The indoor/outdoor cat debate hots up and here’s some arguments why cats should be let outside

There has been a big debate on the Internet recently about whether cats should be let outside or not. It is a long-term debate and it is hotting up. The debate is becoming more vociferous but people have entrenched views and therefore they do not change their views despite the debate.

Some genuine and respected experts support letting the domestic cat go outside, one of whom is Dr John Bradshaw the anthrozoologist and author of the well-known book “Cat Sense”.

The starting point from the perspective of natural cat behavior is to let cats go out; then, firstly, Bradshaw makes the point that there is, as yet, no convincing demonstration in studies that keeping domestic cats indoors has a beneficial effect upon wildlife populations. Many will say that is incorrect but they’ll be wrong. There are no conclusive studies on nationwide domestic cat predation.

The usual argument is that outdoor domestic cats kill song birds and those who argue for keeping cats indoors bandy around massive figures about the number of birds killed by cats but these are all estimates or at best guesstimates and therefore cannot be trusted.

Dr Bradshaw says that cats are usually lazy killers by which he means that normally individual animals that have been weakened by disease starvation or through old age are preyed upon by cats.

I would add to that doemstic cats primarily attack small mammals such as rodents and the most common argument against cats being let out doors is to protect birds but you will find that birds are not a priority as prey for the cat and as Dr Bradshaw states the cat is likely to attack weakened or infirm birds.

Feral cats are a different matter. In America there are many effective native predators which prevents the feral cat from flourishing in the wild unless they are being fed by people. Therefore, Dr Bradshaw states, the real issue is how to manage feral cats rather than to restrict domestic cats to an indoor life.

Dr Bradshaw allows his cats 24-hour access to the outside. Where he lives, he states that there is a large rat population and he sees his cats hunting and killing rats. His cats keep down the rat numbers in his garden. He makes the point that rats are also predators and much worse than cats in terms of vectors of human disease. He would rather his cats kept down the rat population than using poisons.

Therefore, Dr Bradshaw has no regrets in letting his cats go outside and do what they are good at doing.

He accepts that there may be some collateral damage. Although, he states that there is no evidence that outdoor domestic cats affect the number of songbirds.

He does state that under some circumstances there may be strong arguments for keeping a cat indoors permanently. One reason is that some cats have characters which are suited to being indoors full-time. These cats may not even wish to go outdoors or are reluctant to do so. An enriched indoor environment should be created.

I will quote his own words which summarise what he thinks about living cats outdoors,

“….. In my opinion, the decision whether to restrict a cat to the indoors should be the owner’s, based on the environment around the home and the background of the cat they own.”

The environment should be safe for a cat when outside or as safe as possible and the owner’s assessment should be based upon the cat’s personality.

The author of the book, “Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets”, Jessica Pierce, thinks along similar lines to Dr Bradshaw. She says that the argument as to whether you should let your cat outside boils down to what each individual care needs and where they live. Some cats need to go outside much more than other cats.

It is not satisfactory to make blanket decisions and recommendations about cats never being allowed to go outside or indeed the opposite argument that all domestic cats should be allowed outside.

She does argue too that we should do what we can to mitigate dangers to a cat where he/she goes outside. This is common sense. Also people should do what they can to mitigate against cats preying on animals.

Hal Hertzog, Prof of psychology at Western Carolina University prefers allowing domestic cats to go outside.

The general conclusion is that a cat owner needs to take a sensible, commonsense view as to whether they should cat outside depending upon the usual variables such as the cat’s character and the environment together with mitigating preying on birds.

Dr Bradshaw encourages cat owners to provide cat proof bird feeders and nesting boxes for example. This supports birds and compensates for the destruction of habitat caused by the creation of the plot of land upon which the cat owner’s home stands.

This argument is a reminder that humans are far more skilled at killing birds indirectly through the activities than feral and domestic cats can ever be.

8 thoughts on “The indoor/outdoor cat debate hots up and here’s some arguments why cats should be let outside”

  1. Michael, I agree with the fact that cats are much like toddlers and must be supervised when outdoors — for all the reasons mentioned in your post — mainly safety. When I was still at home and in college, I had many indoor/outdoor kitties who lived very long lives — we lived in the country where it was quite safe and they had run of lots of vermin. I only had one cat who would catch birds occasionally, and that was my first female — who lived to be 19 – at the time that was literally half my life!! But for where I live now, I could never let my *kids* go outside. I live on a main roadway (VERY busy) and do not have a yard. They seem to be quite happy here with *Mom Cat*. They do get out to go to the vet for their check-ups, and I plan on trying to work with my Bengal Girl to teach her to walk with a harness and leash. I do keep my kids quite stimulated with toys and I interact with them constantly — I like *bugging* my *kids* — always have!! Plus, they have each other to keep themselves occupied and busy if my son and I are not home. Overall, I have quite healthy, happy kitties who love my son and myself quite dearly as we do them. Great post!!! ♥♥♥

  2. My concern is not for the birds, but for my cat. I treat her as I would an innocent 2 yr. old who doesn’t know the dangers of moving vehicles, loose dogs and cats, poisonous plants, herbicides on the grass, human predators, kidnappers, and so much more.

    When I lived on 5 acres in Hawaii, I had two indoor/outdoor cats. It was a dead end, with no traffic. I always got them in at night to keep them safe from nocturnal animals, like wild boars.

    They never got lost or injured. I also fed them cheap food, but they supplemented with live prey. They lived to be 14 and 15. They were alone most of the day, because I worked.

    Now that I’m retired and home most of the day, with a previous semi-feral who wants to go out, I take her out with a fitted cotton velcro halter and leash. I’ve written my contact information on the halter, and of course she’s micro-chipped. I keep my eyes on her while I allow her to wander close by.

    I could not in good conscience, let her roam freely, no more than I would a 2 year old. I know people who’ve had outdoor cats, and lost them to one thing or another, and they just replace them. They believe that they gave the cats what they wanted.

    What 2 year old doesn’t want to be free to roam? Or a 3, 4, or 5 year old? Why not let them? Same reasons apply to cats and dogs.

    • Monty wants to roam too, but he has a secure enclosure. I caught heat from some cat lovers after write about improvements to his enclosure because it seemed like I was just trying to spoil his fun. But the truth is when he gets stuck up in a tree and is crying piteously for me to help him get down and I am trying to haul my nearly fifty year old overweight butt up into the tree to retrieve him, neither of us is having a good time.

      When he has gotten out with the intent of expanding his territory neither of us is having fun when I am trying to retrieve him from the neighbor’s yard and he is getting his little wild kitty on, so I get scratched because the feral part of his semi-feral nature was the only part of his brain that was accessible to him at that moment.

      For his safety and mine he requires a secure enclosure with limited access to trees. He used to be a feral cat and then he could roam anywhere. But had he stayed a feral cat he would have been dead five or six years ago from predation or exposure or starvation or being hit by a car. So I allow him as much freedom as I can, but he is not a wild animal anymore. He is my cat. Keeping him in his own yard allows him to enjoy the outdoors, with me, but in a safe habitat.

      There still are risks, but he has a fuller life with some chance to explore nature. He catches very few birds. Mice, chipmunks and the occasional rabbit are his forte, but he isn’t allowed out enough to do any real damage to the local critter population.

    • Except cats aren’t children. A 2-year old child cannot have babies, cats can (unless they are neutered, but it’s beside the point). A 2-year old child cannot survive on its own, cats can. Cats existed before humans and will likely survive without us. They don’t need us. They are different species from us, with different instincts and needs, they are predators with strong hunting instinct that our play can only satisfy in part. You’d be the first who says that wildcats should be left outside, but behaviorally or biologically there is very little difference between say African wildcat or European wildcat and our cats. The only difference is that domestic cats like us and wildcats don’t.

      Now, I keep my cats indoors, but I don’t for a moment think that I am doing it for anybody but myself. I don’t want to lose them – but this is my own selfish reason, also my condo complex doesn’t allow indoor/outdoor cats (though people still let their cats out). Cats don’t think this way. They don’t care about living to see their grandchildren getting married, they live today. So I think, it’s really a personal choice depending on where one lives, but let’s not kid ourselves and pretend we are doing it for cats. Cats would rather exercise their instincts.

      • Kitty, of course, keeping our cats indoors because we don’t want to lose them or have to pay vet bills to put them back together or get fined by management, we are doing for ourselves. But in the process, we’re trying to protect our cat. If that’s selfish in your opinion, that’s just fine. I think it’s more “perception” than “pretending”. We all see things differently, so it’s wise to withhold judgement, even if it seems easier to put people in a neat box.

        And when we adopt a cat from a shelter, we also do it for ourselves, even though it’s called “rescuing” or the animal is referred to as “as rescue”.

        Personally, I wouldn’t want a wildcat of any kind, although their behavior or biology is similar to domestic cats.

        Yes, cats do survive without care, but not quite as long as those with care. As I said before, I know people who allow their cats outdoors, and have lost them to various issues, but they just replace them.

        I will admit that at this time, my life revolves around my cat, and I would feel a deep loss, especially if she died because of my neglect or lack of awareness. I accept that she may die before me, and I actually hope she does. She’s a high maintenance cat as a previous semi feral. She’s timid with other people, even my friends. So, I know that she wouldn’t make a good pet for anyone. I’ve stipulated that if I die before her, that she be euthanized. She was slated for that 6 years ago in the shelter as she was deemed “un-adoptable”. I had fed her and her mom, so she trusted me.
        I’d rather protect and care for the one I have as long as I can. I think there may be many others who feel the same way.

        • While I keep my cats indoors, I’ve seen quite a lot of indoor outdoor cats who live long lives. My previous indoor only cat survived until 14.5. My late mother’s neighbor indoor outdoor cat lived till 18. Now, over they have a nice courtyard surrounded by houses where most indoor outdoor cats spend their time, but it’s not completely enclosed, cats can wonder out. In my complex, it’s not as easy, still my previous neighbor’s cats lived very long too.

          At any rate, cats may live shorter lives, but it’s probably happier and fuller lives when they are allowed to exercise their instincts. If I lived in the area with fewer cars, I’d probably let my cats out too. If I’d seen my cats really wanting to go out, I’d think about it too, but they seem OK. I also have lovely squirrels outside that I prefer alive. But I don’t pretend I am doing it for my cat, and sometimes I feel guilty about not letting especially my cats out.

          In terms of wildcats, the reason I mentioned them is not because I thought anybody should keep them, but simply because I see it as a bit of a double standard. We say that wild cats belong outside even though they’d also probably live longer in captivity. Our cats have exactly the same instincts, most of us would probably not even be able to tell the difference between our tabbies and African wildcats, and many Scottish wildcats are hybrids with domestic anyway, yet we prevent our cats from exercising these same instincts.

  3. I have had ferocious semi feral cats who hunted constantly. My observation is they only got the dumb or injured. Once one of them got a bird at the feeder the other birds would post a sentry. Only the dense ignored the cries when that bird went off.
    I keep my cats in to keep them safe.

  4. In the Iliad, Achilles muses over whether to have a short happy life or a long dull one. He chooses the former, and I guess that’s what some writers are asking concerning their cats. The indoor life is certainly safer, and it’s true that there are ways of enriching it so it’s long but not dull.


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