Should I Let My Cat Outside?

It’s kind of obvious what my personal take is on whether I should let my cat outside given the website name…  But I’ve done my research and if you live in an urban area, the short answer is no, it is not recommended by experts such as cat behaviorists and animal advocates to let your cat outside.

It’s pretty clear why. The life expectancy is much longer for an indoor cat than an outdoor cat due to potential threats that small animals such as cats face outside from getting run over by a car to wild predators such as coyotes preying on them. Let’s explore further objective rationale for keeping your indoor cat inside and what you can do to prevent your cat from going outside.

Why An Indoor Cat Wants To Go Outside

Some cat breeds, such as ragdolls, are deemed indoor cats because they don’t have the desire to dart outside. But for most cats, the natural inclination is to be curious and explore what seems foreign to them.

For example, Charlie is more of a scaredy cat than Nala, so when they are introduced to something new, like the hallway after moving in, they run away from the door when they hear it creak open. But after being used to the fact that the door won’t harm them, they’ve now been meowing at the door to go outside into the hallway of my apartment building.

So, if your cat has always been content being indoors but is suddenly showing the urge to want to go outside, it’s nothing to worry about. They just became intoxicated with the idea that the grass may be greener. Aren’t we all guilty of this…

In order to address whether you should let your cat outside, you need to understand the root cause of why he/she is interested in going outside in the first place. The most common reasons include:

  • Mental stimulation – trees, birds, bugs, dogs, humans
  • Chill under the sun
  • Rub their back on a rough textured surface such as concrete or wood chips in the garden
  • Fresh air
  • Not enough space inside for their territory if there are multiple cats
  • Chew on grass and plants
  • A certain smell that’s attracting them
  • Wants to use dirt to go pee and poop in
  • You cat hasn’t been spayed or neutered and wants to find a mate

How do you know if any of the reasons above is what your cat is after? If you do see your cat dart outside, observe what he/she does. When I lived in a house with my cats, Nala would run outside and start rubbing her face on plants and then would go find a pocket of sunshine hitting the concrete and rub her back all over. Once you understand the reason for you cat’s desire to go outside, you may try to recreate or provide something similar indoors.

Indoor vs Outdoor Cat Life Expectancy

Lifelong cat advocates (which I consider myself to be as well) and behaviorists at animal welfare organizations such as the SPCA are quick to opine on keeping your cat indoors because of the obvious life expectancy observed between indoor vs outdoor cats. On average, the life expectancy of outdoor cats is five years old. On the other hand, the life expectancy of indoor cats is typically 18 to 20 years of age. That’s almost 4 times the life expectancy!

Common life threats to an outdoor cat are:  

  • Being run over by a car
  • Consuming poison (like rat poison) or pesticide (weed killer)
  • A cruel person takes the cat (don’t even want to know what they would do…)
  • Somebody steals the cat thinking the cat is a stray
  • Gets attacked by another cat or a dog
  • Gets attacked by a predator like a coyote
  • Contracts a disease from another animal such as feline leukemia
  • Gets lost and can’t find home
  • Doesn’t want to come back

This heartbreaking article written by an animal advocate at PETA (which stands for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” – I always forget what the acronym stands for) illustrates a far too common instance of an outdoor cat contracting feline AIDS from being bitten by other cats. In a span of just a short few months, the disease ravaged the poor kitty and had to be put down.

Are Indoor Cats Happy?

Okay okay, I get it… Outdoor cats face life threatening circumstances and to prevent that, keep the cats indoors. But are indoor cats actually happy? I often find Charlie and Nala staring blankly at nothing, with their chin resting on their front leg tucked neatly under their head and sometimes letting out a sigh. It’s gut wrenching to see that. They have toys galore and a high up perch areas, they’re fed delicious food routinely and their litter boxes are cleaned out everyday. And I play with them and cuddle them. But why do they look so depressed?

Depending on the temperament of the cat, some cats are perfectly happy being indoors while some cats are more wild in their nature and need to explore new territory and do things on their terms everyday. If your cat doesn’t even enjoy playing with toys inside and is always sitting by the door or the window meowing endlessly, it might mean that your cat just isn’t suited to be indoors.

But that’s rare and most cats are happy indoors as long as you equip your house with a clean and comfortable environment and plenty of mental stimulation. In fact, for most cats, rather than thinking about it in terms of happiness, it makes more sense to think about it in terms of whether your cat is stressed. Being outside with too much stimulation and foreign unknowns is much more stressful and worse for a cat with respect to their contentment than if they’re sometimes bored indoors.

New cat owners think that having cats is easy because they require no maintenance. In fact, I was at the cat shelter the other day to give the cats some love and a teenager was just about ready to adopt a cat on a whim because it’s kitten season they were adorable. She proceeded to explain to the cat counselor that she had brought home a cat on a whim before and her mom was so mad and now the cat gets no attention and is a jerk all the time. Well, no wonder.

You can have happy indoor cats but you have to pay more attention to what your cat’s needs are.

Happy Indoor Cat Checklist

The Ohio College of Veterinary Medicine lists a basic “starter kit” for cat owners to improve the quality of life for their indoor cats. These include:

  • Litter box – at least 1 per cat, cleaned everyday
  • Scratching posts and floors
  • Plenty of comfortable resting and sleeping areas (the more nooks the better)
  • High perches – cat trees, cat shelves, on top of the regrigerator
  • Access to a window or a balcony where they can bird and people watch
  • Toys, toys, toys – know your cat’s hunting preference and simulate the experience with the appropriate toy – does your cat prefer to chase mice and bugs that crawl or birds and bugs that fly? For example,
  • Affection – You don’t have to hug or cuddle to be affectionate with your cat. But your cat does love human attention. If your cat is a cuddler, then lucky you! If your cat hates cuddling, simply sitting near your cat is enough to signal to your cat that you love him/her. You can also make eye contact and talk gently to him/her.

Should I Let My Cat Outside?

Now that we have the background about why it’s preferred to keep a cat indoors, it’s finally time to answer the question of whether you should let your cat outside, even if as a temporary relief.

I would argue that it depends. I know that is the worst response for any question – “ it depends”. But in this case, it truly does.

If you live in a house on the prairies with almost no car or person in sight for miles, the only threat your cat faces is wild animals like coyotes. So, how you can address that threat so you can let your cat outside is limited to that one thing which is doable.

But if you live in the city plastered with busy streets going in every which direction, you have more to think about in terms of threats your cat may face outside. But somewhere in the middle of those two extremes – whether it’s a suburb or a quieter residential street tucked behind busy metropolitan streets, you have more to think about.

Long story short, the verdict is that getting short bursts of exposure to the outside in a controlled setting is good for your indoor cat’s health but letting them outside as much as they please has dire consequences on your cat’s well-being.

Dr. Barchas, a full-time veterinarian, has a justification to keep your cat indoors for every pro of why a cat should be let outside. For example, many would argue that cats who go outside are less prone to obesity and other diseases. He posits that while this may be true of obesity, the data may also be skewed because outdoor cats die earlier and we’re not taking into account the stress of cats not being able to catch prey to eat.

As a case in point, when I first got Nala from the shelter, she had just given birth to a litter on the streets and besides are enlarged tummy from having carried a litter, she looked gaunt everywhere else with merely skin on the bones. She quickly packed on the pounds to a healthy weight within 2 weeks of being my roommate.

Another pro of letting your cat outside is that your cat gets mental stimulation. But on the flip side, your cat can be overly stimulated by all the stress factors surrounding them. Any slight sound of a twig breaking could be a predator or a menacing cat waiting to pounce on them so they have to be alert at all times.

Maris and Signe, cat behaviorists and groomer, make good arguments about the fact that outdoor cats aren’t fraught with behavior problems of their own. They can be just as needy and demanding, they might be more on edge because of increased level of heightened survival instincts, and they can meow excessively when they’re indoors.

It’s a myth to think that a cat is depressed at home and wants to go outside. What’s more important is that your cat’s quality of life indoors is good that your cat doesn’t have the urge to want to go outside.

How to Stop A Cat From Wanting To Go Outside

Understanding the root causes why your cat wants to go outside is key in shifting their mindset to be content indoors. Observe what your cat does when you let him/her outside and see if your cat displays any of the behaviors listed above under reasons why your cat wants to go outside. And create a simulated environment indoors to satisfy their craving for whatever it is that entices them outdoors. Making small tweaks indoors to create a more stimulating and comfortable environment for your cat indoors includes:

  • Clear up the window sill for your cat to perch on and enjoy the stimulants outside with the sun grazing their face. If you don’t have a big enough window sill, try a window hammock.
  • Build a DIY outdoor cat enclosure. This can get quite expensive and involved. I really like this video of a nifty DIY enclosure built using an IKEA shelf. A portable mesh outdoor cat enclosure can be a good alternative.
  • Train your cat to walk on a leash. This video shows steps how to train your cat. Let me tell you from having tried it – it’s very very time consuming and you need a lot of patience. I gave up after a few tries. I’ll try again with Nala and Charlie once I have more time away from my current full-time job that eats away all my time and energy!
  • Find out whether your cat likes to chase prey that crawls or flies. And find or make the appropriate toys for them. Mentally stimulating them is the best way to tire them out and dissolve any thoughts of wanting to go outside. Playing with them before eating time is the best time. So they get into the routine of playing, eating, grooming, and sleeping.
  • Set aside time to show affection to each cat (if you have multiple cats). If your cat doesn’t like being touched, devote at least 15 minutes everyday to sit beside your cat and talk to him/her. I know it sounds crazy, but cats are very instinctive and know when you’re paying attention to them.
  • Clicker train your cat – this is a commitment but worth it. I’ve just begun. I’ll report back how hard it was to train them using the clicker.
  • Spray a repellent around the door that makes your cat go WTF is this. I encourage you to get a natural spray that’s not filled with unknown supposedly “safe” toxic chemicals. This bitter lemon spray is an example of a natural spray.
  • Plant cat grass in planters all over indoors.
  • Have adequate “stuff” in your home to satisfy your cat’s natural instinct, including cat trees, perches and cat shelves for perching, cat scratchers to “sharpen” their claws.
  • Schedule a therapist for your cat. Maybe your cat has daddy issues.

How to Let Your Cat Outside in a Controlled Setting

If your cat is not responding to any of the methods to dissuade your cat from having urges to want to go outside or while you’re training your cat to be content indoors, you can let your cat outside in a controlled manner. Full disclosure that some of these items below I’ve not tried before, so I want to put that out there. But from my research, they pose as good alternatives.

  • Taking your cat out for a walk on a leash – I’ve tried this and I need to train them more.
  • Electric collar that uses a gentle static “correction” with an invisible fence device where you don’t want your cat to go – I’m dubious of the safety of this. I don’t want my cat to be electrocuted!
  • DIY cat enclosures mentioned above (or “catio” as us cat ladies like to call it all over Pinterest)

Summary

If you made it from the beginning all the way up to here, congratulations, you love your cat! That is indeed the best we can get for being devoted cat owners. Whether you’re a new cat owner or an old-timer cat person, I can’t stress enough from hours of research and from my own experience the tweaks we need to make as cat owners to improve the quality of life of your indoor cats.

Although many many cat owners let their cat outside and believe that it’s cruel to keep them indoors, it’s also those cat owners who don’t create a mentally stimulating, clean and comfortable environment for their indoor cats, unless your cat is a truly wild animal who can’t be tamed.

Veterinarians, cat behaviorists, and animal advocates almost all are in favor of keeping your cat indoors because of the life threatening risks outside. But they all follow that opinion with the need for cat owners to create an environment for your indoor cat where he/she is content being indoors.

If your cat does dart outside when the door opens, observe whether your cat has a propensity to display a certain behavior so that you can get to the root cause of why your cat wants to go outside.

Ensure that your home meets the basic happy cat checklist. And see whether you can employ any of the methods above to dissuade your cat from wanting to go outside. And if all else fails, stage an intervention…

A great compromise might be to build an outdoor cat enclosure, or aka catio.

I hope you found this article helpful. Thanks for reading and good luck.