Fresh air, interesting smells, exciting sights—as far as many cats are concerned, there’s nothing like the great outdoors. Kitties that primarily live indoors enjoy plenty of cushy perks, but they may still yearn to venture outside.
There’s an ongoing debate as to whether to allow your cat outdoors. Before you decide, here are the benefits and risks.
The Great Outdoor Debate
“Cats do not necessarily need to go outdoors to meet their physical, emotional and environmental needs,” says Dr. Stacey Wylie, DVM, DACVIM, a member of the Internal Medicine team at NorthStar VETS, based in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
However, Dr. Wylie adds that there are benefits to going outside. Being out of the house stimulates all of a cat’s senses; gives him an opportunity to exercise and participate in normal cat activities, like scratching and marking; and decreases his overall stress.
Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant, postdoctoral fellow at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and cofounder of Feline Minds, a San Francisco Bay Area company that offers cat behavior services, agrees. “A lot of cats really just want some fresh air—to roll in some dirt and to lay in the sun.”
While outdoor cats enjoy many benefits, there are also hazards. Generally speaking, most veterinarians and cat experts recommend against letting your cats roam freely. “Outdoor cats are likely to encounter dangers ranging from cars and other animals to poisons and unkind people,” Dr. Delgado says.
“Also, there’s the possibility that your cat will cause issues for your neighbors. As a cat behavior consultant, I get a lot of calls from people who want me to control their neighbor’s cat. Outdoor cats may harass their neighbor’s indoor pets, relieve themselves in the neighbor’s yard and otherwise cause problems.” Domestic cats can also be prolific hunters that do real damage to native wildlife populations.
Dr. Delgado acknowledges, though, that while allowing cats to roam freely isn’t something she’d recommend, many people decide that it’s the right move for them and their pets. “If you're going to let your cat outside, then just be educated and aware of the potential dangers and do everything you can to make your cat as safe as possible,” she says.
Using Cat Gadgets to Keep Your Cat Safe Outdoors
If you’re thinking about allowing your cat to go outside or you have a cat that already spends a lot of time out and about, there are some ways to minimize the risks that come with roaming.
One way to keep outdoor cats safe is through the use of technology. Here are some gadgets that cat owners can use to help their cats stay safe.
Both Dr. Wylie and Dr. Delgado strongly recommend getting cats spayed or neutered and microchipped—regardless of whether they’re indoor or outdoor.
“You also need to make sure that you keep your microchip information up to date,” Dr. Wylie notes. This means updating your profile on the microchip company’s database when you move or if your phone number changes.
Cats can be microchipped at any time—no anesthesia or surgery is required. If your cat doesn’t have a microchip, ask your veterinarian to insert one.
High-Tech Pet Doors
Dr. Delgado says that cats that go outside should always have the option to come back in, regardless of whether or not you’re home to open the door. While a typical cat door accomplishes that goal, it may not keep out other cats or critters.
But there are microchip-activated cat doors, like the Cat Mate Elite microchip cat flap, that only open for your kitty. Many of these doors can be configured to allow cats only to come in, which is helpful once you let your cat out to allow her to come inside after dark but not go back out again.
There are GPS tracking devices, like the Whistle 3 dog and cat tracker and activity monitor, that can be attached to a cat collar so you always know where your kitty is.
Dr. Delgado cautions that you want to be sure that the tracker isn’t too cumbersome. “A lot of cats aren't going to tolerate something really heavy, so you do have to check and make sure that it's something that your cat will be okay wearing.”
Food and Water
Leaving food and water outside is likely to attract other animals that could cause your cat harm. If you’re going to leave food and water outside, you want to be sure that only your cat can access it.
There are high-tech automatic cat feeders, like the SureFeed microchip small dog and cat feeder, that only open for cats wearing a special RFID collar or microchip, so you can be sure your kitty has sustenance if she’s going to be spending a lot of time outdoors.
Cat Technology to Avoid
Dr. Delgado warns that electronic fences—which many people use to keep their dogs contained to a certain area—are not a good idea for cats.
“Sometimes, animals will cross the barrier and escape, and then they're afraid to come back, so you've effectively locked your cat out of your territory, which is really bad. In general, I don't recommend shock as a way to modify behavior, and so electronic containment systems are not considered ideal,” says Dr. Delgado.
Supervised Outdoor Time
Overall, both Dr. Delgado and Dr. Wylie are wary of letting cats roam freely outdoors. They do, however, mention that supervised outdoor time can be good for your cat. Dr. Wylie recommends catios, which are enclosures that allow cats to be outside but limit where they can go and protect them from other animals.
Dr. Delgado is a huge proponent of harness training. “Training a cat to go outside on a harness and lead is a great way to give him that outside time in a way that is safe and controlled,” she says.
She strongly recommends, though, that if you’re going to go this route, you should get a cat harness for your cat (she is a big fan of the Kitty Holster cat harness) because it’s not safe to only have a restraint around a cat’s neck. “You really want a harness that goes around the cat’s body,” she explains.
Dr. Wylie adds, “[Supervised outdoor play allows] cats to reap the same benefits as other outdoor cats while ensuring their safety.”
By: Kate Huges
Featured Image: iStock.com/OlegGr