Recent archeological studies have revealed that cats and humans have been living together for an astonishing 12,000 years. Throughout this time, domestic cats have not undergone any major evolutionary changes. This means the form and behaviors of the furry feline friends we know today are not substantially different from those of the wildcats from whom they descended. Indeed, this is part of the allure of the cat for most cat-lovers: we enjoy sharing our lives with a little “wild” being. A house cat’s natural behaviors include establishing and defending home and territorial (hunting and mating) ranges, scent-marking and grooming, and stalking and hunting prey through the use of a variety of specialized senses. Because they evolved as solitary hunters, cats’ senses are highly developed for finding prey and avoiding danger. In order to hear the high-frequency chattering of their prey, cats are able to hear above the range of human hearing, into the range employed by bats. Their sense of smell is also highly superior to that of humans and even many dogs. Super-sensitive whiskers and guard hairs, the outer hairs of a cat’s coat, allow them to detect the slightest movement in their environment and require meticulous grooming to keep them in good working order. Much of a cat’s pleasure and interest in life comes from being able to fully employ these senses.
Freedom to engage in natural behaviors is one of the “Five Freedoms” considered basic to animal welfare. The need to balance a cat’s nature and emotional health with our desire to protect our beloved pets thus raises a difficult question: should our feline companions be indoor-only or indoor-outdoor cats? Either way, it’s all about balance. Cat guardians must juggle concern for their cats’ physical health and safety (and that of the creatures he or she may hunt) with concern for their mental and behavioral well-being. Many cat people have strong opinions about whether a cat should be allowed outdoors, and sources vary greatly. According to International Cat Care, “Most owners in Europe allow their cats the freedom of the great outdoors to do whatever it is that cats do all day outside, and then care, feed and enjoy social interaction with them when they return home.” A recent trend in the U.S., however, favors keeping cats indoors full-time. Setting aside trends and opinions, however, the factors involved are fairly clear.
Since the invention of cat litter in the 1950’s, we have had the option of keeping cats indoors. Physical safety is the main reason for choosing this option, including (1) the safety of the cat and (2) the safety of migratory songbirds and native small fauna. The internet is full of sensational stories of dangers facing cats who venture outdoors, from pet thieves to hot cooking grease. In reality, the likelihood of a cat being kidnapped by a nefarious cat-snatcher and sold to a laboratory for cruel research is slim. However, many more prevalent dangers face cats in the outside world, alongside the mental and emotional benefits of outdoor stimuli. These dangers consist mainly of traffic, natural predators (coyotes and, to a lesser extent, raccoons and eagles), ingesting poisoned rodents, territorial fights involving other cats, and parasites and disease.
Guardians of indoor-outdoor cats understand and assess the physical risks to their cats from vehicles and predators, but they may not be aware of the danger presented to their cats from common poison rodent traps. We’ve all seen those black boxes with the hole in one side parked out by the grocery store or restaurant dumpster, or maybe even by the neighbor’s garden shed. These boxes contain bait laced with poison, usually in the form of high-doses of an anticoagulant such as Warfarin. This bait does not immediately kill its intended victim, but rather the animal goes off and usually dies a slow (and painful) death by internal bleeding. The poisoned rodent, being ill, is more easily caught by predators (including raptors, dogs, and pet or feral cats). The poison remains in the animal’s system long enough for it to be a potentially deadly health hazard for a cat who has consumed the poisoned rat or mouse.
Fleas, ear mites and (in some places) ticks are all potentially irritating parasites for the cat who spends time outdoors. All can be managed fairly easily, but are dangerous if left untreated. More serious threats come in the form of infections to which cats are susceptible. Toxoplasmosis, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV, or feline AIDS) and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) are among the most concerning. Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. It is one of the most common parasitic diseases and is known to affect nearly all warm-blooded animals, including humans, but cats are the primary living host. A cat gets infected by contact with cat feces or raw meat. Humans can get infected subsequently by contact with their cat’s feces (litter). Toxoplasmosis is sometimes chronic and can be fatal to your cat.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is a very serious, often fatal, contagious disease. It is second only to trauma as the leading cause of death among cats. However, according to PetMD, 70% of cats who encounter the virus are able to resist infection or eliminate it on their own. FeLV cannot be contracted by humans or other animals. It is transmitted in a cat’s saliva through mutual grooming, sharing water bowls, and bite wounds. There is no cure for FeLV. However, a vaccine is available. The FeLV vaccine is not a core vaccine routinely given, so you must ask for it.
A third disease hazard for the indoor-outdoor cat is Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), a complex retrovirus that acts similarly to HIV/AIDS, predisposing a cat to other infections and certain types of cancer. A vaccine exists, but its efficacy is uncertain. FIV cannot be transmitted to humans or other animals. There is no cure, but the risk of infection in pet cats is not high. In an interview with PetMD, Dr. Niels Pedersen of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine says, “The infection is transmitted between males mainly by territorial aggression, and for that reason the highest risk cats are intact males living in more dense outdoor environments where there is a lot of competition for food and females.”
What about risks to the environment from our domestic cats, an invasive species? According to the Audubon Society, domestic cats kill somewhere between 1.3 and 4 billion birds every year in the U.S. It is not known what percentage of these are sensitive species subject to other pressures from human encroachment on their habitat (a violet-green swallow, for instance, versus a common pigeon or European starling). So unfortunately, the actual threat to songbird populations from domestic felines has not been quantified. Others call these large numbers into question, citing the methods used to arrive at the statistics (http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2013/02/03/170851048/do-we-really-know-that-cats-kill-by-the-billions-not-so-fast). Nevertheless, cats are hunters and it cannot be denied that many small animals do fall victim to their natural desire to catch prey. However, according to Audubon, at least 70% of cat-related bird death is attributable to the hunting activity of feral (“unowned”) cats. A study by the University of Illinois in 2011, the most extensive of its kind, tracked both feral and pet cats and discovered that the territorial ranges and activity levels of feral cats, who must hunt to survive, were far greater than those of pets. Researchers found that on average, pet cats spent only three percent of their time engaged in highly active pursuits, such as running or stalking prey, as compared to their “unowned” cousins, who were highly active 14% of the time.
Regardless of whether you decide to keep your cat indoors or have an indoor-outdoor cat, a few tips can help you provide the best for your cat:
For Indoor-Outdoor Cats:
For Indoor-Only Cats:
Whether to keep cats indoors or allow them to roam freely outdoors is a personal decision, but all cat guardians can agree: we all want our cats to be both safe AND happy. Whatever you decide, understanding your cat’s “call of the wild” will help you create the best possible life for your feline friend.
Documentary: “The Lion in Your Living Room”:
Disease, poison, and parasites:
Cat-related Bird Deaths: