Summer is here, and with the good weather many of our feline friends’ thoughts are turning to the great outdoors. What is really best for your cat? A sheltered indoor life or the excitement of the great outdoors.
Like so many things, the answer depends on several factors. Where do you live, for example? If you live right on highway 99, letting your cat outside may not be the best choice. When cats tangle with cars, the cars usually win. So, the biggest factors I usually think about are location (what are the local dangers), your cat’s current level of health, infectious diseases and parasites, other neighborhood cats, and your cat’s personality. We’ll cover some of the risks first, then discuss the benefits.
I’ve mentioned one of the more obvious location related dangers: If you live near a busy road, this is not an ideal place to have a cat with free reign of the outside. Conversely, if you live far out of town, wildlife can pose a significant risk to your cat. Coyotes and owls can prey on cats and may cause an untimely end if you let Fluffy out, especially at night. To minimize both these risks, you can restrict your cat’s outdoor time to daylight hours (as much as she or he will allow you to), or you can install cat fencing. This will be a common theme in this post. Good cat fencing will keep your cat in your yard and other cats out. It may not prevent owls or a very motivated coyote, but keeping your cat inside during prime hours of predation will help minimize those threats, and the fence will help you to corral your kitty around sunset.
Obviously you want to take your cat’s current health into consideration. If you have an arthritic senior cat who has never been in the great outdoors before, free ranging the outdoors might not be the best plan as your kitty may be too compromised to escape from dogs, dodge cars, or do other things that outdoor cats need to do to stay safe. Also, if your cat has a communicable disease such as feline leukemia or FIV you should not allow them to roam free in order to not spread these diseases to other cats. Again, in these cases, a cat fence can help them experience the outdoors without significant risk.
If your cat has an infectious disease, you should definitely keep them confined, but if your cat doesn’t have an infectious disease, this is one of the risks of being an outdoor cat. Outdoor cats who are exposed to other cats have the risk of contracting feline leukemia or FIV. There is a vaccine available for feline leukemia, but not for FIV. If your cat is a cat with outdoor time, we do recommend testing for these diseases on a yearly basis, or 6 weeks after any time there has been evidence they were in a fight with another cat. Additionally, being outdoors exposes them to wildlife that may carry rabies. We definitely recommend rabies vaccination with ongoing boosters or antibody titers for cats who are potentially being exposed to rabies. In this case, a cat fence will keep other cats out and minimize the risk of feline infectious diseases, but wildlife will still be able to get in. Bats are one of the species that occasionally carry rabies in Oregon, and they can sail right over your fences. Supervision can minimize the risk of bat exposure, especially since sick bats are often out flying during daylight hours when you will be able to see them well.
If you read the blog post on fleas in our beautiful Pacific Northwest, you already know that a cat with any kind of outdoor time, even in a fenced yard, runs a significant risk of encountering fleas. While this is not a life threatening issue except for very weak cats with heavy infestations of fleas, it can be a very irritating issue, and in a cat with flea allergies, it can certainly be a source of misery. Fleas are easily treatable, though we prefer not to expose your cat to chemicals every month. There are several options for flea treatment, and I discuss them thoroughly in this post. Living an outdoor life often means catching small prey items like birds or mice that can carry parasites, so we recommend biannual deworming in kitties with outdoor access. Another source of internal parasites are fleas, which are an intermediate host for tapeworms. The biannual deworming for other parasites takes care of these little buggers as well.
As I mentioned while talking about infectious diseases, neighborhood cats can pose a risk to your cat. Particularly if there are several cats with previously well-defined territories. A cat fight with another cat can lead to abscesses (infection leading to pockets of pus under the skin), or other wounds. These are generally straightforward to treat and don’t usually cause a long term problem if the other cat was not a carrier of a viral disease, however they can be costly and certainly are uncomfortable for your cat. Again, cat fencing can go a long way to preventing this situation.
Much like your cat’s age and health situation, your cat’s personality is an important factor. If your cat is a wilting daisy, then a cat fence is in order so they don’t end up in a tangle they can’t fend off with another cat.
So, now that you’re thoroughly nervous with all the downsides of outdoor life (many of which can be prevented with cat appropriate fencing), there are upsides. Outdoor kitties get to experience all the natural feline lifestyle activities like hunting bugs or larger prey (though this may be a concern for the local songbird population). This also means that, should they choose to hunt, they also supplement their diet with what we consider to be the absolute ideal diet for a cat. Your cat will get to experience the electromagnetic reset of walking on moist earth with their bare paws, which can have many benefits. They will experience an environment much richer in stimulation than the inside can ever easily be which can help reduce anxiety and related behavioral problems. If you grow cat safe herbs and other plants they can also benefit from smelling and tasting these plants as they choose.
Many cats get immense enjoyment out of experiencing the outdoors. As long as you consider the risks and take steps to reduce them to what you feel is a reasonable level, this is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle for our feline companions.
– Dr. Erika Raines, DVM, CVA, CVSMT