Cats Indoors: An Environmental AND Feline Healthcare Movement

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: October 05, 2010
Published: October 13, 2006
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A growing movement spearheaded by the American Bird Conservancy and other environmental groups has taken the issue of cat overpopulation by the tail. They have a descriptive (if not terribly catchy) name for it, too: Cats Indoors.

This primarily environmental PR campaign for promoting indoor life for felines was initiated by native wildlife advocates to help curb the feral cat problem as well as the impact of domesticated housecats on populations of sensitive species.

Cat overpopulation has been a major rallying point for pet welfare advocates across the US for the past couple of decades. It has only recently, in the past five or so years hit the mainstream media. Calls for the decimation of feral cats in townships all over the country have incensed animal rights groups and average cat lovers, alike.

Veterinary medicine has gotten in on the act, too, with new shelter medicine programs in progressive vet schools (like my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania). Designed specifically to reduce the euthanasia rate among millions of unwanted dogs and cats, these programs take a multifactorial approach to alleviating the problem of overpopulation and pet relinquishment (in addition to dealing with the more conventional healthcare issues involved in housing hundreds of animals under one roof).

The Cats Indoors program is attacking one of the many factors leading to cat overpopulation—the public perception of cats as a benign presence in the outdoors. Multiple studies in England and the US demonstrate convincingly that the impact of cats on wildlife is HUGE.

And it’s not just feral cats. One English study used a population of housecats in a small area to replicate some of the larger studies and show that housecats alone account for millions of bird deaths a year when the small study is extrapolated to include all of the UK. Migratory songbirds are especially affected due to their size, behavior and presence during warmer months of the year when housecats prowl the outdoors in greater numbers.

As a vet, it’s also important for me not only to demonstrate my concern for wildlife by supporting this campaign but also to stress the deleterious health effects on the outdoors on our cats. It certainly goes both ways.

Outdoor and indoor/outdoor cats (most common in my practice) are at very high risk for violence: cat-dog interactions, cat-cat interactions, cat-car interactions and many others. Viruses such as FeLV (feline leukemia) and FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) should, alone, be tremendous incentive to keep your cat indoors. Not to mention parasitism, rabies, and toxoplasmosis.

Life is rough out there for cats. And while, as a culture, we’ve brought our dogs indoors, our cats still bear the brunt of our nation’s unwillingness to do so—yet. It will happen—I’m convinced. Cats will continue to grow in popularity among those of us with lifestyles ill-suited to dogs (more of us than we care to admit) and their care will eventually become as important to us as that of our canines.

And domesticated cats don’t need to live outside. Sure, they like to hunt and stalk and mark their territory—but at what price? Lying in the sun, stalking, and living a comfortable life with their humans is more than enough for the lucky cats we love.

It’s not natural to confine cats to the indoors? What’s so natural about running your cat over in the driveway? What’s so natural about having your neighbor’s Husky eat your cat? What’s so natural about having your cat consume antifreeze? What’s so natural about taking a species from Africa and letting it loose on the unsuspecting wildlife of a continent that was never meant to support it?

Though I’m sweet on Cats Indoors I’m also skeptical. Perhaps that’s because Miami (where I live) is not exactly a bastion of wildlife activism. But it’s an ambitious beginning for a movement that ultimately gets it right: changing human hearts and minds is the only way out of our cat overpopulation problem.

Trap-neuter-release programs have been shown to help only minimally (as evidenced by a recent study in JAVMA) given the magnitude of the problem. Outright slaughter seems a wee bit controversial—our culture doesn’t have the stomach for it. Offering education and raising awareness? Who can argue with that?

For information, brochures, and how to get involved in the Cats Indoors campaign, go to the Cats Indoors Home Page.