Indoors versus outdoors

Most owners in Europe allow their cats the freedom of the great outdoors to do whatever it is that cats do all day outside, and then care, feed and enjoy social interaction with them when they return home.

Only about 10% of cats are believed to live permanently indoors in the UK, although the figure is increasing and is already much higher in the USA, where keeping cats indoors is encouraged.

Much of the recent growth in cat keeping has occurred where our lives are busiest, in the city, where many owners live in high rise apartments. The cat may simply be unable to get to ground level outside, but other owners in the city have concerns about their pet’s safety outdoors and choose to keep them indoors even when they live at ground level.

Until fairly recently all cats spent part of their day outside hunting, patrolling their territory and relieving themselves. It wasn't until the advent of cat litter in the 1950s that cat owners had any choice about letting their cats out. Pet owners then began to keep cats indoors for their own safety. Indeed indoor cats can have longer, physically healthier lives than cats allowed outdoors. But on the down side, indoor cats are also more likely to suffer psychologically and develop behavioural problems than those allowed outside. 

Perceived risks

As more and more people opt for keeping a pedigree cat (about 10% in the UK), the perceived risks of theft also encourage many owners to confine their cat to the home for its own safety, even though the risk of such is probably vastly over-estimated. The fact is that many cats with outdoor access simply move home for one reason or another, or just get lost or accidentally shut away in yard sheds and garages, and then get taken in by someone else, or are passed on as strays to homing organisations to be found new homes. 

One in four cats will perish under the wheels of a car in the UK, although, as with other causes of mortality, death on the roads is highest in the first year of life. If a cat survives its first year and learns about dangers in his environment, it is very likely to live a long life of 15 years, or even 20 and beyond. A cat in the city is thought to be at even greater risk from being injured or killed on the road than one in suburbia or the countryside, simply because of the greater volume of traffic and numbers of roads, but many cats in the countryside also fall prey to cars. The surprise solitary vehicle per day passing down a lonely road can often catch out the relaxed and unwary cat, and so some owners in rural areas also choose to keep their pet indoors for safety reasons. This may also save young cats from what may be risky competition with wild predators and also from any risk of being poisoned by baits left out for countryside vermin.

Indoor cats are also unlikely to catch diseases that cats communicate one to another, are protected against injuries and resulting infections that might arise from fighting, and are far less likely to contract parasites, such as fleas and worms. And of course, some timid and older cats may also prefer to stay indoors anyway, warm, protected and well away from all the startling things that can happen to them outdoors. 

The 'natural' cat

There is no doubt that indoor cats live longer and safer lives than cats allowed to hunt and explore outdoors, but what of their mental welfare? The cat began to evolve 13 million years ago and ultimately became a top-of-the-food-chain, obligate predator and solitary hunter. This means that a cat has evolved to move through its hunting environment, on the one hand avoiding danger and, on the other, detect its prey, then approach and catch it. To do this, cats have had to develop astonishing sensory capabilities, with specialised eyesight that functions at low light levels when their usual prey of rodents is most active and birds are roosting, and a sense of hearing that extends way up into the range employed by bats so that they can hear the very high frequency chattering of rats or mice. Their sense of smell, although largely reserved for social organisation rather than hunting, is also far superior to ours, and that of most dogs. Along with their very touch sensitive whiskers and guard hairs, cats can be regarded as super-sensory compared with social hunter-gatherers like man, or hunter-scavengers like dogs, that find much of their food as part of a team and can rely on one another to detect and respond to danger.

Lots of activity

Many people feel that a cat should be able to go outside if it needs to and if it can. There’s a huge part of a cat’s life that we’re unaware of, where it uses all its highly evolved senses and talents. It can hunt, patrol its territory, mark, sunbathe and generally indulge all the behaviours naturally programmed into its body. Inside our homes the cat is really a shadow of its potential self, with its engine and navigation system and weapons switched off. Outside it comes to life and sharpens up its talents and its body by hunting, climbing and exploring.

Given that a cat which has to hunt to feed itself would need to eat at least ten mice a day, and that each actual catch might require three hunts, you can see that a ‘normal’ cat would spend a lot of its day actively seeking food. It would also need to make sure that its coat is clean and well groomed so that it’s sensitive to touch, is waterproof, and doesn’t carry a heavy smell that might give it away. That dedication to achieving a perfect coat takes a long time, and for the rest of the time the cat probably sleeps. Thus an active normal cat won’t sleep all of the time in the same way as it’s able to do when stuck at home and given everything it needs.

Weighing up the pros and cons will help you decide what is best for your cat. It is easier to opt for an indoor only cat right from the start than to convert an outdoor cat successfully into an indoor one. The benefits of keeping the cat away from possible dangers outdoors have to be weighed against the effects on the cat's behaviour. While you won't have to put up with daily hunt offerings if your cat is kept indoors, you must balance that against the natural behaviours which your cat has missed out on and the need to provide alternative opportunity for the expression of hunting behaviours. Much will depend on the personality of the individual cat and your circumstances. 

Click here for more information on miminising the risks for outdoor cats

So, there’s disagreement when it comes to keeping cats indoors – safety versus natural behaviour. However, there is agreement that if a cat has to stay indoors – whether because it’s too nervous to go out, because it’s in a genuinely very dangerous place, because there is a law against it, or because its owner can’t bear to have it put at any risk at all – then owners need to work hard to compensate for the lack of the stimulation it would get outside. See our information on satisfying the needs of the indoor cat.

Advice section: