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The question of whether cats should be kept indoors or out sparks some heated debates in the cat and wildlife communities. Most who support the practice believe that it's beneficial for the cat's health, while those in opposition recognize the risks to both the cat and the environment. When considering all the evidence, which is right for you and your pet?
Indoor vs outdoor cat: which is safer? Years of research and owners' experiences show that keeping cats indoors is objectively safer. On the one hand, cats that are allowed outside weigh less and enjoy plenty of social time. However, indoor cats are equally happy and less vulnerable to disease, fighting, vehicle collisions, poison ingestion, and more.
It's tough to consider 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 the comparison between indoor and outdoor lives for cats, see the overview below.
Is It Cruel to Keep Cats Indoors?
One of the most common questions to cross new cat owners' minds is whether it is humane to house their cats indoors. Understandably, people tend to ask this about cats specifically because they are significantly more independent than dogs and other domestic animals. Because they don't seem to rely on humans 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 yearsago, 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 over the millennia, cats became accustomed – and dependent on – to the luxuries that come with human companionship. One of those luxuries was a life indoors. This lifestyle came with the following advantages:
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. However, this is significantly less taxing than patrolling, marking, and potentially fighting for an outdoor area.
It's important to consider all these points and recognize that it is not cruel to provide your cat an indoor home. In fact, doing so 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.
Indoor vs Outdoor Cats: 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. Luckily, most indoor cats would disagree and are perfectly content with such a life.
Not only do indoor cats enjoy daily leisure, either on their own or with a feline housemate, but this lifestyle is also strongly correlated to a longer life. On average, outdoor cats only make it to about five years old, while an indoor cat can live to 18-20.
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:
Provide scratching and climbing accessories. As mentioned above, scratching is a cat's way of marking its territory. It makes them feel confident and at-home. Further, climbing is an excellent form of exercise, allowing 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 instinct. 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 prefer for your cat to play with you, consider something like a pop-up mice game. It'll keep you involved without making you the target of their 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 kitty is 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.
Note: 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.
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 kitty has such a good life that the thought to trek outside unsupervised and unleashed will never cross your or your cat's mind.
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 include:
"I have a tall fence."
"My cat has more fun outside."
"My cat knows how to avoid cars."
"My cat is social."
"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. Still, this doesn't diminish the fact that it is a dangerous decision, one that has far more "cons" than "pros." For instance, the primary dangers cats will face when they're allowed outside unsupervised include:
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)
Getting lured into traps
Getting into fights with other animals (pets and wild animals)
Being harmed or stolen by another person
If there are so many dangers for domestic cats that go outside, what makes people want to let their cats out of the house? Despite the numerous risks presented by allowing your cat outside, there are some good things that some people base this decision on.
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.)
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. That is, if the reason for their weight loss is inconsistent access to food in the unpredictable outside environment.
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 if they are the only cat in your household. Still, there are risks to this advantage, too. There's no way to control whether your cat interacts with diseased pets or reproduces if it's intact.
Admittedly, there are few benefits to letting your cat roam free outdoors. The only benefits to the practice are double-edged swords, having risks that can cost your cat its health or create more stray cats if it's not fixed. With all this in mind, it's best to take your cat out on a leash occasionally if you're truly concerned about its welfare while living an indoor life.
Cat owners are often burdened by the worry of whether they're being cruel by keeping their cats indoors. 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 toysand leashed walks.
About the Author
Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy began writing informal scientific content on nature and animals in 2015. Four years later, she launched her freelance career as a digital content and copywriter. This work merges her academic perspective, rooted in her B.S. Zoology, and professional experience as a veterinary tech, university research assistant, and more with relevant marketing, SEO, and engagement techniques across various industries. Jazmin now covers pet care, pest control, cannabis, outdoor recreation, STEM research and news, and product reviews across several niches.