When kitty’s exploring outside, who can deny the pleasure of watching those feline instincts spring to life? Whether your cat is stalking a squirrel, climbing a backyard tree to get a better view or trotting off to patrol their realm, there’s something gratifying about seeing your cat in their element.
However, taking a hands-off approach to your cat’s comings and goings can jeopardize their health and safety, and even shorten their lifespan. Free-roaming cats live anywhere to two to five years, whereas a cat that lives its life fully indoors can live up to 17 years or longer.
The following takes a look at the dangers your outdoor cat may be exposed to, and how you can help your cat live a happy, safe life.
What are the dangers of letting cats free-roam outside?
Not even an intelligent, “street-smart” cat can evade all dangerous situations that come their way when they’re out and about on their own. Here are some of the hazards that can await an outdoor cat.
Exposure to diseases
Cats that spend time unsupervised outdoors are more likely to become exposed to disease and infection, especially after an encounter with an untreated feral or homeless cat. Feline immunodeficiency virus, for example, can eventually destroy the ability of your cat’s immune system to fight off even harmless strains of bacteria and viruses. Because the disease is most often spread through bite wounds, all it takes is one tussle to shorten your cat’s lifespan.
Toxins, poisons and parasites
Even if you’re diligent about keeping harmful indoor plants out of your house, there are plenty of plants cultivated in gardens that are toxic or even fatal when ingested by felines. If you’re interested in learning more, the ASPCA has compiled a handy reference, complete with visuals.
Increased risk of injury
When cats are out and about, they can get hurt or even killed. They could get struck by a vehicle. They can get into a fight with another cat, dog or a wild animal. Afterward, an injured cat may be physically unable to get home. As a result, there are millions of heartbreaking stories of families who never learn what became of their beloved pet.
In your eyes, your cat is one of the most charming, adorable creatures that walked the earth. But the arrival of that same, sweet fur face can set off very different emotions in your neighbor. That’s because cats can do irritating and destructive things in people’s yards. They can dig in gardens, choose a spot as their personal outdoor litter box, or eat carefully tended plants. If your neighbors keep bird feeders, the sight of your stalking cat will have them seeing red! Finally, your cat’s presence can trigger unwanted behaviors from their indoor cat, like hissing or lashing out at nearby humans, or attempts to mark their territory.
When some humans see a cat on the loose, they’ll attempt to capture it and bring it to a local shelter (which means you’ll have to pay a release fee). Others still may believe the cat is homeless and decide to adopt it.
Free-roaming may be illegal
Many towns and cities have ordinances on the books banning cats (and dogs) from leaving their owner’s property without a leash. If your free-roaming cat gets captured, you’ll likely have to pay up to get your cat back. On top of that, your cat’s antics in someone else’s yard could lead to an animal nuisance citation for you.
Hazard to wildlife
Domestic cats are not a part of the natural food chain in the average neighborhood ecosystem. For example, North American songbird populations have decreased by 3 billion in the past 50 years, and unsupervised and feral cats are the No. 1 human-driven cause of the decline. Even if your cat wears a bell to warn birds, chipmunks, rabbits and other small animals, it’s not going to stop her from chasing and catching her prey.
Do cats need time outside to be happy?
Most vets will reassure you that cats can not only live healthier indoors, but they’ll live perfectly happy lives. Still, there are plenty of pet parents who will tell you that blocking kitty’s access to outside is unthinkable. If that’s what you decide, here are some guidelines for safer outdoor enrichment.
Confine outings to the backyard
This can help you achieve the best of both worlds. Kitty gets to experience fresh air and exploration without stepping into dangerous situations. Here are a few ways to keep your cat from taking off.
- Get a cat leash and harness: It’s not as crazy as it sounds. (Though it must be acknowledged that, yes, some cats will never, ever stand for the leash.) If it’s something you’d like to try, be patient, go slow and dole out plenty of treats — just as you would with any cat conditioning. Start by letting them sniff the harness and leash. Then drape (the harness) it over their body for short stints, before you attempt to fasten it on. Once they get used to wearing the combo, step outside for brief sessions. If you can get this far, they should feel more at ease.
- Outdoor cat enclosures: Ask your local pet supply shop for options for setting up a protected fresh-air space for your cat. A small enclosure can offer felines a safe place for a sensory blast, while elaborate enclosed “catios” are also an option.
- Good fencing: An ordinary 6-foot privacy fence is enough to keep some — but not all! — kitties contained to backyard explorations. If your cat isn’t big on climbing, start with brief outings to confirm it will stay put. Invisible fencing designed for cats can also be effective in keeping your cat from leaving the yard.
Schedule the wellness visit
All cats need annual wellness visits, regardless of how much or how little they spend time outdoors. If yours is a free-roaming cat, you’ll want to stay on top of their vaccine schedule, and get them screened for undetected parasites and other issues.
In addition to wearing a collar with tags at all times, your cat should also have microchip ID. If your cat gets lost, this precaution will greatly increase the odds that you’ll be reunited with your pet.
If neighbors bring up problems they’re having with your free-roaming cat, hear them out and work toward a solution. In the long run, keeping the peace will be in your cat’s best interest!
Spay and neuter
While out and about on their neighborhood patrol, it’s not a matter of if they’ll meet other cats, it’s a matter of when. Some encounters can result in unwanted litters of kittens, and contribute to the cat overpopulation problem. Be a responsible pet owner and have your cat spayed or neutered. Instead of contributing to the problem, you can work toward the solution.
Add fun to the indoor environment
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of providing enrichment to your indoor cat, so they can live a contented, healthy life. Listen to Raising Your Paws podcast # 05 “Fulfilling Your Cat’s Primary Need: Enrichment” Offer plenty of daily indoor play with cat toys and provide places that allow them to explore, hide and perch. Listen to Raising Your Paws podcast #35 “The Best Way to Play with Your Cat” You may even want to consider getting a feline companion. Any of these ideas are simple ways to keep cats engaged and stimulated.
With a little planning and ingenuity, you can find a way to give your cat the outdoor living they crave without jeopardizing their safety (or your relationship with your neighbors).
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