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The Ins and Outs of Inside Vs. Outside Cats

Which is right—indoor cats or outdoor cats? Everyone has an opinion, and every cat owner has to make a choice.

Among the photos accompanying this article is a shot of a black kitty, Klio, who chases paper clips and talks at you like you know what she's saying.

Klio belongs to a school teacher in the neighborhood. She chases paper clips, comes when called, like a dog, and she cuddles like a baby. Klio goes outside several times each day.

"She demands it, really," says Kate Mansfield, sixth grade Math teacher at Walter Reed Middle, "and when I don't want her to go out I pay a price. She'll work herself up to howling, sometimes."

Klio goes out. She has always gone out. Kate knows the dangers. There used to be a nest of birds next door, and they would dive bomb her, occasionally landing some vicious pecks on her head. But Klio enjoys the challenges and dangers. They come with the smells and adventures.

My children, on the other hand, have two indoor cats, Euridice and Shosty. It was decided, after weighing the benefits and dangers, to keep Shosty and Euridice inside. Safety first.

Euridice was gorgeous, a cat boasting mostly silver fur and a nervous spring in her step. She liked to watch from afar—unless you were bringing something to her food dish. She loved specialty wet foods. She became a virtual seductress, coiling and cooing around the legs of anyone visiting her dish.

One day in July, she pushed her way through a bedroom screen and vanished. She was never seen again.

People debate about inside cats versus outside cats:

  • loving the feline’s freedom

             —versus—

  • loving the feline’s safety. 

My children declined discussing Euridice, and it is still touchy stuff. It brings up many issues about being careful and how far careful can or cannot go.

The indoor-versus-outdoor question is a frequent debate amongst cat-lovers. The argument is compelling in both directions. My column's frequent advisor and consultant, Dr. James Isaacs, referred me to a member of his team, Susan Werner:

"I have found myself residing on both sides of the fence, depending on the day of the week, or the weather.

"Freedom vs Confinement, Quality of Life vs Quantity. 

"As a young girl, growing up in Maine, our cats always went outside. For that matter, they weren't even allowed in the house at night, and according to my parents, were supposed to be sleeping in the garage, though they spent plenty of nights hiding under my covers until the lights went out."

She mentions the rightness and natural order of that life for cats, particularly those huge, powerful cats in her native Maine.

"I'll never forget the view of the field that was part of our property, in the late afternoon. Clouds of insects and moths hovering above the tops of the tall grass, back-lit in the  afternoon sun...and a cat popping up out of the grass, and disappearing. I knew they were supremely happy and experiencing life to the fullest,  and never even considered the dangers."

But there were dangers, even then, even in the more rural and rustic turf of lobstermen and paper forests. Every three or four years, one of the outdoor cats would not come back Susan.

"Sometimes we would figure out what happened...one day the neighbor's Siberian Husky came trotting up the road with our white cat,  in his mouth. He delivered the limp body to our doorstep where his owner was sitting inside having coffee with my mom. The two ladies put the cat in a cardboard shoe box so the blood wouldn't stain the linoleum, and finished their coffee. Then Mrs. Wilner, the owner of the Husky, went to get her car, since my mom didn't drive, and brought us all to the Veterinarian. The cat lived, but only until the next accident...Usually  a car."

It can be considered unfair to limit a cat's freedom of movement, to keep it from the direct sunshine and open air of the outdoors. But it can be easily argued that in a land of cunning predators, like coyotes and hardened youngsters, cats should be protected from their own instincts.

Susan is on the fence, noting the reasonableness of freedom, even in the face of terrible dangers:

"My friend Mieke, who lives in South Pasadena, still allows her cats to roam free.  She loves her cats very much and dotes on them. One of them was recently hit by a car while her husband was watching. She remains on the 'freedom' side of the fence, though she was duly traumatized.

"Another friend, Sharlene, keeps both of her cats inside. She bottle fed them and raised them from tiny kittens. She's crazy about them. When she first moved into her house in Tarzana, CA, she let her kitten run around outside, it jumped the fence into the neighbor's yard and was killed by a dog. She's now an 'inside only' cat owner."

 What are the dangers of Outside Cats? Susan offers her own list, admittedly incomplete:

Here are some of the dangers:

 1. Vehicles
 2. Chemicals, pesticides, poison
 3. Fights with other cats
 4. Infectious diseases contracted from other cats
 5. Parasites: fleas, ticks, ringworm
 6. Sadists, or mean kids with shovels ( as in the case of my cat )
 7. Dogs, Coyotes, other predators
 8. Getting lost or picked up by Animal Control
 7. Theft for sale as laboratory animals or "bait" for illicit gaming
 9. Unfriendly neighbors who don't like cats"

She made a smaller but no less compelling list for reasons to offer cats an outside chance:

"(Susan Werner's) Reasons to Risk Outdoor Cats:

1. Indoor cats don't get the exercise they need.
2. Cats deserve the freedom of the outdoors to fulfill their nature.
3. Cats love fresh air and sunshine, and it's a joy to see cats frolicking and moving freely in the sun"

"If he had the decision to make, he would absolutely choose a shorter life of complete freedom..."

Susan, like other proponents of both positions, emphasizes taking responsibility for her decisions each step of the way.

"It's a matter of weighing the benefits against the risks, and being willing to suffer the consequences."

Her cat, Mr. Gray, was an outdoor cat. His story could be a parable for the indoor camp:

"'Mister Gray' was a stray TomCat. He strutted the grounds of the condo complex like he owned the place, wearing his scars like badges of honor. He would never be happy locked up inside. He was already an outside cat when I adopted ( saved ) him. 

"For him, I'm sure it will always be a matter of finding the safest possible outdoor world, knowing that if he had the decision to make, he would absolutely choose a shorter life of complete freedom...

"It's a compromise. Every day I cross my fingers and hope to see him when I come home from work. Every day he's happy, but his time is limited."

Dr. James Isaacs and Susan Werner mention the alternative of enclosures and other structures. There are new available structures for cats, additions and other types of outdoor cat habitats, offering cats a chance to have the best of both worlds.

"There are now many ways to achieve this," referring to building outdoor enclosures offering sunlight, warmth, fresh air, while keeping cats in the yard, "from building an enclosure using wire fencing or netting, to cat-proofing the entire yard and existing fence. This can be done in a way that will keep the cats inside the yard and the coyotes out."

"A cat will roam for up to a mile, if it's allowed..."

Cats kept inside should be given some time in return, attention and play on your part, to compensate for the lack of natural stimulation. Otherwise, lacking play or attention, cats will become lethargic, lazy, and sometimes depressed.

Susan offers wise words for those considering building enclosures as a solution:

"When planning an outdoor 'catiary' please keep in mind that it should be more of a 'yard' than a 'cage' as cats need to roam and would be unhappy in a small space. A cat will roam up to a mile if allowed to, though they are often unaware of the dangers involved."

Euridice ended up another unfortunate statistic, but she was supposed to be an indoor cat, not an outdoor cat. Maybe a benefit of building an enclosure is to offer more secure boundaries for the natural roaming instincts of cats like Euridice.

Irene Gibson April 23, 2013 at 05:40 PM
Best article on the subject that I've seen! Really excellent and encouraging pet owners to consider the options in face of today's risks. Thanks!!!
Barbara Krause April 23, 2013 at 07:58 PM
We had neighbors whose cats loved to visit us especially when the family was away for the weekend. Alas, the cat who was much slower to run than his sibling was killed by a car. Another problem which the owners found was that a raccoon slipped through the cat door and tore up the kitchen and food was thrown all over.
Joe Cusick April 23, 2013 at 08:33 PM
We have had 3 indoor cats through the years. Two were born and raised indoors and the third was a feral orange tabby that was the alpha cat of the neighborhood. He (Rusty) started to hang out in our backyard and we started to feed him and gradually he started to come up to us and became friendly. One day he came home severly injured possibly from dogs and we took him to the Vets. After several hundred dollars we went to pick him up and the vet informed us that he had feline hiv and said that he had to remain indoors!! It was a transition for him (and us) but after being neutered he stopped spraying within a few days (thank God). Long story short he became a serene, loving indoor cat that lived a long life. Outdoor cats, though free don't live long
Glenn April 29, 2013 at 10:18 PM
The average life expectancy for an outdoor cat is 5 to 7 years. I personally have had indoor cats live as long as 18 years. In a loving, caring environment which do you think the cat would choose?

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