Have claws - Will travel: Outdoor cats vs. indoor cats

March 10, 2021


You might have a “Rum Tum Tugger problem” with your cat:

…When you let him in, then he wants to be out;

He’s always on the wrong side of every door,

And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.

While musicals might not be your go-to for the latest on cat behavioral science, they certainly have a window onto the dilemmas of the average housecat. Should they go out where they can express their ancestral hunting habits, or maybe stay inside where the cuddles, comforters, and Meow Mix are? Your Rum Tum Tugger needs you to make a decision for them what to do. What is best for a housecat’s quality and quantity of life when it comes to keeping them in or letting them out?  Our walker Nathaniel will help us parse the pros and cons of either option, what you can do to protect your outdoor cat, and give alternatives to outdoor free-roaming! 

Outdoor Cats

Cats who are allowed outdoors certainly lead a more stimulating and active life than those strictly kept inside. Outdoor cats generally have more access to exercise and, therefore, less prone to obesity. They can express their hunting and stalking instincts outside, while they may take out these behaviors on their owners if cooped up at home. A bored cat can act out by being overly vocal or by scratching up furniture. If the cat is already eager to be outside, working with them may be simpler than working against them.

We must address the numerous risks of letting a cat roam outdoors, however. Sources such as the AVMA and Humane Society do not recommend letting cats out on their own. The simple reason is that they’re more vulnerable to danger, such as:

  • Contracting illnesses such as feline leukemia
  • Injuries from feral cats, off-leash dogs, or other predators
  • Drinking or eating toxic substances
  • Animal cruelty by humans
  • Car accidents

Outdoor cats also live far shorter lives than indoor cats. Speaking in averages, while an indoor cat lives 15-17 years, outdoor cats only live up to five. Again, these are averages that might not represent your cat and your particular circumstances. But it does represent how often outdoor cats run into dangers. 

Indoor Cats 

As we noted previously, indoor cats live up to three times as long as outdoor cats, which is certainly a motivation to keep them inside in itself! Some cats are satisfied with staying indoors anyway, due to anxieties or just being a cozy lap-cat. This option might also be the only one available if you live in an apartment complex where cats’ access points are limited. While you may believe a cat can only get enough activity by going outside, creating a stimulating indoor life for them is possible. To do this, you can:

  • Use cat furniture to make a jungle gym of your home, especially using the verticality of your space for climbing opportunities
  • Rotate their toys and treats throughout the week, hiding any not being used
  • Installing a cat perch at your window for them to relax in the sun and look out the windows
  • Set a feeder outside the window for your cat to bird-watch
  • Adopt another cat or dog, provided you have the bandwidth

If anything, simply setting aside more playtime for your cat can be a perfect first step in making sure your cat is getting enough activity. With a little planning, making your indoor cat’s life interesting can more than make up for going outside on their own.

If you are going to have cats outside

If you are going to let your cat go outside on their own, it is essential to take some basic precautions to ensure their safety. 

Smart collars are increasingly available and can be a way to monitor your pet while they’re outside. Many of these smart collars have GPS tracking technology that you can access through your phone and provide you with the greatest powers of supervision over your pet. If a smart collar isn’t an option, fitting them with a bell on a breakaway collar can at least alert you to their presence if they’re nearby.

Only allow your cat to be outside during daylight and keep them inside during the evening. Nighttime offers more dangers, such as nocturnal predators and unseen oncoming cars. To set this routine, regularly schedule your cat’s mealtimes around when you want them back. If your cat gets used to eating at 5 p.m. every day without fail, you can be sure they will know to be home by then. Train them to associate a sound or command with a food reward to get their attention if you need them back inside sooner. Ensure their exit points are locked once they’re in for the evening. If you have a balcony, make sure they are never unattended.

Visit the vet at least twice a year to check your cat for illness and get their vaccinations. Get them microchipped if they’re not already. If a vet, animal control, or a concerned stranger finds your cat, their microchip will make it easier to get them back into your care. Spaying and neutering will help prevent unwanted pregnancies in female cats and prevent male cats from getting into fights. This operation should happen before they’re ever allowed outdoors. One thing you won’t want is to have your outdoor cat declawed, as this will leave them unable to defend themselves or escape by climbing in case of an emergency.

Alternatives to Outdoor Roaming

Letting a cat outside doesn’t necessarily mean they have to wander alone, and there are alternatives you can try. If you have access to a garage, this could be their home away from home, stocked with food, water, a litter box, and climbing fixtures. A cat carrier backpack can also be a way to help them to experience the outdoors while you’re out and about.

If you have a backyard, insulating the area with cat-proof fencing that they can’t climb or escape can be a way to give them outside time in a controlled, safe environment. For the particularly handy, an outdoor cat playhouse can be a fun project! You can stock this playhouse with toys, catnip, scratching equipment, and perches. Just make sure it’s secured enough, so you never have to find anything other than your cat using it!

Last but not least is to train them for a leash! Cat-walking has become an increasingly popular option for those who want to help their cat explore the outdoors safely and deepen their bond. For getting started on this process, see our article on How to Train Your Cat for the Outdoors – Windy City Paws

Thank you, Nathaniel, for breaking down the pros and cons of inside and outside living for cats! Windy City Paws is a Fear Free Chicago dog walker and petsitter committed to providing helpful information to Chicago dog owners through its blog.


Written for Windy City Paws by Nathaniel Fishburn