Indoor Life Versus Outdoor Life for Cats

Lorie Huston, DVM
Published: February 6, 2012
Indoor Life Versus Outdoor Life for Cats

Last reviewed on January 5, 2016

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

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