The indoor/outdoor cats debate


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This Australian website presents both sides of the indoor/outdoor debate. However, it does not support the total confinement of cats unless appropriate environmental enrichment can be provided, including if possible a large outdoor enclosure with cat-friendly accoutrements. 

Updated: October 2008

The argument for indoor cats

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Always the first argument raised for confining cats is to prevent their predation on birds and other wildlife. However, there is a great deal of propaganda and misinformation about the threat cats actually pose to wildlife, and this is thoroughly discussed under The truth about cats and wildlife. It is important to stress that the natural cat is nocturnal and much prefers to prey on rodents, also mainly nocturnal, than on any other species. Rabbits or hares are also a favourite prey in more rural areas. A problem with confining cats at night is that often they will become daytime hunters and thus potentially pose a greater threat particularly to birds, which are more active lower to the ground during daylight hours (most species).

But irrespective of whether cats are a real or imagined threat to the local wildlife, it can make sense in certain environments to confine them, at least partially, for their own safety. Threats to free-roaming cats include:–

Other reasons given for confining cats include:

The argument for outdoor cats

[Natural][Healthier][Streetwisdom][No litter boxes][No furniture scratching]

("Outdoor cats" usually means those free to come and go or partially confined only. Also referred to as "indoor/outdoor cats")

As has already been stated, the argument for or against confining cats must be governed by the situation. Proximity to busy main roads and dogs on the loose are the two biggest dangers to free-roaming cats and it is asking a lot to expect them to survive such conditions unscathed, although a remarkable number do. However, many do not and confinement or semi-confinement of such cats is a sensible option. In a less dangerous environment, cats like children must be allowed to take some risks if they are to enjoy full quality of life. It is a great pity, some would even say cruel, to overconfine cats “in case” something happens to them.

Keeping cats indoors is commonplace and accepted in the United States, many cats are in fact kept in high-rise apartments and units and have to be confined of necessity. But people of other countries, particularly Australia and Britain, are appalled by this, and indeed some of these indoors-only animals must live very unfulfilled lives. It begs the question, why have a cat at all? Surely one of those robotic animals would be better. Others argue that it gives a cat a home that otherwise might have been euthanased in a refuge. And this particular argument can go round and round with no satisfactory outcome. It depends very much on what behavioural outlets are made available for these confined cats, as discussed under keeping indoor cats happy.

Other arguments (not necessarily those of the author) for NOT confining cats are:

Happy indoor cats

[Outdoor enclosures][Environmental enrichment]

First of all, some general health considerations. Water must be available at all times to confined or partially confined cats, same as for any animal whether indoors or out. Also they must have access to grass, which can be grown in a container if necessary. Grass seems to be an essential health requirement, perhaps as a source of roughage, also an emetic. Confined cats get desperate for it and if none is available will attack pot plants or any other leafy material in its place. Some indoor plants are highly toxic to cats especially the common lilies, e.g. peace, madonna, easter.

Another vital requirement is a clean litter box - more than one if there are several cats. If cats have access to an outdoor enclosure, it is often possible to construct a larger litter area for them using shavings, sand or loose soil enclosed in a low timber or brick framework on top of the ground. Cats much prefer this larger, more natural area and it can be kept clean in the normal way - manual removal of faeces and wet patches, also much of the urine will drain away into the ground. The area may need to be dismantled and rebuilt in other parts of the enclosure from time to time to allow for aeration. Cat faeces can be composted just like any other animal manure and used on the garden.

Nothing substitutes completely for the Great Outdoors, but if cats have to be confined it must not be under concentration camp conditions. Young cats especially have periods of intense activity and do not mix with expensive soft furnishings, for which they can scarcely be blamed. (Thankfully declawing, so widely accepted in the United States, is illegal in Australia.) Confined cats may also develop inappropriate elimination behaviours and undergo personality changes. Having a mate of the same age will circumvent many of these problems in kittens and young cats, but older cats might resent a newcomer and develop even worse behavioural problems.

Outdoor enclosures

By far this is the best way to give confined cats a taste of the outdoors. In fact, depending on the size of the enclosure and its accoutrements, e.g. the inclusion of natural garden features, it can provide the best of both worlds and the cat is totally safe from the normal outdoor hazards.

An outdoor enclosure can exist as an independent structure in the garden and the cats have to be transported to and from it or possibly access it by a netted tunnel from the house, but usually it is built onto the house with access via a cat flap in a door or window. Cat flaps are available for wooden doors, screen doors and glass sliders and the more expensive ones can be set to open both ways or only inwards or outwards as required. They may have clear perspex flaps or metal ones, also the flaps can be removed altogether if the cat shows reluctance to push through them. Some cats never master the art of easing the flap down gently with their body and tail as they go through, the result being that the flap crashes down on their tail – little wonder they become fearful of using the cat door. Other cats, especially young ones, will fool around with a cat flap and can get injured.

Cat enclosures are available commercially and can be custom-built to suit individual situations (e.g. Catmax).

Other types of outdoor enclosures include

Environmental enrichment

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"Environmental enrichment aims to satisfy the need of cats to interact with their environment and puts complexity, unpredictability and choices into a cat’s daily life." (From Max’s House)

Ways of providing environmental enrichment for confined cats include -