“Oh by the way, my husband thinks we should let him outside but I’d feel safer if he stayed in, what do you think?” This was the question posed to me at the end of my first consultation with a newly acquired little ginger kitten named Harry. The client had already started to pack up her things and head for the door, but she didn’t get very far as there was no simple answer to such a seemingly simple question.
It’s a question that I get asked a lot, and I must admit it was one that took me a while to learn how to answer. Growing up in New York and practicing in Chicago, such a question from an American client would have seemed silly. Of course the cat should stay inside, it would be cruel to let him out into the big bad scary world full of cars and poisons and little children that like to pull tails! But then I moved to England and was suddenly forced to develop a real and educated opinion on the subject. Over here, most people consider it cruel to keep a cat entirely indoors. With such a vast difference in views between the two cultures, who was right?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping a cat indoors ?
Indoor cats tend to be physically healthier than their outdoor neighbours. With no exposure to other cats, the risk of disease transmission is minimal and they are much less prone to injuries such as road traffic accidents and bite wounds from other animals.
Indoor cats make for happier neighbours, and you are less likely to be harassed by the folks next door for owning a cat that uses their vegetable patch as a toilet.
Indoor cats tend to get less exercise, which makes them more prone to obesity.
Keeping a cat indoors means putting up with a litter tray and making sure all windows and doors stay closed at all times, which can be difficult in the summer or with children in the house. If they do happen to get out, they may lack the street skills necessary to keep them out of trouble.
Indoor cats may become solely dependent on you for attention and stimulation, which can lead to boredom and unpleasant attention-seeking behaviours, as well as make them less outgoing and accepting of new people or pets.
Without the ability to roam and hunt, indoor cats can become frustrated and display a wide variety of behavioural problems related to their stress. This can in turn lead to sofas being used as scratching posts, house plants being eaten, inappropriate urination and various displays of acrobatics involving your curtains and shelving.
What about allowing your cat access to the outside world?
Plenty of exercise from activities such as hunting can help keep them fit, and free access to the garden means there’s no need for a litter tray in the house.
Cats that are let outdoors can meet other felines in the area, allowing them the social interaction that they need and preventing them from becoming over-dependent on you.
The great outdoors offers a whole new world to explore and allows cats to display a wide range of natural behaviours, leading to less boredom and frustration. This means that the time they do spend at home is likely to be more relaxed and you may get to keep your curtains. Maybe.
Hunting may be great for your cat, but not so good for the local songbird population and may result in you having to remove the occasional half-dead mouse from your pillow at 4am.
Access to other cats means access to diseases, parasites and fight wounds, all of which do support your local veterinary surgeon but are clearly less desirable for both your cat and your purse.
Outdoor cats are unfortunately more likely to be involved in road traffic accidents, poisonings and other injuries.
You might get complaints about your cat going into other peoples’ houses, which also means you are more likely to not see your cat for days if they develop a taste for take away dining down the length of the street.
So what, then, do I recommend for little Harry? I would start by asking Harry himself (although he may not be able to answer you until he’s a bit older) and discussing all of the above issues with the whole family. Whatever you choose, start when your cat is young and address any concerns that may arise quickly. Some cats were born to hunt and will let you know from an early age that they are not satisfied with a life of safe, temperate luxury. Others are quite timid by nature and may find the outside world and the other creatures that come with it too stressful and may prefer to spend their lives indoors. Study your cat and try to see which lifestyle best suits them, not just yourself. And finally, if you do adopt an older cat, try to accommodate their previous experiences and preferences, as the stress of either being trapped inside or forced outside when they’re not used to it can easily be overwhelming and lead to problems for both the cat and the owner. And remember, if Harry is happy, you (and your furniture) are more likely to be happy too.
If you are concerned about any health problems in your cat, please contact your vet or use our interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.