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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, I’d like to wish a Happy Valentine's Day to all of our readers and their furry friends. And a special Valentine's Day wish goes out to Pam W., who recently asked this great question on petMD’s Facebook page:

I am just curious — we have had outside cats for many years who hunt, as is their "natural" way to eat, and they have never been sick in any way, shape, form, or fashion. They are all cats who just came from nowhere, so to speak. They are not pets. They have never had any shots, to our knowledge, and some are several years old now and were born here, so we know they have never had any shots or medical treatment. They are all very healthy. Do you think it is possible that inside pet cats are less healthy and need medical treatments because they live indoors and do not get proper exercise because their food is just handed to them?

I understand what Pam is saying. My grandparents used to keep cats for mousing (i.e., keeping the rodent population under control in their home). The cats lived outside on the porch and were never really pets. They started with two cats: a female named Pixie and a male named Dixie. Dixie disappeared after a short time but Pixie lived on my grandparent's porch for many years, producing litter after litter of kittens. Before too long a colony was established there. Though the individual cats in the colony changed frequently, there were always at least 8-10 cats living on the porch.

These cats never received any medical care. They were never spayed or neutered. They never received any vaccines. They were fed leftovers when they were fed at all. Naturally, they hunted for the majority of their food. Though many of them lived relatively short lives or simply disappeared after reaching maturity, some lived to a ripe old age. Pixie, for instance, lived to be roughly 14-15 years old.

Please understand that I'm not endorsing caring for cats in this fashion. We're talking about a period 40-50 years in the past, when I was a child. Times have changed and, in many cases, cats have taken a place as family members now. They’ve moved into our homes and even share our beds in many cases.

As to the question about indoor cats and health, it's a good question. There's no doubt that living indoors can become a boring and sometimes stressful situation for a cat. And it is becoming increasingly evident that stress can cause disease, particularly for cats. However, there are environmental enrichments that can go a long ways towards relieving that stress and boredom. Hunting behavior can be simulated through the use of food puzzles and interactive toys. Feeding a high quality diet can also be an important factor.

Though cats that live outdoors lead a more "natural" life in terms of being able to hunt, they also face dangers that indoor cats do not. Threats such as car accidents, attacks and predation from dogs or wild animals, and exposure to viral diseases such as feline leukemia and feline AIDS are only a few of the dangers faced by cats living outdoors. These are things for which indoor cats are not at risk.

In summary, though I recognize that living outdoors can seem a more "natural" way of living for a cat, my own personal opinion is that cats are safer living indoors. However, I also think it is important to make certain that all of your cat’s needs are met if he is living indoors. That means providing perches where your cat can rest, hiding places where he can feel safe, appropriate toys, litter boxes, and good nutrition, to name just a few of the requirements.

That being said, I do recognize that there are feral cat colonies and other situations in which it is not practical for a cat to live indoors. Cats that are kept to control rodent populations in barns would be one such example.

My cats are pets. Their sole purpose is to provide companionship, and I freely admit that. As such, they live exclusively indoors and I have no intention of changing that. If they were ever to go outdoors, it would be in a "catio" or other enclosed space where they could be supervised and remain safe.

That's my opinion about cats and whether they should be housed indoors or out. But I'm curious what the rest of you think. Do you think cats are better off living indoors or outdoors?

Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Esterio / via Shutterstock

Comments  6

Leave Comment
  • Street Ragamuffins
    02/06/2012 07:25am

    I currently have two that are former street ragamuffins and they have no desire whatsoever to return to the outdoors.

    There are so many dangers as mentioned in the article.

    If a kitty is allowed (or lives) outdoors, how would the human caretaker know if the cat has gotten sick? Many times they'll just hide and the human would never know they need medical attention. I can't imagine how heartbreaking it would be if a pet just never came home again and wondering what happened.

    I believe we humans can keep them properly fed and entertained while keeping them inside and safe.

  • Outdoor cats
    02/06/2012 10:35am

    I understand some situations where one might have, or help care for, outdoor cats. For example, cats that just show up, or barn cats ... Though I think these should at least be neutered and released. However, I think it is a terrible idea to let pet cats outside. There are very few places now where there are not too many cars and/or too many wild animals. The lifespan of many outdoor cats is very short ... Getting hispt by cars, or killed in engines, or killed by dogs or raccoons, etc. those cats that just disappeared are often dead, not just wandering off.
    I breed Siberians. They can be lower in one key feline allergen (we test for it) and thus are a godsend for people who love cats but have allergies. My contract requires that the cats be indoor only.

  • Survival Rates
    02/06/2012 10:53am

    This article makes some valid points, but realy, completely misses the issue! The answer to whether indoor cats are heathier than outdoor casts is answered in both the question posed and the answer. Both allude to the disappearance of some cats and the longevity of others. It is common knowledge that animals that are at death's door hide. Cats are no exception! (Before that they go to great lengths to hide their illness. It is a survival mechanism in most species.) So really, those outside cats that do fall ill actually hide and disappear. The indoor cats have nowhere to hide and it becomes obvious that they have a problem. You only see the healthy survivors in the outdoor group, but all cats, healthy and ill in the indoor group! Duh! I am disappointed that this was not addressed in this article!!

  • 02/06/2012 12:24pm

    While some of the cats who disappeared were probably ill, the pertinent phrase is that they disappeared after reaching maturity. It is normal for young adults to leave their mothers and go looking for their own territories. The mortality rate during this period will be high, but it is perfectly normal. Of the major pet and livestock species cats are the most recently domesticated. The ease with which they move from being pets to living wild leads some zoologists to consider them only semi-domesticated. Feral and outdoor cats have a much higher mortality rate, but that is true of any wild animal. In one sense the argument might come down to whether you believe big cats live better lives in the wild or in captivity, then just downsize the animal in your mind.

  • indoor vs. outdoor
    02/07/2012 03:16am

    In reply to The Hobbet's analogy with big cats, I must say that big cats are not pets and cannot be domesticated adequately. It seems obvious that many cats, if unvaccinated and not otherwise cared for, will succumb to various illnesses or accidents, but not all will. Females may have large litters, as evolution's way of coping with this. Note Australia's famous issue with an explosion of feral cats, where they have no natural enemies. My own cat is a pet, 14 years old, and does not go outside. I am sure he owes his longevity to this. In the past, for a time, I had outdoor cats, and was living in a place that was relatively safe for them but that is not the case now. I have also lived in a few places that had mice, but the mice did not last too long. I suppose one could introduce some mice into the house to let the cats have a hunting experience. In Darwinian terms, it is not necessary for cats to live to a ripe old age, only that they reproduce, but I prefer having my old (neutered) friend around, and he seems very happy with this. He likes to get in bed with me at night too, and there no worries about fleas or ticks. In my opinion the answer is obvious.

  • Importance of Cats
    02/07/2012 01:30pm

    Here is an interesting article on the role cats play in the ecosystem, http://news.yahoo.com/cats-world-suddenly-died-145802016.html. Of course if all cats were confined inside the result would be almost as disastrous as all cats disappearing.

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