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Is it OK to let your cat roam outside?

April 21, 2015

By Paul Brucker

Are you a cat owner? America for the most part is a cat-loving nation. About 37% of U.S. households have a pet cat, for a grand total 96 million domesticated cats.

One big decision that faces each cat owner: Whether to maintain their four-legged friend as an indoor-only feline or to let it roam outside. This decision becomes more acute each spring, as homeowners go outside more often and many cats go on 24/7 alert to seize any opportunity to escape the house. One thing I can be sure of these days: Every time I open the back porch door, our cat Tallulah will be ready to pounce outside. And our other cat, Moxie, will be prepared to follow her lead.

Since cat litter was created and highly marketed in the mid-1940s, people have been keeping cats indoors year round. That’s better for a cat’s life expectancy. Indoor-only cats live, on average, 10 to 12 years, while outdoor-only cats are lucky to survive for two years.

Whether or not your cat is indoor-only and well-fed, it is an instinctive hunter. Most cats simply crave the chance to roam outside to chase insects and other animals, climb trees and bask in the open sunlight. The problem is that the great outdoors is not so great for the cats.

Once outside, your pet may encounter the company of feral and stray cats. That’s not surprising since there are about 670 million of them in the United States. Unfortunately, many carry diseases and unsavory parasites, such as fleas and ear mites. Also, 14% of them are infected with a highly contagious fatal disease called feline AIDs.

And while your cat may enjoy the adventure of hunting birds and squirrels, other creatures such as dogs, raccoons, coyotes or feline-hating people may be hunting your cat. Plus, there is the peril of your cat being run over by a car. Bottom line: the outside world is not cat friendly.

Cat owners who want to let their cat experience the outdoors should

  • Be sure the cat is fully vaccinated, as well as spayed or neutered
  • Have the cat equipped with an ID tag or microchip 
  • Consider putting a collar with a bell on your cat to scare away small mammals and songbirds
  • Consider using a harness and retractable leash to walk your cat. (This may take a lot of training, and ultimately both your cat and you may dislike the experience)
  • Consider installing a cat-escape-proof fence 
  • Be on hand, whenever possible, to keep a friendly, protective eye on your cat (and be prepared to take care of it)|

Meanwhile, many cat owners have helped their indoor-only cats share some of the joys of nature. Here are some ideas:

  • Looking at birdbaths and birdfeeders outside the window are like must-watch TV for cats. They love to peer out screened-in windows. Provide your cat with a cozy perch or a spot on a sofa where it can gaze at the outside world and soak up the sun
  • Provide your cat with a variety of toys and keep it excited by rotating some of the ones you make available. Toys that simulate prey usually go over well, such as laser pointers, motorized or squeaky mice knickknacks and kitty fishing poles with a cloth mouse at the end. Cats also appreciate some of the simpler things: Rolled up balls of paper and objects to hide in and explore, such as paper bags and empty boxes
  • Provide objects around the home that it’s OK for them to scratch, such as scratching posts, trees and boxes
  • Plant a garden of snacks for your cat to nibble on and roll in, such as catnip, alfalfa and wheat grass