Navigating the Outdoor versus Indoor Cat Debate

A guide on deciding what is best for you and your cat by Kris Hill from the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS)

This blog is not intended to engage directly in the debate of whether pet cats should be kept indoors or permitted to roam, a topic that can become heated and polarising. Rather, the intention is to help the reader navigate what might be a difficult decision and encourage compassion and tolerance amongst fellow cat-lovers.

The Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) was established in 1979 to promote the study of human-companion animal interactions and raise awareness of the importance of pets in society. Many of you reading this will appreciate the special nature of the cat-human bond!

Those of us who love cats naturally want what is best for them. And not just our own cats, but all cats, everywhere. However, not all cats are the same and what is best for one cat may not be ideal for another. Despite this, strong opinions exist regarding whether pet cats should be permitted to roam freely, and insensitive, and oftentimes cruel comments are a prominent feature of the datasets I examine for my PhD research (namely online user comments responding to sources discussing free-roaming cats and the ‘indoor-outdoor debate’).

Should YOU keep YOUR cat inside or allow them to roam?

The decision to either permit your cat to roam freely or attempt to confine them should not be taken lightly. And whatever you decide is best for you, your cat, and the local wildlife, measures can be taken to either enrich the lives of indoor cats or to ensure the risks to roaming cats (and wildlife) are minimised. In some parts of Australia there are bylaws in place to protect endangered wildlife from predation by pet cats. However, in the UK, cats are not believed to be a threat to wildlife population levels, perhaps because native European prey evolved alongside wildcat predators. Studies have shown that feeding cats a meat-based diet and playing with them more reduces their tendency to hunt wildlife, and coloured collars have some success too.

There are pros and cons of keeping your cat indoors or outdoors, but these largely depend on the location and the individual cat.

Cats with outdoor access benefit from more opportunities to exhibit natural behaviours such as climbing, exploring, communicating with other cats in the area, and hunting. However, dangers include busy roads, the risk of getting trapped somewhere, and dominant neighbour cats may distress a timid feline. Especially for cats with a disability or medical problem, living indoors may be the better option and where they feel most comfortable.

Keeping your cat inside will help keep them safe, but some indoor environments can become predictable and boring (see here for tips to circumvent this), leading to stress, inactivity, and obesity. While some adjust well to being a housecat, it can be hard for cats to cope with living indoors if they have lots of energy, love to explore and have previously been allowed time outdoors.

Modern lifestyles and modern cats!

Cats have been living alongside humans for several millennia, and domestic cats became known as the notoriously independent pet who roams neighbourhoods around the world. However, times are changing, and the relatively recent phenomena of the ‘indoor-only cat’ is becoming increasingly popular.

Luckily, as a species, cats can adapt to a range of lifestyles. While many cats clearly do enjoy and benefit from the stimulation of roaming, they need not be miserable living safety inside if provided sufficient space and stimulation. This could also include enclosed outdoor spaces and even supervised outdoor time! Harness walking can be a perfect solution for some cats and their people, but please be aware walking on a leash and venturing outdoors isn’t for every cat.

Most kittens can be socialised to an indoor arrangement but require enrichment and continued stimulation as they grow into young adults (see our previous blog on the importance of giving your kitten a good start in life). If you want your cat to be safe or to live in city apartment, you could consider adopting an adult cat that is well-adjusted to that lifestyle and/or cannot go out due to health conditions (e.g., old age, disability, or feline immunodeficiency virus). Many rehoming organisations in the UK require potential adopters to demonstrate they have a safe garden and/or surroundings where a cat can roam. However, there are exceptions and opportunities to provide a loving home to a cat based on your living arrangements. General advice on helping your family cat adjust to changes in circumstances can be found here, and your veterinarian should be able to advise on specific cases.

Harmful heated debates

For my PhD research, I analysed aspects of the so-called ‘indoor-outdoor debate’ and examined concerns for cat welfare and wellbeing, neighbour disputes over nuisance behaviours (such as defecation), and wildlife predation (particularly regarding birds). A goal of my research is to understand how we can think more sensibly about cats and detangle arguments about conservation from those of cat welfare and neighbourhood disputes.

Aside from concerns about wildlife predation, amongst those who care deeply about cats there is much debate about what is believed to be best for cats. However, attacking someone is unlikely to change their mind, and strong opinions and emotions can lead to unnecessary conflict and distress. Whatever your position on the indoor-outdoor debate, from a cat welfare/wellbeing perspective you could recognise a shared love of cats as a point of commonality. If you feel the need to engage with those with opposing views, here are three points to stop and consider:

  1. Be compassionate towards others who also care about cats!

Consider what purpose it serves telling a friend or stranger that they are a ‘horrible person’ or a ‘terrible cat parent’ for not letting their cat roam. And please think before sending the message to someone who is grieving for their cat that it ‘serves them right’ for letting them wander (sadly such insensitivity is not uncommon in my datasets).

  1. Endeavour to be constructive not judgemental

If you honestly believe a cat is being unintentionally neglected or endangered, consider framing ‘advice’ constructively. Rather than using accusatory terms like ‘imprisonment’ when concerned a neighbour’s cat might be depressed or neurotic, try suggesting resources on indoor enrichment. Likewise, unless your neighbours’ cat looks physically neglected refrain from lecturing them on the various dangers of roaming – they likely already know the risks and have taken an informed decision on behalf of their cat.

  1. Remember cats are individuals and there are always exceptions to any rule!

While you may adamantly believe that cats generally are better off enjoying their freedom or that responsible cat guardians keep their pets safely inside (or with supervised outdoor time), please try and recognise and respect there are exceptions to every rule. Furthermore, ‘not ideal’ does not necessarily been ‘miserable’ and many cats live happy well-adjusted lives without access to the great outdoors. And despite their best efforts, some people come to accept they simply cannot keep their cat from escaping or vying to be let out.

Thank you!

Follow us on FB and Twitter (@SCASuk), and be sure to retweet posts from us and our partners on #PetsInHousing

SCAS is the UK’s leading human-companion animal bond organisation through funding research, providing education, raising awareness, encouraging best practice, and influencing the development of policies and practices that support the human-companion animal bond. For more details check out our website at www.scas.org.uk

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