Can an Indoor Cat Be a Part-Time Outdoor Cat?

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 27, 2018

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on June 27, 2018 by Katie Grzyb, DVM

An indoor cat generally has a simpler life than its free-range feline counterpart.

It’s no secret that the mean streets—or even fields—hold many dangers for an outdoor cat on its own. An indoor cat doesn’t face the increasing number of cars, toxins, parasites and instances of animal cruelty that a roaming outdoor cat does. That’s why feline experts usually urge owners to keep their cats indoors. But that’s not always easy.

“There are some cats that have lived outside. When they’re forced to stay indoors, they may start to eliminate outside the box due to anxiety, become irritable or overgroom themselves,” says Dr. Laura Emge Mosoriak, DVM, owner of Kingstowne Cat Clinic, Alexandria, Virginia. “I don’t advocate cats going outside, but sometimes you have to make a choice—allow [him] outside supervised for a while to get the mental stimulation they crave, knowing and owning the dangers—or keep them inside and try your best to keep them stimulated enough to be content indoors.”

The Perks of Being an Indoor Cat

The more comfortable life of an indoor cat significantly increases his lifespan. An indoor cat may live 15-17 years, while the life expectancy for outdoor cats is only 2-5 years, according to researchers at University of California-Davis.

Dr. Jeff Levy, DVM, CVA, owner of House Call Vet NYC, also discourages owners from keeping cats outdoors. He adds that the extreme climates of the outdoors can be very hard on a cat.

If you do plan on taking your cat outside, it is best to do so in a controlled environment or with precautions put in place to ensure they cannot escape or run away. “Cats may have nine lives, but they aren’t indestructible,” says Dr. Levy. “Certain pet owners in New York walk their cats on leashes [with a cat harness, not a collar]. They train them to do that and can make sure they stay safe. That takes training, but it’s important. And the cats seem to enjoy it.”

Should Indoor Cats Have Outdoor Time?

One reason cats generally enjoy the outdoors is that it takes them back to their natural roots. “It's important for owners to remember that cats are nocturnal, and in the wild, they'd be hunting all night and sleeping all day. Sometimes an indoor cat gets bored and may get anxious being cooped up inside all of the time if it isn’t given enough stimulation,” says Dr. Mosoriak. “Keeping your indoor cat stimulated is important to [his] mental health. Outdoor cats get that natural stimulation they need.”

Of course, an indoor cat (or a restrained outdoor cat) will not be doing much hunting, but you can simulate that activity with a variety of cat toys, like the Pet Fit For Life feather wand cat toy or the Cat Dancer wand cat toy. Providing indoor cats with cat scratchers and cat trees is also a great idea. Adding levels with cat trees or a cat window perch gives cats a higher point to view their territory and their own place to explore, climb, knead and take cat naps on.

Although Christine Capaldo, DVM, The PETA Foundation, Norfolk, Virginia, noted that “PETA's position is unequivocal: All cats should be indoor cats,” she agreed that supervised outdoor activity can be healthy if done the correct way. “Like dogs, cats should be allowed outdoors for walks on leashes that are attached to harnesses, not to collars,” she said. “Let the cat get used to the harness for short periods indoors, and then pick a safe outdoor area to explore.”

For pet parents who do want to provide their indoor cats with some outdoor time, there are harnesses specifically made for cats, like the Red Dingo cat harness and leash. They are designed to fit cats and prevent them from wriggling loose, but they do require training to get your cat comfortable and willing to walk.

Talk With Your Veterinarian Before Letting Indoor Cats Have Outdoor Time

“If a cat spends any amount of time outdoors, no matter how limited or infrequent, the cat owner should mention it to their veterinarian so they can adequately discuss health risks to ensure the cat is properly protected from diseases, parasites and more,” says Nora Grant, DVM, veterinary services manager, Ceva Animal Health, Red Oaks, Texas. “I encourage cat owners to be as frank as possible about how the pet spends its time. By asking these questions, a veterinarian simply wants to understand what a cat may encounter to ensure the cat’s health and well-being.”

That’s true whether you allow your cat to roam free, walk on a leash or even use a catio.

Dr. Mosoriak and Dr. Levy have a host of favorite products that take care of fleas on cats and other parasites. Favorites for flea and tick prevention include Advantage Multi flea treatment, Revolution (also protects against heartworm and ear mites) and Seresto flea and tick collars for cats. For helping your indoor cat feel at home, or for help transitioning your outdoor cat into an indoor cat, they recommend trying cat calming products, such as the Comfort Zone with Feliway cat diffuser and Solliquin supplements for cats.

And, of course, cats should be spayed, neutered and microchipped.

“Annual exams, vaccinations, deworming, spaying and neutering are always important,” says Dr. Mosoriak. “Administering monthly internal and external parasite control is especially important for outdoor cats.”

Dr. Mosoriak recalls one new cat owner who allowed her cat outside and didn’t realize that fleas infested her cat until she brought her cat to the clinic for an exam. Fleas on cats, including the one Dr. Mosoriak treated, can severely irritate the skin and cause itchiness. As your cat continues to scratch and itch, it can lead to more serious skin infections. And once fleas infest your home, the eggs get into couches, rugs, etc., making it not only difficult to remove them but also expensive.

“Cats that go outside do face greater risks,” she says. “That’s why it’s important for owners to be especially attuned to their health.”

Image via Claudia Paulussen/Shutterstock

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