Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Which is Best for Your Cat? | Catzio

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Which is Best for Your Cat?

  1. Is It Cruel to Keep Cats Indoors?
  2. Are Indoor Cats as Happy as Outdoor Cats?
  3. Enrichment Ideas for an Indoor Cat
  4. Is It Cruel to Keep a Cat Outside?
  5. Can an Outdoor Cat be Happy and Healthy?
  6. Should You Have an Indoor or Outdoor Cat?

The question of whether cats should be kept indoors or out sparks heated debates in the cat and wildlife communities. Most who favor outdoor cats or indoor-outdoor cats (house cats with occasional or scheduled outside access) believe that having no restrictions is beneficial for the cat's health. Others recognize the risks to both the cat and the environment, and because of this, prefer to keep their cats indoors. In the endless sea of opinions out there, it’s tough to know where you stand.  

Indoor vs outdoor cat: which is safer? Years of research and owners' experiences show that keeping cats indoors with controlled outdoor access is objectively safer. On the one hand, cats that are allowed outside unrestrained weigh less and enjoy plenty of social time. Still, indoor cats are equally happy and less vulnerable to disease, fighting, vehicle collisions, poison ingestion, and pet theft.

For some cat owners, it’s hard to imagine that it might be best to keep your cat inside, especially if it's not clear how they could be happy indoors like other pets. For a more comprehensive understanding of indoor and outdoor cats’ lifestyles and safety risks, see the overview below.

An indoor cat gazes out of a window on a rainy day.

Is It Cruel to Keep Cats Indoors? 

New cat owners' often wonder whether it is humane to house their cats indoors. “Should I let my indoor cat go outside?” is a regular thought that might cross their mind every time their pet gazes from the window sill. People tend to ask this of cats more often than dogs since the former are often seen as more “independent” than the latter. Because they don't seem to rely on human companionship as much as other pets, the idea of a cat being "wild" is much easier to accept.

Still, imaging your cat as a wild animal doesn't make it a wild animal. As a domesticated species, your cat depends on you to provide shelter, food, and access to medical care. Now, at the beginning of cats' domestication process (which was about 10,000 years ago, according to recent estimates), humans didn't live in shelters like the houses and penthouse suites we have now. 

Yet, as they lived and evolved alongside us through the millennia, cats became accustomed to—and dependent on— the luxuries that come with human companionship. One of those luxuries was a life indoors. Others are: 

  • Protection from environmental pressures
  • Safety from predators and competitors
  • Consistent shelter, unaffected by the usual ebb and flow of natural resources in the wild
  • Reduced pressure (and danger) from defending territory
    • Note: Of course, your cat will still "defend" its territory in the house with behaviors like scratching and urine marking. However, this is significantly less demanding than patrolling and fighting for an outdoor area. 

All this considered, it’s not cruel to give your cat an indoor lifestyle. On the contrary, being sheltered is essential to their health, safety, and longevity. Unfortunately, many people still feel that their cats belong outside since it is a larger space where they can hunt and kill at their leisure. While this may be enjoyable for a short time, it inevitably harms the cats' and other animals' life in the long run. 

Are Indoor Cats as Happy as Outdoor Cats?

Indoor cats are just as happy – and, in many cases, happier – than outdoor cats. This is hard for many people to wrap their minds around. After all, how could a pouncing feline enjoy jumping on and off furniture and scratching posts when they could be chasing birds in the trees outside? 

Rest assured that, with proper enrichment and owner-cat quality time, you don't have to set your indoor cat loose outside for it to be happy. According to the Animal Humane Society, cats get up to more fun (and mischief) in their daily lives indoors than most people realize. 

Throughout the day, your cat will explore the entirety of your home, playing with toys, grooming, gazing through the window, and playing with companions if you have a multi-cat household. For some owners, this may not seem like much. But indoor cats with balanced indoor-outdoor enrichment would disagree. 

Not only do indoor cats enjoy daily leisure, either on their own or with a feline housemate, but living indoors is also strongly correlated to a longer life. On average, outdoor cats vs. indoor cats’ lifespans vary widely. The former usually only make it to about five years old, while the latter live 18-20 years

A young boy plays with his house cat, which sits on a cat tree indoors.

Enrichment Ideas for an Indoor Cat

If you're ever concerned about your cat's satisfaction with its indoor life, the answer is not to set it free outside but to find ways to enrich its life as-is. Here are a few ideas to get you started. 

Provide Scratching and Climbing Accessories 

Scratching is a cat's way of marking its territory. It makes them feel confident and at-home. Plus, climbing—which often accompanies scratching—is an excellent form of exercise. It allows your cat to work off any pent-up energy and have a sense of adventure in the home. Scratching toys and posts are excellent outlets to encourage your cat to have fun without a single step outdoors.

Invite Your Cat to Play 

Your cat might still want to express its "wild" side and exercise its hunting instincts. This is where interactive toys come in. Offering your cat responsive toys like flipping fish or rotating wands with birds or butterflies will definitely keep them entertained all throughout the day. 

If you and your cat prefer to play together, consider taking it on a leashed walk and bringing along a feather wand to chase in the grass and fresh breeze outside. This will help keep you engaged in playtime without making you the target of your cat’s swipes and pounces. 

Give Your Indoor Cat a Few Perches in the House 

Cats love to sit up high and get an aerial view of their surroundings. When your cat’s not surveilling the household, it should have a perch by a window, too. This will allow for some exciting views, enabling your cat can keep an eye on those intriguing critters that zip across your yard or window each day. 

Strategically placing a bird feeder below or in front of a window is a great way to set up "Cat TV" for your fur-baby's entertainment. 

Build a Catio 

Who says your cat can never go outside? No one! 

Look, some cats love bird-watching and feeling the gentle breeze on their faces just as much as people do. Instead of locking your cat away for its whole life or dooming it to watch life pass by behind a windowsill, build a catio. 

A “catio,” or pet catio, is the perfect enclosure to provide your cat some much-needed outdoor enrichment without risking its life and health or that of the local wildlife. There are plenty of designs available, so you’re sure to find one that suits you and your cat’s needs. 

A clickable banner image leading to ideas for indoor cat enrichment, particularly catio designs.

Many people have convinced themselves and others that their indoor cat cannot live a fulfilling life if kept indoors. Yet, with these simple solutions, you can ensure that your cat has such a good life that the thought to trek outside unsupervised and unleashed will never cross its mind.

An outdoor cat appears grumpy as it sits in the middle of the street on a sunny day.

Is It Cruel to Keep a Cat Outside?

"Cruel" is a very strong word to define someone's decision to allow their cat outdoors. While many veterinary, biological, and ecological experts recommend against letting your cat outside unsupervised, it's not fair to claim that those who do it are causing intentional harm. Often, most people's justifications for keeping their cats outside are as follows:

  • "My cat is social."
  • "I have a tall fence."
  • "My cat has more fun outside."
  • "My cat knows how to avoid cars."
  • "I don't want to clean the litter box."

From these statements alone, it's clear that the choice to let a cat outside generally comes from a good place, indifference, or laziness. These sentiments aren’t ideal, but they’re not cruel. 

Still, this doesn't diminish the danger of this decision. Keeping outdoor cats or indoor-outdoor cats has far more "cons" than "pros." For instance, the main dangers cats will face when they're allowed outside unsupervised include: 

  • Vehicle collisions (approximately 39% of outdoor cat deaths are caused by trauma, 87% of these are collisions)
  • Accidental poison or toxin ingestion (about 36% of cats consume liquids and solids that were not provided by their owners during their unsupervised time outside)
  • Contracting diseases spread by other animals (an outdoor cat is 2.77 times likelier to be infested with parasites than an indoor cat)
  • Getting into fights with other animals (pets and wild animals)
  • Being harmed or stolen by another person
  • Getting lured into traps
  • Getting lost

If an outdoor cat faces so many dangers, why would anyone want to let their cats out of the house unsupervised? Despite the numerous risks, there are a handful of perks that cat owners use to justify this decision. 

Can an Outdoor Cat Be Happy and Healthy?

Outdoor cats can be happy… to an extent. After all, what cat wouldn't be glad to chase squirrels and birds around all day? (The downside of this is that outdoor cats do cause extreme environmental devastation, killing hundreds of millions of birds annually, representing only 20% of what they hunt down.) 

An outdoor cat stalks through the grass on a bright, sunny day. The clickable image leads to an article on how to reduce outdoor cat hunting with a meaty diet.

Because of all the running around, outdoor cats are less vulnerable to obesity, which affects 45% of cats. In this sense, your cat may have a chance at better health because of their outdoor shenanigans. 

Additionally, cats that are allowed outside get to interact with other cats, which is excellent for their mental health. This social time can help release pent-up frustration, especially for an indoor-outdoor cat with no feline housemates. Still, this advantage is a toss-up, too. 

There's no way to control whether your cat interacts with diseased animals or to prevent it from reproducing if it's intact. And the number of people who refuse to spay or neuter their outdoor cats is out of control, to say the least. 

Admittedly, there are few benefits to letting your cat roam free outdoors. And those are double-edged swords, as they pose risks that can cost your cat its health, or even its life. Plus, you might also inadvertently create more stray or free-roaming cats if yours isn’t fixed. All this considered, it’s best to keep your cat indoors and ensure its only outdoor time is on a leash or in a catio. 

Should You Have an Indoor or Outdoor Cat? 

Countless cat owners are burdened by the worry of whether they're being cruel by keeping their cats as house cats vs. outdoor cats. Although some insist on allowing their cats outside unsupervised or unleashed, it's far better to keep your cat indoors and maintain their wellbeing with toys and leashed walks. 

Though your outdoor cat may enjoy a small handful of benefits when living the free-roaming life, the dangers far outweigh these advantages, and thus keep your cat’s life at risk whenever it’s out of your sight. 

The best way to maintain your cat’s safety is to abandon the idea that it’s a “wild” animal that must live free of human constraints. Instead, acknowledge the reality that it’s a domesticated animal that depends on human care and protection. Without it, your cat faces the possibility of physical harm with every outdoor escapade. 

About the Author

My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.

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