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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.


Recently, University of Georgia researcher Kerrie Ann Loyd fitted a number of cats with cat cams — a small video recorder attached to the collar. Loyd’s purpose was to see what cats do when they are outdoors. The results may surprise you if you believe your cat is relatively safe outdoors.

Loyd’s research concluded that the cats she studied engaged in risky behaviors at least once weekly on average. The risky behaviors included coming into contact with opossums and other wild animals, carousing on rooftops and slinking through sewers. Cats were also observed chasing chickens belonging to neighbors and hunting other prey.

A somewhat humorous discovery was that of a cat that actually had two families caring for him, both totally unaware of the other. One of his human "moms" remarked that she felt like the cat was cheating on her when she saw the video footage of the cat being welcomed into the home of another family. If you can make work it for you, why not go for it, right? Who can blame the cat for looking for extra attention and extra meals?

On a more serious note though, some of these behaviors truly are very risky. Contact with wild animals opens the door for rabies, a disease thats we see more commonly in cats than we do in dogs, probably because of this propensity to interact with wildlife.

I’ve personally seen barn cats sharing their food dish with raccoons and opossums. I have also been told that these same cats sometimes share their food dishes with skunks as well, although I’ve never witnessed the skunks sharing a meal with the cats myself. These particular cats are vaccinated against rabies; I know this because I vaccinated them myself. But I have to wonder how many of the other cats that go outdoors are vaccinated. In theory they all should be, but we don’t live in a perfect world and a large percentage of cats are, unfortunately, unvaccinated.

What happens to an unvaccinated animal that is exposed to rabies — or even suspected of exposure? It is often recommended that the animal be euthanized. A second alternative is quarantine for as long as six months. This quarantine may be required to take place in an approved facility such as a local pound.

Just in case you think it can’t happen to you, let me share a story. This story involves a dog but it could just as easily have been a cat.

The dog had not been vaccinated in quite some time and was not up-to-date on his vaccine. He got into a fight with another dog that ran off after the fight and could no longer be located. Because this dog was unvaccinated and the second dog could not be found to verify its rabies status, he was seized by the animal control officer and placed in quarantine despite his owner’s tearful pleas not to take her dog. This is a true story, one that I personally witnessed. I don’t blame the animal control officer; she was only doing her job. It was disturbing for everyone involved and could have been avoided had the dog been vaccinated. It probably also could have been avoided if the dog had not been running loose.

Granted, that story involves a dog, but similar situations can and do occur with cats. Indoor cats still need to be vaccinated, and identification is still a good idea too. But even so, these situations are much less likely to arise if a cat lives indoors.

If that’s not enough, there’s also the risk of exposure to contagious diseases for cats that spend time outdoors. Diseases like feline leukemia and feline AIDS are not at all uncommon in outside cats.

Other concerns include the risk of injury while traversing a rooftop and exposure to disease and injury in a sewage system. And those chickens that some cats were seen chasing likely have owners who probably don’t appreciate having their chickens chased or injured. At best, it can’t result in a happy relationship with your neighbor. At worst, a neighbor might decide to take revenge on a cat that regularly terrorizes his livestock.

What do you think? Do you let your cats go outdoors? Do you worry about the risk if you do?


Dr. Lorie Huston

Image: Cat on a hot slate roof by Matthew / via Flickr

Comments  5

Leave Comment
  • Keep 'Em Indoors!
    06/04/2012 07:21am

    There are so many dangers for our critters if they're allowed to roam outdoors.

    How many times have all of us heard the tearful stories about Fluffy or Fido that just never came home?

    What is amazing to me is that these same people get another critter and continue to let them outdoors to "run free".

  • Indoor/Outdoor cats
    06/04/2012 08:00am

    I have never bought a cat or kitten, but we have had half a dozen "rescues" come in and out of our lives. We live in a farming community and there is no shortage of stray cats. If one decides to make our property home, I will take it to the vet, spay/neuter and get it its shots. Some stay, some leave, but I figure they are better off than with no care, and at least they are not reproducing. My current two cats are mother and son. Mama was literally rescued from our neighbor's pool late one spring. Before I could decide if she was going to be "ours," she blessed us with three adorable baby boys. We kept one, and our friends took the brothers. They are indoor/outdoor cats, since at the time they arrived, we also had a boxer that was antagonistic to cats and so they stayed outside. But I've always kept them up to date with shots and they are also spayed/neutered. I do wonder where they go (and have long suspected them of having another family) but they always come back, sometimes with bits of cobwebs stuck to their whiskers and ears, or with a deightful little "gift" just for me! No one has ever come home sick or with an injury, but I know that's a possibility. I still think they have a better life than they would on their own. (And we now have 2 boxers who wouldn't hurt them a bit, but they are still very cautious about coming in the house!)

  • Keep Inside However...
    06/04/2012 08:30am

    I have 3 beautiful animals, a French Bulldog, Siamese and a gorgeous long haired all gray rescue, our vet suspects to be a Norwegian Forest Cat. All animals have been raised to be inside pets, are current on their shots and very well cared for.

    We adopted Moses, (our rescue), as a very young kitten and early on when any door opens he was there trying to escape. We have tried everything we can think of to keep him where he belongs, inside. When one of us open the door, he is picked up and moved away, taking his chance of escape away. Unfortunately on occasion someone coming in or company going out will too quickly open the door and out he goes! That cat has incredible speed and once out is impossible to catch most of the time. The exterior of my home is stone and normally he climbs immediately right up the side of it. My only saving grace is if it is raining, in which case he will turn around and come back inside right away, he hates the rain...

    He is micro-chipped, wears a collar with my name and number and the offer of a monetary reward for his safe return. The vet to my surprise has also recommended I not fit him with a break away collar as he gets them off within a day, so he wears a regular collar that stays on him.

    My only other alternative would be to give him up which I will not do. He does not get out often and when he does I walk egg shells until his return and I live with the fact he is my problem child. Yes, he is neutered and that has not helped with his escape attempts. I often wonder if he was born out side or part of a feral litter and just feels the pull to go out and wonder :/

  • Indoor, yes!
    06/04/2012 02:02pm

    I have always been a "dog person." But, about, ten years ago, my two children begged me to adopt two kittens (from a litter a friend's cat had). The children promised to "always watch them, feed them, and change their litter box, if only we could adopt them, pleeeeaase???" Within a couple WEEKS, haha, I was the sole care-giver of these kitties (of course). From the very beginning, I stressed that these would only be INDOOR kitties. We did have them de-clawed, but we all learned how to clip their nails which the cats eventually learned to accept without too much fuss and retaliation ;) Once in a blue moon, a kitty would slip out the front door when it was opened. But, one word to my wonderful dogs ("Go find the kitty!") and they will sniff out and corral the errant kitty for its safe re-capture (the kitties have NEVER seemed very pleased about our dogs turning them in, haha). I have seen too many beautiful birds and bunnies killed by neighbor "outdoor" cats. My kitties will never be allowed to terrorize the local wildlife like that.

  • 06/04/2012 02:05pm

    CORRECTION: I meant to say "We did NOT have them de-clawed"! That's why we clip their nails regularly. Dumb typo!

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