and skin, causing first irritation, then scratches and small wounds. This could also cause your cat to lose fur around its neck.
For a collar to have this effect, you would have to fit it very, very tightly. So, if you take care not to, it won’t be a problem. But it could potentially happen.
This could also happen if you attached a leash to your cat’s collar. Cats don’t respond to leash movements like dogs do, so aren’t used to their collars being pulled at. That’s why if you walk a cat, you should attach the leash to a harness.
Can Cat Collars Catch on Branches?
The problem is that a loose collar is just as bad as a tight one. While a tight collar can cut off circulation or cause chafing, a loose collar can get caught on things and cause injuries that way.
One way this can happen is when your cat is climbing trees or scrambling through bushes. Collars can get caught on branches and twigs, and your cat won’t have the brain-power—or the opposable thumbs—to get free. The worst case scenario is when your cat jumps from somewhere and gets its collar caught. This can either lead to it choking, or breaking its neck. Elastic collars, if anything, are worse. The cat will try pulling away, because it feels that there’s some ‘give’ in the collar, but that just makes things worse.
This can be almost entirely avoided by fitting the collar correctly. If the collar is close to your cat’s coat, it’s unlikely that it will snag on anything.
Cat Collar Accident While Grooming
Somewhat less serious, but definitely irritating, is that your cat can catch its legs or jaw in its collar when it’s grooming. This is highly uncomfortable for your cat, but at least won’t result in potential serious injury like the collar getting caught on a branch would.
This is a particular issue when your cat licks its hindquarters. As it raises its leg in the air, it can easily get caught up inside a loose collar. And when your cat licks down to clean its chest, it can get its jaw caught. This problem becomes worse if your cat will be alone for a long time, because it may need help to get free.
Are Cat Flea Collars Good?
Historically, flea collars were how everybody got rid of flea infestations on their cats. They’re like regular collars, but infused with insecticide, so kill any fleas (or ticks, or other pests) that feed on your cat. Today, there are many different treatments people use. Spot-on treatments and shampoos have become more common, while flea collars have declined in popularity.
Flea collars pose the same risks as regular collars. If they are fitted too tight or too loose, the cat could choke or get the collar caught on something.
Besides that, flea collars aren’t as kind to cats as spot on treatments. Flea collars typically present more side-effects, especially when left on for a long time, or if the collar is continually replaced.
Should Cats Wear Collars?
While the dangers above are very real and very serious, they don’t apply to every kind of collar, especially if the collar is fitted correctly. For that reason, the benefits of fitting your cat with a collar far outweigh the negatives.
But what kind of collar should a cat wear, and how tight should it be?
What Type of Collar is Best for Cats (Quick Release Cat Collar vs. Elastic & Normal)
By far the safest kind of cat collar is the quick release collar. This is a collar that, as the name suggests, is designed to release upon being caught or snagged on something. They’re also known as breakaway collars or snap open collars.
Each name describes exactly what these collars do. When the collar gets caught on something, and the cat applies pressure to it, it will snap open.
Take a cat jumping from a tree, for example. If it has a buckle collar—which is the old-fashioned kind—the collar will get caught and not come loose. The pressure that the cat applies will mean that its head doesn’t come free, and it can choke. An elastic collar is just as bad in terms of causing choking, but additionally is more difficult to fit, because it stretches.
A breakaway collar, by contrast, will stay whole under normal conditions. If you were to gently tug at it with your finger, or if the cat were to pull it slightly while grooming, it won’t come apart. But under severe pressure it will snap open. The downside is that your cat is more likely to lose its quick release collar than any other kind. The alternative, though, is for it to potentially choke—so it’s a small price to pay.
How Tight Should a Cat Collar Be?
Your cat’s collar shouldn’t be too tight, and shouldn’t be too loose. You should be able to slide 2 fingers underneath the collar, and it should feel snug.
Some collars come in different sizes: small, medium and large. You should check with the manufacturer which your cat is likely to need, because manufacturers use different sizes. Other collars are one-size-fits-all. Collars are typically adjustable, though, so you can make them fit perfectly.
You should check the collar again soon after you fit it. That’s because when you first fit your cat’s collar, your cat will be tensing its neck, as it’s in a stressful situation that it doesn’t understand. You should therefore check again later on when it’s calmed down, and it’s more used to wearing a collar. The check is the same: you should be able to just about fit two fingers underneath it.
You should also check the collar periodically, just to make sure it hasn’t come loose or somehow gotten tighter. This isn’t something that will take up a lot of your time. Just repeat the same test as before when you get the chance, e.g. when your cat is on your lap.
What Age Should a Cat Wear a Collar?
You shouldn’t fit a collar to a kitten, because kittens grow fast, and don’t have the same control over their mobility as other cats. You should therefore wait until your cat is fully grown before fitting it with a collar.
Do Indoor Cats Need Collars?
There’s less need for an indoor cat to wear a collar, but they can still come in handy. Your cat is less likely to go missing, since it will be inside all the time. It won’t need a magnetic or infrared tag to get through a cat flap, and it won’t need a reflective collar to be seen at night, because it isn’t going anywhere.
You could still fit one to your cat if you think it’s likely to try and escape. Some indoor cats don’t mind living their whole lives indoors, but others pose more of a ‘flight risk’! If yours is the latter kind, then you should fit a collar or a microchip just in case it gets loose.