One of the jobs I had as a child growing up in Devon was trying to catch several batches of kittens born to the copious amounts of stray cats in our area (mostly the product of one neighbour’s efforts, or lack of it, we understood), and then find them homes. Every day I’d come home from school, and spend hours roaming the gardens at the back of our house trying to tempt them out. Once I’d managed to entice one, I’d pick them up, trying to ignore the bleeding scratches running down my arm, take them indoors, and spend the next few days trying to get them to trust us. Gentleness, food, and patience paid dividends, and before long you were left with a delightful young kitten ready to go to a home. Eventually, we caught the adult ones too, and had them neutered – they would not stay with us though, being too accustomed to the ‘wild’. We kept two of the kittens, and they remained with the family for 12 years and 18 years respectively.
The point of this story is that to us, seeing the cats and kittens born in the wild, it did not occur to us to keep them indoors. Much like Rudyard Kipling’s story The cat that walked by himself, my experience was that cats are autonomous creatures who may or may not decide to live with us, but certainly will insist on living their own lives, mostly outdoors. There were risks, certainly, but a cat’s ‘nature’ was to roam, wasn’t it?
According to some, letting cats roam outside is apparently very much a British phenomenon, with 90% of us letting out cats outdoors, compared to only 25% in North America. In the UK, cats tend to be kept indoors mainly because of fear of theft, and this specifically relates to pedigree breeds. Despite the conflicting evidence about trends and geography, however, there is seemingly a growing movement in the UK that keeping cats indoors is the way forward. This may be due to urbanism and flat living, but commentators also point to an increased awareness or fear of risk, often exaggerated.
We are also, let’s face it, a nation that gets remarkably emotional over our pets, and we don’t want to be cruel, whether that means letting them outside to face multiple dangers, or keeping them indoors against their ‘nature’. Given that 24% of the UK population has a cat, amounting to 10.5 million cats in total (Paw Report 2014), it seems important to get this right. So, indoors or outdoors – what is the best solution?
There seem to be three sets of concerns about the great outdoors that preoccupy cat owners, and these are health, environment and the social.
There are a variety of health hazards that cats can encounter outdoors. Of course, cats are more likely to pick up fleas, worms and other parasites if they go outdoors. They can contract infectious diseases if they encounter other cats. They may also ingest poisons, such as slug pellets, pesticides or rodent poison, and get severely sick. They can get injured, either by cars (mostly at night) or other animals, such as other cats or even foxes. Cats can get lost, trapped or enticed by other people to live with them, or at the very least be fed unsuitable food by other people (Cats Protection Essential Guide 12). Sounds scary!
However, there is also some evidence that cats kept indoors are more prone to depression and even behavioural problems such as over-grooming and soiling. If you believe that cats can’t develop psychological problems, I have personal evidence to the contrary. We got our Siberian Cat from a very reputable breeder who really cared for her cats. However she kept the kittens in one room with the door closed, with their mother of course, until paid for by the new owners. She never let any of her cats out, believing the environment too difficult for cats to cope with. My cat has an abiding fear of shut doors. Coincidence?
Going outdoors allows your cat to play in different ways, and stimulates their senses, in an environment that has lots of variety. They hunt unwanted pests, often badly of course (my cat likes to bring worms, flies, wasps and the occasional mouse indoors, still alive… and my screaming has yet to put her off)! They are less likely to get problematic furballs, because they have access to grass, which they can chew. They get more exercise outdoors, and these days pet obesity seems to be a concern, at least for vets, 80% of whom believe that there will be more overweight pets than not in five years time (Paw Report 2014). Finally, if the house becomes stressful for some reason, they can always escape to the outside. Mine frequently chooses this option when my daughter has a play date – too much screaming for it’s poor sensitive ears (and mine).
Our environment in the UK has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. More of us live in cities, including flats with no accessible space outdoors, yet we still choose to keep animals. There has been an explosion of cars and other transport on the road, causing a health hazard for cats. Some houses have particular layouts which make it possible for cats to access the front as well as back gardens, meaning the cat will be tempted to cross the road. According to the Cat Protection Essential Guide 12, roads with occasional traffic are more dangerous for cats than busy roads, because cars are unexpected, and cats particularly encounter problems at night.
On the plus side, however, most cats enjoy roaming their territory, and it is natural for them to do so. It is very rare for cats to go too far afield. In my own experience cats tend to stay within a very distinct territory normally consisting of it’s own garden and a few neighbouring ones, with the preferred spots being perches within it’s own patch from which it can survey the land. Furthermore, there is every evidence to suggest that people in the UK are being kinder and more responsible towards pets on the whole, and this can only bode well for how they might treat your on encountering them (PAW Report 2014). My own area of Walthamstow, a very mixed East End suburb of London, has a wonderful community of cat lovers, who look out for each other’s cats.
The ‘social’ concern relates to the very thorny issue of whether cats are loners or like company, and hence, whether they would be better off not being forced to mingle with neighbourhood cats or fight over territory. The Zoologist John Bradshaw, author of The Feline Enigma Revealed and Cat Sense, for example, has claimed that some cats get stressed in the outdoors. When there is an aggressive cat in the neighbourhood, keeping them in may be kinder. It only works however if the cat has never been out, so it never knows what it is missing.
It is important to note that the indoors can also be stressful for cats, particularly if you have more than one cat and they don’t get on. The PAW Report (2013) estimates that 41% of cats live in multicat households, with owners in the North of England and Wales more likely to have three or more cats (while owners in the Southeast are more likely to just have one). The Cats Protection Indoor Guide 12 argues that if you do keep multiple cats indoors, they must have quiet spaces to hide in, with litter trays and food bowls to equal the number of cats you have.
How to minimise the risks of going outdoors
Whether you let your cat outdoors, or keep them indoors, the Cat Protection Essential Guide has some important advice.
For cats going outdoors:
- Make sure their vaccinations are up to date, and treat them with flea and worming remedies regularly.
- Microchip them.
- Neuter them, which reduces roaming.
- Get a microchip cat flap that allows your cat into your home but keeps out neighbourhood cats – this provides them with a safe exit if there is trouble.
- If you cat can access a road, put a florescent collar on them (a safe one of course), or keep them in at night.
- Make your garden inviting for your cat, with a litter area, things to play with, high perches and edible grass.
- If you want to keep your cat closer to home, high fences (over two meters high) deters them from roaming; make sure you don’t violate local planning regulations however!
For cats staying indoors:
- Make sure there is enough to keep your cat stimulated and exhibit hunting behaviour, in order to prevent depression and behaviour difficulties.
- Play with them frequently.
- Provide places for them to look out – cats find this stimulating.
- You might possibly get your cat some company in the form of another cat – note though that cats from the same litter get on better than strangers.
- Remember that the indoor environment also contain hazards, particularly when your cat is looking for stimulation. Cleaning fluids and houseplants can be toxic, while open toilets lids and washing machines hold a particular fascination for cats.
- Make sure you don’t overfeed them.
- Cats are canny at finding escape routes, so make sure the windows and doors are shut. Microchip your cat just in case.
- Make sure you provide places for sleep and rest where they feel secure. Wall shelves and quiet rooms are a must.
- Have enough litter trays and bowls for your cats (one each per cat is advised).
- Grow edible grass indoors for your cat to chew.
The choice to keep your cat indoors or let them out is seemingly a matter of national culture, personal circumstances and living conditions. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to keeping your cats safe. Regardless of the decision you make, you need to think about your cat’s welfare and how making some adjustments can help them live a full and happy life.