Outdoor Cat Controversy: Is It Ever OK to Let Them Roam?

Mindy A. Cohan, VMD
By Mindy A. Cohan, VMD on Apr. 13, 2017

Pet parents commonly pose the question as to whether they should allow their cats to venture outside of the house. As a veterinarian and advocate for animal welfare, I explain that the decision is ultimately theirs, but to bear in mind that their cat is likely to use up her “nine lives” more quickly while outdoors. As with any controversial topic, there are both pros and cons to providing your cat with the opportunity to explore the great outdoors.

Dangers and Risks for Outdoor Cats

There are many potential dangers faced by outdoor cats, but some risks can be mitigated. For example, outdoor cats exposed to the rabies and feline leukemia viruses can be protected by vaccines. Another virus that is more prevalent in outdoor cat populations is the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Although a vaccine for FIV exists, its use is controversial.

The risk for exposure to fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes is also greater for cats who spend time outside. These pests can transmit the agents that cause diseases, such as feline infectious anemia and heartworm. Responsible pet parents must ensure that their cat receives appropriate parasite preventatives to stay healthy.

Another preventable problem associated with outdoor cats is unwanted pregnancies. Due to the persistent and staggering overpopulation issue, it is imperative to have your cats spayed or neutered before they are permitted outside.

Unfortunately, unsupervised outdoor cats are at risk for several serious problems that cannot be easily avoided. Vehicular accidents are one of the most common life-threatening issues faced by outdoor cats. Encounters with other animals can also pose grave consequences. Bite wounds, if not detected early, can result in serious infections. Cats attacked by larger animals such as dogs, foxes, or coyotes have a low survival rate.

Cats who roam outside are in jeopardy of being exposed to toxins such as antifreeze and rodenticides. If a cat ingests either product without the owner’s knowledge, the window of opportunity to administer an antidote is lost. Toxic outdoor plants such as lilies, azaleas, cyclamen, or the bulbs of tulips and hyacinth also endanger cats.

Benefits of Letting Your Cat Outside

While there are many sound reasons for keeping your cat indoors, there are several benefits associated with outdoor life. The majority of outdoor cats maintain a healthy body weight. As opposed to their strictly indoor couch potato counterparts, outdoor cats play and run and therefore burn many more calories.

The importance of environmental enrichment for cats is strongly touted by veterinary behaviorists. Although cat parents can be creative in initiating indoor games, the mental stimulation experienced outdoors is ideal. Exposure to live prey allows cats to partake in natural hunting activities. Hunting outdoors serves as an outlet for stalking and aggression that might otherwise be directed toward other household pets and family members. For cat parents, channeling their pet’s scratching tendency toward trees and other natural surfaces is much preferred compared to leather furniture or Berber carpeting.

While indoor cats are afforded a longer life expectancy, some people believe that quality of life outweighs quantity. Pet parents need to recognize that there are circumstances that make a cat’s indoor confinement very difficult. Stray cats who have become accustomed to living outdoors have a hard time acclimating to life strictly inside. Parents of cats with non-resolvable litter box aversion often have no choice other than to allow their cat to venture into nature when “nature calls.”

In order for cat parents who live in a highly trafficked area to strike a happy balance, they can consider leash walking their cats in a harness or allowing their cats to explore and exercise within an enclosed yard under supervision. Whether you choose to allow your cat to roam outside or keep it indoors, be sure to take measures to ensure both her physical and mental well-being.  

Mindy Cohan, VMD, is a small animal veterinarian in the Philadelphia area. Mindy has a strong interest in bereavement counseling and she is passionate about teaching families how to care for their pets. She enjoys disseminating pet health information as the monthly guest veterinarian on WXPN-FM's Kids Corner.

Mindy A. Cohan, VMD


Mindy A. Cohan, VMD


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