Jane Ehrlich on August 21, 2012
While living in England, I often met vets and other cat lovers who maintained that outside cats lived healthier lives, even if they were shorter ones. One professor at the Royal Vet College recently admonished me, "Keeping cats indoors is both cruel and unnatural. It’s a pity the U.S. doesn’t feel that way."
The U.S., indeed, doesn’t. Our cats, say U.S. vets and behaviorists, should remain inside. Why the discrepancy? Tradition. Fewer outside risks, such as coyotes, bobcats, and presumably, outside dogs. Less traffic in smaller towns. The image of the Great Hunter stalking and racing through grasses and zooming up trees, their wild spirit and free nature unleashed, is both romantic and prevailing.
A cat’s independent nature is one of the traits we love best. Cats get lazy and obese if they stay indoors, don’t they? All that ranging territory! And that artificially enormous density hassle if there are several cats in the home—very stressful. Better a shorter, happier life, than a longer, less "normal" one, yes?
Keep them in.
Easy to say, I know. But the fact is, cats can have extremely happy, healthy, normal lives when they’re indoors. They’re avoiding the stress that comes from chronic threats (and the physical and psychological problems that derive from that), other animals from cats to coyotes, the cruelty of many people, poisonous plants, traffic, illnesses from infections to feline leukemia to rabies to FIV, being drowned (a problem in irrigation-pipe-ridden cities like mine), toasted, frozen, stolen, trapped, tortured… You know those arguments. Just part of the risk of being a pet? Of being a pet owner? Shouldn’t have to be. One client recently explained, "Riley knows his limits when he’s in the front yard." The other neighborhood animals and people may not know theirs.
Would you let your young child roam like that? Didn’t think so.
I don’t want my cats to be one of those who were swiped by kids for "gang initiation" (I’ve known of three this month alone), by those selling their fur, shot or poisoned, or ripped up by car engines or tires. Clients have told me too many horror stories.
Keeping a cat safe by keeping him indoors without the tools to exercise his instincts would be cruel, indeed. This isn’t being suggested. I’ve seen as many cats for behavior issues who are outdoor cats as I have who live strictly inside. That being said, I have seen no data to support the idea that outdoor cats are emotionally healthier. I don’t know anyone in the field who has.
"Unnatural?" Nobody would sanction denying a cat’s natural hunting instinct. The answer: enrich your cat’s everyday life by providing the stimulation and the action she both wants and needs.
Inside—-with an extensively enriched environment. With this, arguments for keeping cats outdoors simply do not stand up.
For scratching, climbing, increased territory, safety, plus that needed environmental control (that awareness of who is where, when, and what is going on), get six or seven-foot towers. Not those flimsy ones using fleece and cardboard, but sturdy, heavy ones, with hidey-hole, and easily accessible platforms. (Cheap towers are poorly-designed, with levels stacked so Mittens can’t easily jump from one to another.) Posts should be sisal-roped, not carpeted; rope gives a much better surface for scratching, is easy to replace, and it’s hard to explain to cats: "This carpet is fine to claw up, the one on the ground isn’t." Put them in front of windows, and hang bird and squirrel-feeders outside for the best cat TV. They are wonderful for climbing. Such towers also decrease the stress of that "density", of more than a couple of cats in a home.
Speaking of climbing and jumping - add shelves across walls and in hallways. For outdoor exercise, introduce your cat to a leash or a harness. Add a good selection of interactive toys—Cat Dancer and Da Bird are two favorites and several play sessions a day ensure a good measure of play and exercise and bonding. Ribbons, paper bags, boxes, cat tracks, catnip-filled socks, balled-up paper, non-toxic soap bubbles, you name it. Hide the toys and hide treats so your cat has to hunt. Rotate toys so your cat doesn’t get bored. Good play sessions, company to chase and play with, and watching the diet ensures no cat has to get lazy or obese. Hiding kibble behind cushions, under sofas, tucked around pillows, even scattering them across the floor means your cat works a little for their food.
Create a safe outdoor environment. A ‘catio’ built on a slim balcony, enclosures accessible by flap or window, or something more elaborate, with high channels running across the ceiling will provide fresh air and outside views your cat needs. Look online for patio makers, and create your own, with the help of a handy person. Add towers, plants (catnip? oat grasses?), and platforms for sunning. Those forever changing smells, views, and sounds mean massive stimulation in your cat’s life.
Interacting: I’m a big proponent of cats having cats. While some cats do need to be the "Only One", most would benefit from a feline companion. I‘m firmly convinced that cats and people have a richer relationship with each other when Fluffy’s inside. But you, human, aren’t always enough. Although you need to build in enough quality time with them. They’re healthier emotionally and physically when they have someone to be entertained by, to learn from, comforted by, and have fun with.
I’ve seen so many cats with symptoms of frustration, boredom, aggression and depression disappear once these enrichments were put in place.
They do live longer. That fact is not disputed. Much longer.
Peter Neville, renowned feline behaviorist, in his excerpt in "Handbook of Feline Medicine" by J. Willis and A. Wolf (Pergamon Press, Oxford): "The cat…accepts the benefits of living in the family and den w/o compromising its self-determining and independent behavior." Dr. Nick Dodman, head of the Dept., of the equally renowned, Tufts Behavior Vet School, keeps his cats inside having, by his own admission, lost several to horrific outside events. "It’s a lot safer to keep cats indoors. The average lifespan of an indoor cat is around 12-14 years (I’d say more), while outdoor cats are lucky to reach double digits (I’d say five or six!)."
They’re British, by the way. (Couldn’t resist.)