In an ideal world, all domestic cats would be allowed to safely roam outside. Outdoors is where a cat truly gets to exercise its natural behaviours. These include hunting, running and territory marking through spraying and scratching. However, safely being outside is the key. And this is something that should be considered carefully when you are deciding the boundaries of your cat’s kingdom.

Why the great outdoors is great!

Let’s start with the positives. Here are a few of the ways your cat might benefit from having access to the outdoors?

Natural Behaviour: 

Most gardens really are a cat’s playground and allow them to exhibit their natural behaviours without upsetting their human companions. Stalking, hunting, chasing and choosing where to toilet are all important activities that come easy in a garden full of leaves and flower beds, a gentle breeze and some insects! 

Exercise: 

Outdoors often comes with easier access to space to run, along with an abundance of things to chase, stalk and climb. A leaf in the breeze can become an exciting stalking target and a tree with its many branches becomes a playground full of possibilities! Increased exercise means increased general fitness in turn the likelihood of obesity is decreased.

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Ever changing surroundings:

The outdoor world is a full sensual experience that will not only keep your cats stimulated physically but also mentally.

An escape: 

Even in the happiest of homes, there are factors that can cause worry and stress to our feline friends. Strangers visiting with a noisy child, new furniture, the hoover, building work or a party can add that extra anxiety. This may mean your cat would rather give itself a bit of distance; going for a stroll around the block, a nap in the flowerbed or keep an eye on things safely from a nearby tree.

The downside of the outside

Sadly, in everyday life there are also many dangers to cats outside of the home that can result in stress, injuries and even death.

Roads and vehicles:

Many cats are injured and killed on the roads every year. Surprisingly it is not just the busy roads that you need to be wary of. There have been studies that have shown that cats in more remote areas are just as at risk. They are perhaps less cautious, given the lower volume of traffic. Also, vehicles are often travelling faster due to a lack of speed limits in less built-up areas. Young cats and unneutered males have the highest chance of being involved in a road traffic accident, as well as those that are out after dark. So neutering and restricting outside access to daylight hours can help prevent accidents.

Other cats:

While some cats are happy to make friends with other felines in the neighbourhood, cats are territorial creatures. More commonly, cats sharing territories can lead to fighting and emotional distress. It is possible that as an owner you can be completely unaware of the issues between your cat and their rivals. Sometimes, the behaviours that are causing the intimidation can be subtle. These might include sitting and staring in certain positions that may block a path to somewhere unbeknown to you.

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If you are aware of other cats in your garden/coming close to your windows, you should always gently discourage them from hanging around. A firm clap of the hands may help; this is of course done with an intention to discourage rather than harm!

Loss:

Sadly, cats go missing every day. Sometimes we never know what happened to our beloved pet. They may have been in an accident, got stuck in a shed, jumped in a car or even found a new family! Disturbingly, there are also growing cases of disappearing cats that are not accidental. Cats can be stolen, especially purebreds and either sold or used for breeding. There are cases of even more sinister motives for the theft but thankfully these are less common. 

Having your cat neutered and microchipped increases the chances of having your cat returned. It will also help to prevent people from being able to rehome your cat against your will or get the chance to breed from them. This is equally as important for indoor cats too. As it is not unknown for a cat to slip out of a window or through a door left open by mistake.

Poison:

Common poisons can lead to fatal outcomes. These include antifreeze, slug pellets, rodent controls, garden chemicals, certain plants. There are of course many harmful substances that can also be found inside your home but at least you are in control of them being kept safely stored out of harm’s way.

Wildlife:

As mentioned, hunting is an intrinsic part of who your cat is, it is one of their most natural instincts in fact. So, it is inevitable that letting your cat loose outdoors will result in some wildlife deaths. According to the RSPB there is no scientific evidence to suggest bird populations are declining due to hunting cats. However, as an animal lover, it is never pleasant to have to find and deal with the latest casualty of your cat’s hunting efforts. 

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But why would you want to keep your cat indoors – surely this is cruel?

Apart from avoiding the dangers discussed above, there are several reasons why a cat may be better off indoors. Cats with certain physical or mental disabilities or those with particular medical problems are good cases. Examples of these would be a blind or deaf cat or one with FIV, a highly infectious condition that is spread by body fluids as a result of fighting. 

Along with the health of the cat, we ideally need to assess the individual’s behaviour, personality and previous experience. It’s also important to look at the living circumstances, such as the space available to it indoors and out. With all this information we can then decide the best lifestyle for the animal. 

It is certainly easier to introduce indoor living to a cat from an early age rather than expecting the cat to adapt. However, there are exceptions to this, specifically more nervous cats who perhaps found being outdoors stressful.

Keeping our cats safe from outside dangers is not the only consideration. The cat being able to express its natural behaviours is vital to its overall wellbeing. So it is essential that indoor cats have alternative ways to display such behaviours, or they will likely become stressed and bored. This inevitably can lead to behavioural problems, from mild to severe.

With so many positives to cats having access to outdoors, there is a lot at stake if the cat is indoor-only. With care and consideration, it is possible to provide a suitable indoor environment that fulfils all their needs and allows them to express their natural behaviours.

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How to keep your indoor cat content

So what can you do to create the right environment for your cat indoors?

Space:

Ensuring your cat/s have ample room to run around and play and rest comfortably is essential. You should allow your cat access to as many rooms as possible to give them choices of where they can be throughout the day.

Cats love to be high up. So putting a cushion or blanket up on a high shelf or on top of a cupboard is a great idea. This gives them a place where they can overlook from above. Ideally, this would be one of several comfortable places that will be easily accessible to your cat. Other favourite spots might include somewhere where they can bask in sunlight as well as more hidden spots like under beds or even a cardboard box.

Food and drink:

Cats that go outdoors are often seen drinking from puddles and other such places (despite their expensive water fountain that sits in the kitchen!). So without these additional options of water sources, extra consideration is needed for our indoor friends. Cats tend to like to drink away from where they eat, so having water bowls dotted around the house is valuable.

Cats also don’t like to eat next to where they toilet so litter trays (which I will discuss shortly). So these also need to be in a separate area.

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Indoor cats are more prone to being overweight due to less activity in their day. So it is imperative to keep an eye on their weight. Food must be given according to the guidelines on the package or by your veterinary practice. If you think your cat may be gaining weight, contact your practice who will be able to offer advice and guidance.

Remember too – as many feeding and drinking places as there are cats, plus one spare. It helps to reduce stress if your cat thinks they may have to compete with their housemates.

Play:

This one is so important! Your cat needs to be active physically and mentally in order to thrive. So without access to nature and the stimulation it provides, you’re responsible for ensuring your cat gets what it needs. This means a good supply of toys that are interchanged regularly to keep them fun and fresh. There is an abundance of cat toys on the market, many of which are designed to be interactive. But this doesn’t mean that you are off the hook in terms of spending time each day playing with your cat.

You don’t even need to spend much money. As we all know, a pen or a rolled-up chocolate bar wrapper can be just as exciting as that mouse that whirs around the floor! It is worth remembering that hunting in the wild often consists of a short burst of high energy. This can be replicated by a quick two-minute game at several points over the day.

Don’t forget to bear in mind your cat’s age and ability level and adjust the types and length of play accordingly.

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Scratching and climbing:

Cats scratch to sharpen their claws, strengthen their muscles and to mark their territory so it is imperative that cats have access to safe spots to scratch. The ideal scratching post is tall enough that they can fully extend while scratching, and sturdy enough that it doesn’t rock under the force of the action of scratching. Climbing is great exercise and helps cats to get up high and find a safe spot when required. There are some great cat towers that incorporate scratch posts in different levels with places to sit, sleep and hide. 

Toileting:

Ideally, litter trays should be placed somewhere relatively private. Away from the hustle and bustle and never in a throughway like a corridor. There should be one tray per cat, plus one extra and these need to be spread out over at least two different locations. This avoids a situation where the cat cannot reach the tray through fear of having to pass something or someone that may be intimidating to them at that moment.

Cats are exceptionally clean. They appreciate their waste being removed as soon as possible, or once a day as a minimum. Although scented litters and cleaners are tempting to some owners, cats do not always take kindly to strong smells, so these are best avoided as a general rule. Try not to swap to new litter materials/ trays etc too frequently as this can cause undue stress too. 

Other considerations:

Indoor cats really do rely on their human counterparts for everything! This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly takes a commitment from the owner. This requires extra vigilance to your cat’s needs and a commitment to fulfilling them. Given the dependency of this relationship, I often find that indoor cats are often needier than those that have a bit more freedom. In particular, they may find other humans that come into the house a bit worrying.

So, should cats be allowed to explore the outdoors freely?

There really is no hard and fast rule when deciding on whether or not your cat should be allowed access to the outside world. There are certainly more opportunities for the natural expression of behaviours, but potentially higher risks to their safety. Equally, keeping a cat indoors should certainly not be a decision taken lightly. For some, it is the best place to be. But, as an owner making this decision, it is imperative to be aware of the dedication that is involved to keep them happy and healthy.

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So there are no right and wrong answers. Whether your cat is indoors or outdoors, you need to ensure they are safe and stimulated. From preventative healthcare, such as vaccines, to ensure they have a place to relax and play. Circumstances may dictate whether they have the freedom to roam. So always ensure they have the environment to exhibit their natural behaviours. That’s the key to a happy, healthy cat.

If in doubt about what may be best for your cats, get in touch with your veterinary practice. They will be able to look at your individual circumstances and advice accordingly.

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