Should cats be allowed to roam freely outdoors?
There is no single correct answer to this question, and multiple factors must be taken into account. As with many questions, the answer has changed over time and has as much to do with society’s perspective as it does the actual objects of the debate.
As recently as the turn of the last century, it was not unusual for a domestic breed of cat to spend its entire life outdoors and largely unencumbered by human rules. Some people could not abide with a cat in the house at all.
Fast forward just 100 years and almost the opposite is true. It has become increasingly popular to keep cats strictly indoors or to allow them out only on a leash or in a cage.
Much has changed over the past century, for both humans and cats. And whether or not your cat goes outside depends a great deal on your situation — your geography, your lifestyle and your immediate surroundings.
First, the obvious opposite ends of the spectrum: cats in an urban high-rise are going to spend their life indoors. There’s no easy open-the-back-door-and-let-kitty-out option. If an apartment cat goes out, it has to be carried or led on a leash. And then what? All that effort only to spend supervised time sniffing a sidewalk or landscaped shrubbery seems hardly worth it.
On the other end of things, there are barn cats. They often live a life more similar to livestock than pets, with sometimes only a cursory appreciation for human companionship.
If you and your cat do not live at one extreme or the other, but instead fall somewhere on the continuum between the two, you will have to choose.
I would like to begin the discussion of pros and cons by telling you a story about Ginny. She was a 10-year-old cat who came with us when my husband and I made the move to a rural farm several years ago. She had spent her entire life up until then at our home in the village, in a genteel neighborhood surrounded by oak trees and lawn and a 25-mph speed limit. The move landed us on an 80-acre patch of land where wildness came right up and rubbed against the back deck.
At the farmstead, we deliberated whether or not we should let her out anymore. Unlike our home back in town, stuff got very real here — thick forest and predators out the back door and a two-lane highway out front.
Ginny had always been allowed in and out at her own discretion, but she usually opted to laze in front of the wood stove. She had grown obese over the years, and didn’t take much interest in spending long hours outdoors. The truth is, she wasn’t overly enthusiastic about anything. At least, that’s how it was in town. On the farm, she seemed eager to go outside, and we decided to let her.
We were always outdoors, and Ginny was, too. On the lawn, in the garden, or in the barnyard — we would glance up from our tasks, and there she would be, sitting and watching contentedly.
She became a whole different cat. Back in the village, she couldn’t be bothered with mice. On the farm, she would bring them up to the back steps and lay them out in rows. She would sit and gaze over her new domain with satisfaction. It was as if she had been waiting her whole life for this place.
She lost weight, too, becoming fit and lithe. But as the months went by, we began to notice that she was getting downright skinny. She presented other symptoms as well, and a visit to the vet rendered a diagnosis of stomach cancer.
When she died a few months later, we buried her in the backyard that she loved so well, and cried. But behind the tears was a gladness that we had made the decision to let her roam outdoors. She had truly come into her own at the farm, and we were grateful that she had had that glorious last year outside. Going outdoors had not affected her mortality, but had greatly increased her quality of life.
Not all cats are Ginnys. And not all locales are suited for cats to freely wander in and out of the house. In many areas, traffic is just too heavy, or predators too numerous, for the risk. There are also the dangers of disease, parasites and fights with other cats. Statistics show that outdoor cats have a shorter life span.
That said, some people consider it a choice of quality of life versus longevity. An informal social media survey revealed that most people in my rural state prefer to let their cats go in and out. They have considered the possible consequences and decided it’s worth the risk, but take deliberate steps to mitigate the dangers. They keep kittens and new cats indoors until they develop a sense of home, walk the animals around the edge of the property to show them the perimeter, and keep them in at night.
One respondent remarked that she had no right to dictate her cat’s behavior, and that people are owned by cats rather than the other way around. Another said she would not deny a cat access to outdoors because she herself would not want a life stuck inside.
Whichever works best at your house or homestead, there are a few important steps you can take to minimize threats to your cat. Even if your cat is outdoors all or part of the time — or maybe especially if it is — it is essential to make sure the animal is up to date on shots, spayed or neutered, and provided adequate nutrition and shelter.
Cats are resilient, but still have basic needs. No animal deserves to suffer.
With that in mind, consider winter weather. Make sure your cat has access to a warm place, be it indoors on the couch or in an insulated outdoor hutch.
Remember that a cat cannot navigate deep snow. My cat doesn’t mind a few inches, but when it’s deeper than that he sticks to packed or shoveled trails around the back yard. I create a few paths just for him to access his favorite winter haunts — the garden shed crawl space, or the bare ground under the pile of log-length firewood.
In the end, the most important factor is that you genuinely care for your animal and make the best decisions you can in order to keep your cat safe, healthy and happy.
Do you keep your cat indoors or outdoors? Share your reasons in the section below: