Categories: stray cat

Can domestic cats survive outside?

This is a poorly formulated question by many people carrying out an Internet search using Google. What they mean is can a domestic cat survive outside without the intervention of a human caretaker? Or to put it another way, can a domestic cat leave their home and live in the wild like a feral cat and live a long life doing it?

Tabby cat colony. Picture in public domain.

A lot of people would say that domestic cats simply can’t do this. They are not equipped for that harsh life. They might generalize and say that all domestic cats can’t do it. I think that they are wrong. There is no doubt that many domestic cats would not survive that long if suddenly abandoned outside to fend for themselves. Perhaps the majority of domestic cats would struggle to survive for very long.

However, some domestic cats would survive and they’d do it to a good age because they have the ability and skills to do so and the environment where they are is kind to them by which I mean with respect to climate, resources and a lack of predators. Like people, domestic cats are individuals with varying skills and abilities.

I have mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again. My mother had a ginger tabby domestic cat who one day when he was quite young left her home and went to live on the golf course opposite her home. He lived there for the rest of his life and then in old age she came back to my mother. He had very bad arthritis and he was coming in from the cold to live out the last months of his life.

My mother, I thought, treated him very badly in his last days or months and in fact she had him euthanised. I think that she could have done much better. The point made, though, is that he wanted to live outside of the family home. He was well cared for and there was no reason for him to leave. He wanted to live in the wild and he managed to do so successfully.

Abandoning a domestic cat by the side of the road would be a crime in many jurisdictions as it would be deemed to be animal cruelty. The reason it is cruel is because domestic cats suffer when they are abandoned as there are unable to survive on their own. They have been softened up by domestication and lost the desire to hunt effectively. These laws prove the point that domestic cats struggle to survive outside the human home.

It has been found that when domestic cats eat high-quality food they lose their abilities and desires to hunt and conversely when they are fed poor quality food they hunt more effectively. I would suggest that domestic cats who have lived a very loosely connection life with their human companion are more able to live without the support of humans and therefore are more independent. Barn cats come to mind.

The answer to the question is that some individual cats will survive outside on their own without human help but we don’t know the percentage. Others will not. And in between those extremes there will be those who will survive quite a long time but live shorter lives than normal. A partial answer is found in the lifespan of feral cats. There is no scientific study on this and you’ll read anecdotally that feral cats live very short lives of 2 to 3 years. That is not necessarily true and it certainly doesn’t apply to all feral cats.

You will find that some people involved in cat rescue say that under certain circumstances stray and feral cats live reasonably long lives especially when they are part of a colony managed by TNR volunteers. I’m sure that you will find that stray domestic cats joining feral cat colonies are living quite a good life provided that it is managed by TNR volunteers. These cats are living outside as described in the question.

The fact is that there no simple general answer to the question. You have to look at individual cats and individual circumstances. However, in general the lifespan of a domestic cat living outside, unsupported, will be shorter than normal.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • I had a pet bobcat once that I rescued. It had lived its entire life inside a tiny cage. I talked to it every day and fed it and after three days I released it. It ran away and disappeared. About a month later it returned and tried to meow at me. It was starving. I gave it some food and it returned every day to eat. We lived in a rural area on a river and told all the neighbors we had the cat so nobody would shoot it. I`ve been told that bobcats can`t breed with domestic cats but she eventually had a bunch of black kittens. We gave them all away except one we kept called Black Bart. He lived inside most of the time and survived over 20 years. The entire neighborhood had bobtailed cats everywhere because of him.

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