Should You or Should You Not Let Your Cat Outside?

calico cat outside - should you or should you not let your cat outside

This question can quickly get you into a heated debate. There are advocates on both sides of the issue, and each side can feel pretty strongly about their position. 

If you’re on the fence and considering whether to let your cat out, there are some pros and cons to be aware of. In the end, your cat is an individual, so only you can decide if letting your cat outdoors is the best decision for you and your cat. This post will try to objectively give you some of the factors to weigh.

Letting Your Cat Outside

Cat owners who let their cats outside suggest that this is the more natural way for them to live. And in fact, until very recently, keeping cats outside, or as indoor-outdoor cats, was the norm in North America (it still is in the U.K. and other parts of the world).

In 1947, however, Edward Lowe accidentally invented kitty litter. He was hoping to sell granulated clay as nesting material for poultry, but clay proved better for cats than chickens. Having a product that kept cat litter odours down made keeping cats inside more attractive. That invention, however, did nothing to change cats’ evolutionary behaviours.

Proponents of letting cats outside often explain that they want to give their cats a life that includes what a cat has evolved to need, including not just food and shelter, but exploration, hunting and plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.

There are both mental and physical health aspects to these arguments. Veterinarian Douglas Payne tells Daily Paws that indoor cats who are less active are more prone to “diabetes, obesity, arthritis and heart disease.” Cats who are let outside to exercise tend to experience less boredom and express fewer boredom-related negative behaviours, too. 

Payne says that outdoor cats face “a completely different set of problems,” suggesting that both inside and inside-outside living situations will come with risks to navigate.

Keeping Your Cat Indoors

The number one reason folks advocate for keeping cats indoors is safety. The Central California SPCA, for example, offers 3 main reasons to keep cats inside, all focused on the dangers your cat will face in the outside world. 

The first is the danger that your cat will fight with other animals or other cats. The second is that they could come in contact with diseases and pests. They note that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 300 cases of “human contact with rabid cats” are reported every year. The third is that your cat will be more prone to accidents like vehicle collisions when they’re outside. 

A second larger reason some people recommend keeping cats inside is for the health of local ecosystems. A much-discussed 2013 study published in Nature Communications estimates that “free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually” in the U.S. 

That said, the study authors immediately note that “[u]n-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality.” Assessing how murderous your own cat is could be a key factor in your decision whether to let them out regularly or to keep those killer instincts home.

Dr. Erich Barchas tells Catster that letting your cat outside is akin to smoking. Yes, he says, people sometimes smoke and live long and happy lives, but more often, it results in shorter lifespans and medical issues. 

He argues that any reason a cat owner might have for letting cats outside (boredom, exercise, etc.) can be addressed by making adjustments to the cat’s indoor environment.

Tips for Letting Your Cat Out Safely

black cat on sidewalk walking towards camera - should you or should you not let your cat outside

First things first, check your local bylaws. Many cities and towns have rules that specify that cats must be kept inside. If you live in one of those areas, good news—the decision about whether to let your cat outside has been made for you.

It goes without saying that your cat should be microchipped, spayed or neutered and up to date on their vaccinations before you consider letting them outside. Not only is that responsible, but these basics will help reduce the risks associated with letting your cat outside, including the prospect of losing your cat.

The Battersea Dogs & Cats Home offers some suggestions for letting your cat out for the first time. For kittens, they suggest waiting until the kitten is 4 months old (and fixed and vaccinated). Adult cats, they say, should stay indoors for 4-6 weeks after you bring them home so they can adjust to their new home first.

Battersea suggests making your outdoor space exciting for your cat so they’ll stick close to home. They also highly recommend training your cat to come when called so you can get your cat back when you need them.

Supervise your cat when you first let them outside. Battersea recommends that you keep training your cat to come back when called. Allow your pet to come to you, get a treat, and go exploring again, so they don’t automatically think that coming in when you call means the end of outdoor play time.

Tips for Keeping Cats Indoors

For those leaning towards keeping their pets inside, think about enriching your home so your cat has a more stimulating environment to explore.

Cat perches by a window, or cardboard box castles to hide in, might make your home more interesting. Try interactive and puzzle feeders. They make your cat work for their meals, which both simulates hunting and helps slow eating down. 

Also get invested in playtime with your cats. This doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. In fact, cats do not care how much toys cost, and are equally happy with a piece of string or a crumpled-up grocery receipt that you’ve tossed down the hallway as they are with a cutting-edge, research-backed, cat-ergonomic toy.

The point is to interact with them, and to give them an opportunity to chase, wrestle, pounce and engage in all the cat behaviours they need to express. You will need to mix all of this up, possibly daily, to keep your cat interested. Then again, if you own a cat, you probably expected that.

Written by Anne Elliot

Feature imageMonique Laats; Image 1: David Bartus