Article © 1999 Darlene Arden. First published in Catnip, February 1999.

Is Indoor or Outdoor Best?

Weighing the safety issues of outdoor "freedom" against feline happiness.

Simba finds environmental enrichment indoors, even if it means rearranging the blinds. Photo courtesy Cori Moriarty.

The debate among cat owners is ongoing: indoor or outdoor? Which is better for your feline friend?

Statistically, the life span of an indoor cat averages 12 to 14 years, whereas it is only about four years for the indoor-outdoor cat. Yes, you've read that correctly. A cat's life span can be seriously curtailed by allowing it to come and go at will.


"If you're going to have an indoor-outdoor cat, you should only do it if it is fully vaccinated and neutered so that you're not going to increase the population, and your cat is protected against infectious diseases," says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor of behavioral pharmacology and director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. You should also not let your cat out at night.

Outdoor risks
Outdoor cats are at risk for tapeworms, fleas, and urinary tract infections. There's also potential exposure to toxoplasmosis if a cat is catching wild rodents indoor cats face next to no risk for this unless fed raw meat.

The increase in the numbers of coyotes, foxes and other small animals can also increase risk of injury or death.

"The majority of cats that come in with injuries are outdoor cats," says Dr. Susan Rabaut, president of Framingham Animal Hospital, in Framingham, Massachusetts, and a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Common injuries include:

Altercations with another cat, dog or wild animal; Bone fractures or death from car accidents;
Toxins, such as rat poison, that may be outside a neighbor's barn or garage; Ingesting antifreeze on a driveway;
Chemicals on a neighbor's (or your) lawn, which can be ingested when the cat licks its paws.

In Massachusetts, if an outdoor cat gets into a fight and it has been 30 days since its last rabies vaccine, it must get a booster. That means that some outdoor cats are getting two and three rabies vaccines per year, which can increase the risk for vaccine-associated sarcomas.

"That's not really a good thing for the cat, but public health-wise we have no choice," says Rabaut. Indoor cats should be vaccinated for rabies every three years.

Toby (Shotoku Toby) and Ikey (Shotoku The Eyes Have It) are obviously best friends.
Photo courtesy of Joan Bernstein (

Even if you live in a quiet area, you can't protect your cat against trauma. A cat that splits its time indoors and out may be at a defense disadvantage. According to Rabaut, many feral cats have fewer abscesses than indoor-outdoor cats because indoor-outdoor cats are not as aware of their defense mechanisms. When it comes time to defend themselves against another outdoor creature, they could be relatively helpless.

"I have had people come in with cats with two, three or four episodes of abscesses where the people will tell me it's all from the same cat down the street," she says.

Owners who are intent on letting their cats out should not do so before the cat is six to eight months old and is spayed or neutered, says Rabaut. Then it's best to let them out only in daylight hours, with an empty stomach so they'll return for food.

"Once they come back and you feed them, don't let them out again," she advises. A cat sent out on a full stomach might not return all night, and that's when most injuries occur. At night a cat may feel safer and roam farther than its own property, where other animals are more active.

If a cat disappears, it takes a concerted effort to find it. A cat trained to respond to its owner inside the house will be distracted outdoors, where it might be frightened and its hunting and survival instincts will be heightened.

Some kittens, when allowed to go out, will start to scratch or claw when children attempt to pick them up. This is partly a result of defense mechanisms needed outdoors. Outdoor cats are frequently more "wild" than indoor cats because of instincts they use to survive.

"Maybe he felt trapped once or twice outside and used a claw to get away, and now when the child picks him up quickly and he feels trapped, the instinct is to claw because that's what he did outside," says Rabaut.

Indoor risks
No matter where your cat spends its time, you should cat-proof your home to ensure his safety while he's indoors.

Be sure that there are no breakable objects your cat can knock down and be cut by the shards.

Keep all cleaning product bottles and poisons out of reach, and lock your cabinets as you would for a child, some cats are very adept at learning to open cabinets and drawers!

Wipe up spills immediately. If your cat walks through something toxic, he's fastidious enough to lick it off his paws and ingest it. Also beware of carpet fresheners, cats often have allergic reactions to carpets that have been treated with them.

Angel (Leeside And The Angels Sing) helping herself to a drink from the glass. with her brother, Stormy, watching her. Photo is courtesy of Diane Smith

Be sure that houseplants are non-poisonous, and that all electrical outlets are covered and cords are taped down so the cat can't chew them.

Keep string and yarn out of reach. Once a cat begins to swallow string, he can't regurgitate it and surgery may be in order. Drapery cords are another form of string, so put them out of reach as well.

If you have small children, be sure to keep small toys away from the cat. Anything tiny can be swallowed. Patrol the floor and table surfaces for loose pins, needles, etc.

Don't leave washer and dryer doors open, cats are attracted to warm places, and that could be an invitation to disaster. By the same token, cover all heating units and avoid freestanding space heaters. And cover your stove-top burners.

Be sure to close second floor and higher windows to prevent your cat from falling out due to loose screens.

Recliner chairs can also be traps for your cat if he gets caught underneath the foot rest, and rockers can cause injury, most commonly to tails. Remember the old axiom: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

The cat's happiness
When deciding what's best for your cat, also consider whether the cat will be happier indoors or outdoors.

Jeff and Snoozer eagerly await
Darlene's next words of wisdom

"It's a very complicated question," says Dodman. "Most of the diseases we see in the Behavior Clinic are related somehow to incarceration." Those include anxiety-related problems: obsessive/compulsive disorders, cats that pull out their hair, separation anxiety, compulsive eating disorders, and various neuroses.

Some people think that because a cat self-feeds, self-waters, and is fastidious about the litter box, that it can also amuse itself. This is not necessarily true. Felines are intelligent, active creatures that need interaction and mental stimulation. It's the owner's responsibility to provide that.

I don't think cats have to go outside to be content or to have that interaction at all," Rabaut states. "They want to go outside to see what's interesting. Make your home just as interesting."

Making your home fun
There are several ways to keep your cat entertained all day.

Buy a tall cat tree with a wide solid base, with two or three levels and a little house to hide in.

Consider a window hammock. Many cats enjoy watching the action outdoors through the window, but some, especially if anti-social, fearful or dominant-territorial, feel stressed by seeing things they can't control.

"It's a frustration, an inhibition, an inability to act on impulses, and they start to do things like marking behaviors or shredding, meowing and pacing and all sorts of other behaviors that indicate that all isn't well," says Dodrnan.

Cat videos are another option.

"You can argue that putting a bird feeder right outside the window would be the most cruel and tantalizing thing for a cat. You can argue that showing a video of rodents running in a running wheel would not be a good thing for a cat. But the fact is, I have had good feedback on both of those," says Dodman. "Maybe watching videos of rodents is more interesting than it is stressing. And maybe watching birds feeding at a feeder is more fascinating as they sit there and go into quasi-predatory mode with the tip of their tail twitching."

Rotate an assortment of novel toys, preferably things that move, like balls, a Buster Cube that releases food treats, electronic toys that go around in circles, or catnip mice.

Taffy contemplates art. Photo Diane Smith

Teach your cat to walk on a leash.

Play with your cat every day using toys like a laser mouse or Cat Dancer to provide exercise and interaction. You might even get a fish tank with a secure lid.

"Feed them little and often, hide food around the house. There are all sorts of tricks that you can do to give them something to do," says Dodman. Remember to give your cat love, affection and attention.

Consider having two cats to provide companionship and interaction if you can find a good mix of personalities without creating territorial problems. The cat may not like the new roommate, but many cats get along well after an adjustment period.

"In many cases it's better to have two cats versus one because they really do interact together, especially if they're indoors," Rabaut points out.

Indoors is best, experts agree
Both Dodman and Rabaut keep their cats indoors. "We couldn't go through the trauma that we had been through before, with cats who were indoor-outdoor cats and were killed," says Dodman.

Rabaut and her staff tame semi-feral kittens at the local Humane Society to make them potential house pets. One of the rules of the Humane Society is that the cats be kept indoors. Even the adult ones, many of which were outside cats, are adopted to stay indoors.

"The bottom line is it's safer for your cat, health-wise and trauma-wise, and it will increase its longevity if it's kept inside," says Dodman. "If you allow it to be an indoor-outdoor cat, in most areas it will have a much shorter life span.

Coal compensates with a workout .Photo courtesy of Chuck and Bonnie Searles

"You can argue about whether they should be clawed or de-clawed," he adds. "I think all cats should be clawed."

"A lot of owners have lost a lot of what they might have had with their outdoor cat by not taking the time to interact with it, not working to develop some type of relationship with it, versus people who are very devoted," says Rabaut.

She believes that whatever you want to get out of the relationship is related to what you put into it.

"Keeping cats indoors really makes a much richer relationship. The cat is waiting for you to come home to interact with you, to play with you. It means a commitment on your part that you're going to come home and play with it, but then you get that enjoyment back," she says.

"That's the way I am with pets, but I recognize that a lot of people have different levels of connection to their pets. I try to go along with those different levels, but I often wonder if they ever know how much they are missing."