In Defense of Outdoor Cats: A Veterinarian’s Perspective

In the U.K., 90% of pet cats get to spend lots of time outside — and if that makes you uneasy, it’s actually not as bonkers as you might think.

Families in the U.K. generally let their cats roam the great outdoors, allowing them to be, well, cats. By: t_abdelmoumen

Does your cat roam free outside, and if not, why not?

Few topics polarize opinion more than that of indoor versus outdoor cats. I live in the United Kingdom, where 90 percent of our cats go outside unsupervised, meaning only 10 percent are exclusively indoor pets. Contrast this with the United States, where organizations such as the ASPCA actively promote keeping cats indoors.

I’m aware that this is a sensitive topic with entrenched opinions on both sides of the Atlantic. My aim in this article is to explain why the “outdoor” option isn’t as bonkers or irresponsible as it might appear and to open up a discussion about the importance of mental stimulation for our feline friends.

Lack of Predators

Straight out, let’s get one issue out of the way: Here in the U.K., we don’t have coyotes, raccoons or alligators that want to eat our pets. We do have urban foxes, but cats keep out of their way (and foxes have easier pickings in trash bins).

So predators aren’t a concern here as in the United States — unless, of course, you count the car. Unfortunately, around 25 percent of U.K. cats under 12 months of age are involved in traffic accidents. However, the simple act of allowing the cat out during the day (and keeping her in at night) vastly reduces this risk, as most cat-versus-car accidents happen in the dark.

OK, so I quoted a pretty scary statistic there, which arguably makes an open-and-shut case for keeping your cat under lock and key. So why is it that 90 percent of U.K. cats go outside unsupervised? Oh, and if you are wondering, our “outdoor cats” are family members, valued pets at liberty to sleep on a sofa or pop outside at will via a cat flap — they’re not strays or feral.

Cats Will Be Cats

The answer lies in the U.K. attitude of allowing cats to be cats. By giving them free access to the outdoors, our cats are able to express natural behaviors. They can climb, claw, pounce, swipe, pad or gallop as the mood takes them. In short, they exercise both their mind and body as nature intended.

Cats are hunters with a psyche geared toward scenting and ambushing — even if it’s only in play. And when they’re not hunting, they are washing their coat to keep it odor-free, and only then does the cat sleep.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying we starve our cats or that they are all avid hunters. Far from it. We provide food just as people do in the States, but our cats go outside to mimic hunting behavior. They:

In short, they entertain themselves by doing catlike things.

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On average, outdoor cats have a life expectancy (into their high teens) similar to that of indoor cats. By: marcus_t_ward

Indoor Risks

Contrast that with indoor cats provided with bowls of food. They eat, wash and are then left feeling bored and listless — unless you provide mental stimulation and entertainment. Boredom may cause indoor cats to overeat and face an increased risk of diabetes.

Cats with access to outdoors tend to be fitter, slimmer and less likely to have behavioral issues, such as inappropriate territory marking indoors. On the minus side, there is a greater chance of contact with parasites and infectious diseases. Happily, we can control these with regular deworming, flea treatments and vaccination.

One of the facts often quoted in favor of indoor cats is they live longer than outdoor cats. But this argument is flawed because once young cats who die in traffic accidents are taken out of the equation, the statistics level out. Indeed, outdoor cats who live beyond 1 year have a life expectancy into the high teens — just like indoor cats.

Do you think the cats in this video are debating whether outdoor or indoor life is better for them?

And if you thought being an indoor cat removes all risk, think again: They are more exposed to harmful substances, such as tobacco smoke and household chemicals. But, most important, indoor cats are more likely to express their frustration in behavioral problems, such as clawing, fighting or inappropriate urination, which could lead to them being rehomed or euthanized.

Personal Choice

Whether you have an indoor or outdoor cat is very much a personal choice, and I’m not seeking to change your mind, especially if you feel strongly.

All I’m suggesting is the options aren’t always as clear-cut as popular culture on either side of the Atlantic would have you believe, and what we should always do is put cat welfare first.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.

Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS

View posts by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS
Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, is a veterinarian with nearly 30 years of experience in companion animal practice. Dr. Elliott earned her Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from the University of Glasgow. She was also designated a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Married with 2 grown-up kids, Dr. Elliott has a naughty puggle called Poggle, 3 cats and a bearded dragon.

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