Is it cruel to keep a cat inside?

People thinking about adopting a cat might ask themselves if it’s cruel to keep a cat inside? I feel an obligation to try and answer it. However, you can’t answer the question in simple, clear terms because it depends on many variables and if you asked the question 100 years ago they’d think you were mad because almost all domestic cats lived inside and outside the home at that time. There is therefore a very slow trend towards domestic cat confinement led by the Antipodean countries.

Cat looks outside
Cat looks outside. Photo in public domain – words added.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Two actors

It’s important to remember, too, that there are two players, the cat and the caretaker. Many cat caretakers keep their cat inside for their (the owner’s) benefit primarily. It is an emotional issue. Allowing their cat to enter a potentially dangerous environment is too hard to bear for some owners. The cat does not mind.

Cruelty

‘Cruel’ is a strong word. Before I go into what it might depend upon it’s a good idea to define the word. It means to wilfully cause pain or suffering to others or feeling no concern about it. So it includes suffering, which is an elastic term covering a whole range of degrees of discomfort to extreme pain.

Not cruel in the USA

If you asked a hundred people whether keeping a cat inside was cruel, my guess is that about 30% might say it’s cruel but the answer entirely depends upon where you ask it. In America, I would suggest that around 80 to 90% of people would say that it is positively not cruel to keep a cat inside the home full-time for the obvious reason that it is much safer to do so. There are many potential dangers outside. You could successfully argue that it is the opposite of being cruel in America where there are predators such as coyotes who not infrequently attack, kill and eat domestic cats .

Home environment

There are numerous potential dangers outside the home in any place and in some countries the dangers are more severe than in others which affects how you answer the question. Another major factor in how you answer the question is what it is like inside the home from the domestic cat’s perspective. If the home is designed around the domestic cat and his needs and quite large there is almost no downside to keeping your cat inside the home and the upsides are substantial. Under these circumstances it is probably the opposite of being cruel; it is being kind.

Sterile home

However, taking the typical family home in an average place, it’s probably fair to say that it is probably not particularly well designed with a cat’s needs in mind i.e. it is not environmentally enriched. If the owner is away a lot and the home is quite sterile (particularly open plan and modern) a person probably could successfully argue that it is bordering on cruelty to keep a cat inside. This is because the cat is unable to express his natural desires. Some would say that this is little different to zoo conditions.

Lack of feline harmony

There are other factors to bring into the equation. Let’s take multi-cat households. If a person keeps 10 cat inside all the time and it’s a group of cats which lacks harmony in that one cat bullies others and a couple of cats are timid and submissive, you could say that for some of the cats it’s cruel to keep them inside all the time under the tyranny of a bullying cat.

Saving street cats

Let’s look at another factor. Let us say that there are two cats on the street where they are abused, starving and in a very bad way. Let’s say they had six months to live if they were not rescued. A kind person rescues them, looks after them, takes them into her home where she cares for them tenderly and restores them to full health. She is frightened for their safety so she keeps them inside. She is retired and is able to interact with them every day. She lives in a small apartment. Is she being cruel to these cats? No, she is being extremely kind.

It is not cruel to keep cats inside (usually)

Putting all the variables aside for a minute and taking an average situation, my overall conclusion is that it is not cruel to keep a cat inside because of the great benefits in terms of safety. Safety should be the paramount objective of a cat owner. It’s above everything else and keeping a cat inside achieves that objective. If you could add an outside enclosure in the backyard then you’ve probably got the best compromise in terms of cat caretaking.

Compromise – not ideal

Keeping domestic cats inside is not ideal. It is a compromise forced upon cat owners because humans and nature have created a world which can be dangerous to domestic cats. Some owners accept the dangers on behalf of their cat. Others can’t.

Inside cat advocates

Inside cat advocates strongly argue that letting a cat go outside onto the street, in a busy, built up urban environment is cruel. Many people do this. They still allow their cats outside in the full knowledge that there are predators and cat haters out there. I would not say it is cruel but you could make you claim that it is. There are many cat experts who strongly advocate keeping cats inside. A lot of people think the default cat ownership attitude should be inside cats only. These are often wildlife conservationists but you have to respect their point of view.

The cat

In my experience cats want to go outside and explore. That’s their normal attitude. They need the space and nature to live life fully because the raw cat lies just beneath the surface. Inside cats are denied what they desire and need. They get used to it and adapt. They may even become frightened of the outside.

11 thoughts on “Is it cruel to keep a cat inside?”

  1. This is sort of related to this topic. There are pet GPS trackers now where you can see exactly where your cat is in real time on a map on your phone in an app and also you will get an immediate alert on your phone through an app if your pet steps outside of a “perimeter” area that you set up. Does any one have any experience with one they can recommend? My cat is indoor only so it would be in the case of her doing a door dash or escaping from a pet sitter (you can share the app with your cat’s caretakers).

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  2. My neighbors had a very street savvy kitty who always wanted to be outside. Callie would make her rounds to all her neighborhood friends and be back by 9:30 to ne let in. Unfortunately my neighbors would leave to visit family an hour away leaving her outside(I would feed her), not call her in(she started coming to me every night so I could go knock on their door to let her in) and when their daughter went out of town they just seemed to leave Calliegirl to her own devices. She was bitten by a snake on the nose, attacked by something and I paid those vet Bill’s. Everything together made me contact AC. They were coming Wednesday.
    Monday evening I received a call from my neighbor that Callie was taken to the emergency vet and passed.
    She used to follow us as we walked our dogs and my pup loved her so I think she thought all dogs were ok. She got into a fenced in area with 3 dogs and another neighbor heard her screaming. She went to see what was happening and literally had to take my sweet Callie out of the dog’s mouth.
    They rushed her to the ER vet but the damage to her little body was too much. These dogs were not new to the neighborhood. I don’t know why or how she ended up in their yard but but obviously the threat was always there.
    You just never know.
    It is my opinion that cats can be perfectly happy inside provided with toys, stimulation, cat towers, perches, window lookouts, etc.
    Callie had none of this at her house which is probably part of the reason she wanted to be outside. I was truly surprised because I was more worried about the speeding cars.
    I volunteer now to trap and reunite escapees and have not had a single one try to go back out after they’ve been found.
    My Bella was a stray. We can leave the door open and she will just sit there not trying to leave. They also have a whole box of toys, other toys hanging throughout the house, window perches, cat towers and they’re played with often.
    If they’re given the stimulation they need inside, they don’t look for it elsewhere.
    I know my opinion differs from others but I will not adopt out one of my rescues to anyone if they do not plan to keep them indoor only and make sure they’re happy while doing so.

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  3. I have a lot of friends who allow their cats to go outside. I used to allow mine to go out as well back between 1982 and 2004. I only had two who ever made it to a decent age. The others were hit by cars, poisoned, dog attacks, etc. Now that we have the house set up for them to stay inside I have cats who are living to 15+. I say plus because none of them are really slowing down much as they get older. I agree it’s a very debatable topic. Even rescues agree cats should live inside and most make you sign a contract stating if the cat goes outside the rescue has the right to repossess the cat.

    https://pictures-of-cats.org/cat-rescued-after-being-stuck-in-bird-netting-is-now-afraid-to-leave-the-house.html

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  4. I actually feel it’s not safe to address this topic here or anywhere. When people are too one-sided, unable to see the whole picture, to compromise and are too emotional about it, all reason and freedom to converse stops. I do have a valid point of view though and wish to express it as I have before, since the topic keeps coming up.

    I think it depends on the living situation: if the immediate area is as safe as can be, and the ability and commitment to monitor and coach the cat to stay close and safe (particularly to be in from dusk to dawn) in my view and experience has made and makes for my cats to live a more natural existence (in and out). Most of the time my cats just nap in the yard, walk around a little breathing fresh air, look around and feel the space, a little bit free and in charge of their life. It’s most important to them just to know they can walk through that door. Right now Scotty is happily napping in the living room, but if I close the front door he’ll feel trapped and want to go out. It means so much to them and I’ve seen the difference. I have studied them regarding this. I know their brains would atrophy a little without the experience of learning how to avoid risks and know which big box on the block is theirs’. Also their spirit would die a little each day if they couldn’t just step through that door. We confine criminals knowing this, but it’s more important to a cat. Again, for a quarter of a century all the cats I’ve had (18) have enjoyed a normal and safe life with no problems.

    I maintain if the situation is fairly safe and you could monitor them constantly but still keep your cat in 24/7/365 I think it’s a little bit cruel and unnecessary. It deprives the animal their right to live more naturally, also meaning not caged. Endless confinement to a cat is a mild form of mental and emotional torture, in my view. Unfortunately most living conditions and owner skill levels probably don’t rise to an ideal level to recommend this, but I think there are situations where the cat could be allowed a little relief if the owner was up to it. I think it’s actually harder to try to mimic nature, though enclosures are a nice compromise.

    As with all professional and client relationships people have the result of being overly restrictive and cautious due to risk of being sued in court because of liabilities. People having anything to do with animal care-giving are just as overly cautious but I respect them. They rarely “go out on a limb” to say what I just said, though I would only get yelled at rather than sued. Michael is very diplomatic and correct, but I also have an opinion that there’s a little more to it. All THAT said, my point is that for people to unilaterally insist on recommending keeping all cats in OR out regardless is arbitrary and encourages conflict between well-meaning cat enthusiasts. Just be reasonable as well as safe is what I like to say.

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  5. I just had a LONG talk with my neighbor whose cat went missing 2 days ago. This is the same neighbor that knocked on the door a year ago about another cat. It never came back. Now another is missing. I took the time to explain to him about the coyote problem and the neighborhood dogs chasing cats problem. He said his cats never come inside because he has nice furniture. I recommended thrift store throws to cover the furniture. I told him our cats don’t go outside because of the dangers. My daughter saw a coyote just last week. I have the house set up for the cats to be happy. They look out the windows and love the cat trees and the kitty condos and the circle toys. At least I go to bed at night knowing my kitties are safe. I would like to get a catio set up by summer but I’m afraid the cats wouldn’t enjoy the 95+ degree days. They’re rather spoiled to air conditioning.

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  6. Humans are morons who let their kids outside. There is no reason to do so. There are way too many dangers out there just waiting for the innocent. If you want, set up an enclosure connected to your window but do no let them out. How many die from cars, wild life, humans getting off on torture and maiming. Too many!! If you love your kids keep them inside. If they are good to go on a leash with you great! Otherwise, there are window perches and the like to keep kitty safe.

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    • I can’t help but feel I’ve just been (indirectly) called a moron. Everything I do with and for my cats (18 and counting) is well considered, calculated and monitored every day of every year, going on 25. Though none of mine have ever had any problems relating to their brief and very local excursions outside, I do agree there always could be, which is why I watch them, even on outdoor cameras when I am inside. I am likely an exception to your rule but I won’t pass judgement on that or the insult thrown in my direction except to just let it go as a concern that no harm come to all cats if we can prevent it.

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      • You’re are not even close to being a moron. I’ve learned there are 3 touchy topics in the cat world. 1)Keep inside or allow outside 2)Spay a pregnant female 3)Which cat food is best.

        I’m at the point I just read and don’t comment on those. I watched a fight in a group for 3 days over the best kind of food. Unreal.

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