Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Which Is the Better Choice?

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Which Is the Better Choice?

Medically Reviewed by Taylor Froiland, PharmD, RPh
Written by Adam McCown, PharmD

There are an estimated 95.6 million cats in the United States alone. Of those, about 70% are indoor cats, meaning they spend the majority or the entirety of their lives inside. Fewer and fewer felines spend their lives outside or even are allowed to go outside occasionally. This is a marked change that has occurred over the past 70 years since the creation of kitty litter in the 1940s.

Cat lovers can agree on many things—that hair will be everywhere, that all you need to keep your friend busy is a crumpled up piece of paper or an empty box, and that they can probably find better hiding spots in your home than anyone else. What many do not agree on, however, is whether they should allow their cat to spend part or most of their life outside.

Why Have an Outdoor Cat?

Although indoor cats are far more popular, many owners feel bad about keeping their animal cooped up and worry about depriving him or her of their natural instincts and urges. Despite being first domesticated about 4,000 years ago, cats often still feel a bit wilder than their canine cousins. Even more than dogs, they often still demonstrate expert hunting skills, can climb trees, and are a bit more suspicious of people (especially ones they don’t know).

Outdoor cat owners believe that their pet will have a more fulfilling life if they are allowed to go outdoors and be in more of a natural habitat. They receive more sunshine, can stalk prey, get better exercise, and, in some ways, can reach their full potential granted to them by nature. Dr. Graham, Chief Veterinarian at Animal Humane Society, had this to say about indoor vs. outdoor cats:

"It’s true that it’s much easier for your cat to get enrichment outside. However, it’s still possible for a cat to live as happy of a life indoors without all the risks."

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: What Are the Risks?

Many veterinarians will suggest limiting the time spent by cats outside as much as possible or simply keeping your cat inside all the time. And when it comes to life expectancy and dangers, the numbers don’t lie. The average life of an indoor cat is about 12 years, with many living as long as 20. Outdoor cats, on the other hand, have an average lifespan that is about 10-12 years shorter.

From diseases, to parasites, to other cats, to coyotes, to cars, there are a number of dangers your furry friend can encounter when they spend large amounts of time outdoors. Before choosing to have an outdoor cat, it’s important for owners to understand the possible risks and consequences.

Outdoor Cat Diseases

There are an estimated 60 million feral and homeless stray cats living in the United States. Many of these animals can carry a wide range of dangerous and potentially fatal diseases that can be passed to your pet if they come into contact with them.

Infectious diseases that are common among stray and feral cats include the following:

  •       feline leukemia (FeLV)
  •       feline AIDS (FIV)
  •       FIP (feline infectious peritonitis)
  •       feline distemper (panleukopenia)
  •       upper respiratory infections (or URI)

Outdoor Cat Parasites

In addition to disease, cats who venture outside regularly are at risk for catching various types of parasites. These bugs may include the following:

  •       fleas
  •       ticks
  •       ear mites
  •       intestinal worms
  •       ringworm (a fungal infection)

These feline parasites can lead to a variety of symptoms, from red skin, hives, scratching, skin infections, vomiting, and diarrhea. Many of these organisms can also be carried into your home where they can infect your other pets and family members.

Take the Proper Precautions

If you are determined to allow your cat to enjoy the great outdoors, then it is important that you follow certain best practices. First off, your animal cannot be declawed. Although a controversial practice for any type of cat, indoor and outdoor alike, if you are letting your cat outside, they have to be able to defend themselves. If they come in contact with another bully cat or some other type of animal, they risk serious injury or death without their claws.

Next up, vaccines and regular vet visits are even more important for outdoor cats. Indoor cats may never come into contact with another feline in their entire life. Outdoor animals, on the other hand, are very likely to. Regular vet visits and the proper medications will give you peace of mind that your furry friend has not developed any dangerous illnesses.

Additionally, most humane societies recommend either keeping your feline confined when outside (although, for many people, this may defeat the purpose) or inserting a microchip. Having a chip is probably the safest bet and is an excellent way to locate them if they wandered off or have been gone for longer than usual. Similar to your canine pets, outdoor cats should have a collar and tag with your phone number and/or address.

Give Indoor Cats the Proper Enrichment

If you don’t think you can take the proper precautions and don’t want to risk your cat’s health, it might be a better choice to simply keep your pet inside. To ensure they get exercise and sufficient stimulation, be sure to play with them often and give them access to a window seat where they can view the outdoors from a distance.  

It’s up to you whether you want an outdoor or an indoor cat, but talk to your vet and be sure to make an informed decision.