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Outdoor Cats: Pawsome or Clawful?


by Hailey Rodis

While seeing a cat about town might bring you a spark of joy, take a minute to paws and think of the dangers that face both the cat and the environment around you. Allowing your cats to be outside unsupervised can be cat-astrophic to their longevity and the population of birds and smaller animals in your area.

Many pet owners feel they are giving their cats freedom by letting them roam. In reality, the decision can be a form of neglect.

Cats are loyal, affectionate, and create deep bonds with their human parents. When an animal’s schedule is disrupted, by leaving them to face the unknown and uncertainty of the outdoors, the nature of their relationship may become more remote and distant. This may unintentionally and incorrectly lead to the conclusion that the freedom to roam is a good choice for the pet.

Taking a more casual approach to cat ownership through letting your pet outside might seem like the best thing—after all, cats want to be outside. They are wild, right? No. Domesticated cats are, well, domestic. They are just as tame and need just as much attention and care as your pet dog might need.

This common misconception, however, leads to what Kate Myers explained as cats being considered “second class pets.” Myers has worked with animals for more than 45 years through her various roles as a Shelter Community Information Director in Utah and as the Animal Control Director and Executive Director for a regional Humane Association for Washington State.

“People would never let their dogs run loose all day long, and especially not at night. The dangers of damage are just too great. But the same people will let their cats outside,” said Myers. “Cats are domestic animals, just like dogs. They don’t need to be outside.”

Kitty Versus Wild

A very significant consequence is that intentionally letting your cat outside can greatly change their life expectancy. While no scientific studies have been conducted on the difference in longevity between indoor and outdoor cats, Dr. Slack can speak from experience. 

“The average lifespan of domestic pet cats in general is probably around 15 to 16 years,” Dr. Slack explained. Outdoor cats by comparison, live much shorter lives. Slack explained that, “a lot of them die by one and a half to two years of age.”

Dr. Slack further underscored that if an outdoor cat makes it past the two-year mark, they will likely live to the average age. This can be correlated to the idea of Darwinism, where if the cat develops “street smarts” it will likely live to see their late teen years.

This stark difference in average lifespans can be attributed mainly to the different dangers that cats face when outdoors. Threats, such as predators, off-leash dogs, and other outdoor cats, can injure and possibly kill the cats that are allowed outside by their owners.      

Colorado and the Boulder area are home to several predators that may hurt an outdoor cat if they cross paths. These predators include, but are not limited to, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, lynxes, bobcats, owls, hawks, osprey, bears, and rattlesnakes. Off-leash dogs may attack or chase any outdoor cat they see. Additionally, it is likely felines may fight with other outdoor cats for several reasons including being territorial, a pursuit of prey, or general aggression.

Outdoor cats by comparison, live much shorter lives. Slack explained that, “a lot of them die by one and a half to two years of age.”

Erroneous Logic and Myth

The University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine suggests that many pet owners may think that they should let their cats outside for several common reasons, but this thought process is generally based on myth instead of fact.

One reason suggested by the team at UC Davis is that pet owners believe their cats do not receive enough exercise when kept inside the house. This leads to another erroneous belief that all indoor cats are destined to become lethargic and overweight. Letting your cat outside, however, is not the solution to this issue. Instead, investing in the necessary enrichment devices in your house, such as a kitty condo, provides a more dynamic and energizing environment.

Other ways pet owners can make the most of their space, no matter the size, is to utilize vertical space using catwalks or other platforms that can be attached to walls. Pet owners can watch the amount of food provided for meals and snacks can keep kitty’s weight at the appropriate level.

If you’re seriously concerned about a cat’s weight, you should consult with their veterinarian about your cat’s diet. Dr. Fern Slack, the Medical Director for Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center, explained the concept of a biologically appropriate diet.

“This is based on the fact that cats eat prey animals and nothing else in the wild,” Dr. Slack said. “Ideally then, a cat food would be based on what I think of as the ‘mouse in a blender’ model.”

The “mouse in a blender” approach essentially means providing a kitty with food made entirely of protein. While this sounds like the ideal solution for all cat owners, most commercial cat food is made mostly or entirely out of plant material. There are, however, a small number of pet food companies that make high quality cat food out of natural ingredients, though they are few and far between. This option can also be very expensive for both the cat food companies and the pet owners, as it is difficult to make pet food out of actual meat.

The solution is not found in letting a cat roam outdoors to potentially supplement their diet with birds and other small animals.  This pet owner decision creates myriad other problems that are often harder to remedy than planned cat food diet changes.

Infection and Disease

Outdoor cats are also at high risk of contracting diseases or infections, some of which may be life-threatening. Those medical risks that most commonly affect cats include rabies, Black Plague and tularemia, and diseases specific to cats, such as the Feline Leukemia virus or Feline AIDS (FIV).

Dr. Fern points out that cats could contract diseases through eating mice or rats, through fighting, or by encountering other cats who might be sick. Pet owners can take precautions by vaccinating their cats on a regular schedule. However, not all diseases mentioned above have readily available vaccines. The best way to counteract this risk remains keeping cats inside the home.

Extinction Level Events

In addition to the threats cats face while outdoors, it is important to think of the impact cats have on their surroundings and their environment. According to the American Bird Conservancy, outdoor cats are responsible for the death of approximately 2.4 billion birds per year in the United States. It is also estimated that cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 bird species.

This level of negative influence on the environment is especially concerning in areas where the indigenous birds are endangered and are at great risk of extinction. While the Boulder County Nature Association’s list of extirpated or rare and declining species includes only 11 species, outdoor cats hunting birds can lead to issues with those avians who routinely populate and build nests in your community.

“Many neighbors want to enjoy wildlife in their yards and to grow gardens,” Tonni Loutzenhiser said. “Cats may choose to use the gardens and the yard as a litter box and chase away or kill birds and other wildlife.”

As the Executive Director of Longmont Friends of Feral and Abandoned Cats, Loutzenhiser has seen the results of pet owners letting their cats wander unsupervised.

Kitty Tracking

“Cats are often found roaming and end up in animal shelters or with a concerned neighbor,” Loutzenhiser explained. To counteract this dilemma, if a pet owner chooses to allow their cat to be outdoors, they need to microchip their cat.

Microchipping, or the embedding of a small electronic chip in a pet, is popular with dog owners, yet many pet owners overlook this safety mechanism for their cats. If a cat is microchipped, when picked up, it can be safely reunited with its family.

If, however, an outdoor cat is not microchipped, they may be taken to a shelter with no way to get home. Not only will this result in a kitty being away from its family for a prolonged period, but the cat may also end up being rehomed with a different family or euthanized.

Microchipping, or the embedding of a small electronic chip in a pet, is popular with dog owners, yet many pet owners overlook this safety mechanism for their cats.

Free Range Alt

This is not all to say that you should prohibit your cat from getting their paws a little dirty, but there are plenty of safe alternatives to letting them be free range. Catios, or a cat patio, are outdoor enclosures that are specifically designed to keep cats safe. They allow for birdwatching without bringing any harm to the kitty or birds in your community and serve as an extension of your residence.

Another option includes taking your feline on a walk, by using a leash and collar or a harness. While it may be difficult to train a cat to enjoy a leisurely stroll, this approach is well worth the work to ensure your cat’s safety. If, however, your kitty is a little too old to learn new tricks, or perhaps too stubborn, there are many options made specifically for pets that allow for different outdoor ventures. Pet-safe options include uniquely designed strollers, backpacks, or a number of variations on traditional cat carriers.

Maggie Fell, Boulder resident and proud cat mama to Milo, shared insight into the importance of taking her kitty on walks outside using a leash and harness. “I think it’s healthy for Milo to get out and about,” Fell says. “I know it makes him happier… he seems to get his energy out and is more appreciative and loving.”

A large part of Fell’s decision to leash train Milo is that, “toys just aren’t always enough. Cats are constantly getting bored and sometimes need more space to enjoy,” which the walks allow her kitty to experience.

If you are still inclined to give your cat outdoor time without close supervision, consider installing a cat fence. These products can vary from invisible fences to those similar in design to zoo fences, which angle at the top to keep even the highest jumpers in your yard. While these alternatives can vary in price and some may be very expensive, it may be worth it for pet owners who wish to still let their cats outdoors.

In The End…

… Being a cat owner is about creating an environment that is enriching and comfortable for your feline. Having plenty of indoor activities for your cats that utilize vertical space allows cats to embrace their wild side while in the safety of their home. Additionally, creating purposeful alternatives to outdoor roaming allows felines to get a breath of fresh air while being watched over by their family. And all this means keeping our neighboring wildlife safe and healthy and limiting predator reasons for ingress into our neighborhoods. 

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