The case for indoor cats

Today is a very important day: my cat’s birthday! Ori is turning 4 years old today. He’s a sweet black cat that my boyfriend and I have had since August 2021 and honestly, I don’t know how I lived without him.


Cute things about Ori:

  • He’s missing his canines on the right side of his mouth, which means his tongue sometimes goes everywhere when he grooms himself
  • He drools when he’s happy
  • He purrs soooooo loudly when you pet him
  • He’s the cutest
You can tell he’s missing a fang in this picture

In honor of Ori’s birthday, I wanted to take a moment to talk about indoor vs outdoor cats. As someone who cares about the environment and wants the best life for my cat, I have opinions. And those opinions fall firmly on keeping Ori indoors at all times. Here’s my views on why it’s so important he stays indoors.

Indoor cats are healthier

Cats can live a while, and they live a lot longer if they stay indoors. While indoor cats typically live between 12 and 18 years, free-roaming outdoor cats have an average lifespan of three years. This is for multiple reasons, including being hit by cars and attacked by other animals.

Indoor cats are also much less likely to contract diseases than outdoor cats. One study found that outdoor cats were 2.77 times more likely to have parasites than indoor-only cats. Outdoor cats are also more likely to have feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV; a virus that causes disease similar to HIV).

And this affects your health, too. Cats, for instance, can contract and spread rabies and plague to humans. They can also bring parasites like hookworm and tapeworm into your home. Cats also spread toxoplasmosis. While infected adult humans are generally asymptomatic, toxoplasmosis can cause blindness and mental disabilities if children are infected while they are in the womb. It can also cause neurologic symptoms in immunosuppressed patients. The chances of your cat coming into contact with these diseases and parasites and spreading them to you increases as you let them wander outdoors.

Keeping cats indoors helps the environment

Going back to parasites: you know how cats can spread parasites to you? Well, the same goes for wild animals. One study found that cat fleas, for instance, are host-generalists. This means that unlike parasites such as dog fleas, which are pretty restricted in the animals they infest, cat fleas thrive on a large variety of mammals. More specifically, this study found over 130 species, or 20%, of mammal species sampled had cat fleas, compared to only 31 mammal species with dog fleas. Fleas can spread diseases, so the propensity of cats to spread fleas can impact the health of wild animals. Toxoplasmosis infection is another issue. It has killed animals in numerous species, including sea otters, Hawaiian crows, Hawaiian monk seals, spinner dolphins, and red-footed boobies. Cats have also spread FIV to mountain lions and feline panleukopemia to Florida panthers. Five Florida panthers died in an outbreak of feline leukemia virus that likely came from a single outdoor cat.

Cats, being predators, also attack and kill other animals. I’m not blaming them. They’re cats. It’s an instinct to hunt, even if they aren’t hungry. Unfortunately, this can wreck havoc on the local environment. Domestic house cats tend to have a favorite species to hunt, and they will continue to hunt that species even if there are few left. If a cat’s favorite species is rare or threatened, this hunting strategy can decimate the population. This is what is happening, if you recall, with the central rock rat. One cat single-handedly drove off an entire colony of vulnerable fairy terns in Australia; although he likely only killed six adults and 40 chicks, the other 220 birds decided the sanctuary was too dangerous to stay. Another study suggests free-ranging cats are the largest human-driven source of mortality for US birds, estimating that they kill 1.3 – 4.0 billion birds and 6.3 – 22.3 billion mammals annually. As of 2011, outdoor cats (and to a greater extent, feral cats) were responsible for 14% of global bird, mammal, and reptile extinctions on islands. Outdoor cats kill. A lot.

Your cat can be entertained even indoors

A common refrain from cat lovers is that it’s best for cats to be allowed outside. It lets them fully engage with their environment and practice their natural behaviors. To my knowledge, however, this idea has not been empirically tested.

I also believe that with sufficient enrichment, cats can be plenty stimulated indoors. For instance, puzzle feeders can allow cats to both practice hunting and have some mental stimulation. Playing with toys like feather wands let indoor cats practice and engage in instinctive behaviors like stalking and pouncing. Bird feeders situated outside of windows can give cats some visual stimulation (Ori loves watching the birds).

Bird watching time

There are also ways to give cats controlled outdoor access. Some cats can be harness trained and can go on walks with you outside. Or, if your cat wears a collar, they can be secured to a single location via long line. I had a professor who did this with his cat. Cat wanted to be outdoors, but he studied birds and knew the effect cats had on the population. So he tied his cat to a cinder block and gave him enough leash to run around. Apparently the cat only killed three birds in his lifetime (which, honestly, if a bird gets close to a tied up cat, it’s the bird’s fault).

I’m also a fan of catios, or outdoor “cat patios” where cats can experience the outdoors in an enclosed environment. When I have a house of my own, I plan on getting a catio for Ori to be able to spend time in.

At the end of the day, you will do what you feel is best for your cat. But I hope you at least consider the idea that it may be better for your cat (and you and the wildlife around you) for your cat to stay indoors.

I’m gonna go cuddle Ori now 🙂

Ori says it’s time to sleep

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