Stray, Feral, and ‘Outdoor Cats’: How to Keep All Cats Happier and Healthier

Like dogs, cats who are let outdoors without supervision are vulnerable to the dangers of cars, other animals, cruel humans, and diseases. Negligent cat owners who don’t understand the vital importance of playing with their cats, interacting with them in meaningful ways, and providing them with an interesting, enriched indoor environment say nonsensical things like “But he wants to go outside,” “We live on a very quiet street,” and “It’s cruel to keep her in.” But these are just excuses. Responsible guardianship includes providing our animal companions with safety from the many dangers posed to them when they’re left outdoors alone. If you want your feline friend to have a long, healthy life, the best thing you can do is keep them safe inside with you.

The Life Expectancy of an ‘Outdoor Cat’

While cats kept safe inside generally live for about 12 to 20 years, cats left to fend for themselves outdoors are usually dead before they reach 5 years old. If they’re not hit by vehicles—the most common cause of death for cats allowed outside—they succumb to other dangers. Many people don’t want cats in their yard urinating, defecating, digging, eating plants, or killing birds and other wildlife and will harm them on sight. Across the U.S., people shoot, poison, mutilate, drown, torture, and trap unsupervised cats or even set them on fire or use them in ritual sacrifice.

In addition to a dramatically shorter life expectancy, cats who roam outdoors face an increased risk of disease. Feline leukemia, feline AIDS, feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), toxoplasmosis, distemper, and rabies can be difficult to detect and, in the case of FIP and distemper, impossible to test for. Some are also highly contagious and can easily be passed on to other companion animals.

‘Outdoor Cats’ Kill Wildlife

In addition to the dangers cats face, it’s not fair to wildlife to turn cats loose outdoors. Cats are an invasive, non-native predator species. Your cat may occasionally bring home a mouse or bird, but that’s no doubt just a fraction of the animals they actually maim and leave to suffer and die. In one study, cats wore tiny video cameras around their necks, which documented that they killed an average of 2.1 animals every week but brought home less than one out of every four. According to a Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute study, free-roaming cats are responsible for the deaths of an estimated average of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals every year in the U.S. alone.

Are ‘Outdoor Cats’ Happier?

Cats are happier and healthier when they’re safe, which means living indoors. If they’re eager to explore outdoors, you can give them opportunities to do so under supervision. Cats should be allowed outdoors only for walks on leashes that are attached to well-fitting harnesses designed for cats. Not every cat can get used to a harness and leash, though, so if you’ve given it your best effort and they’re not comfortable, stick to a window perch or catio. Cat Fence-In Barrier Kits—flexible mesh barriers that can be placed on top of privacy fences to prevent cats from climbing out—can help you keep your feline companions safer in your yard.

Should I Let My Cat Outside?

We urge everyone to help protect their companion cats from a premature death by keeping them indoors—unless they’re outside with you harnessed and leashed, or in a catio. Our animal companions depend on us to keep them safe and happy.

What Should I Do if I See a Stray, Homeless, or Feral Cat?

The street is no place for a cat. If you find a stray, homeless, or feral cat (or any other animal in danger), follow the tips on this page to get him or her to safety. You can help reduce the number of homeless cats in your community by pushing for spay/neuter laws and low-cost spay/neuter services and urging everyone you know to keep cats indoors.

Cats are companions, family members, and a lifelong responsibility. Like dogs, they should be licensed, included in “leash laws” (i.e., required to be kept indoors unless accompanied), and, most importantly, spayed or neutered. This is the only way we’ll ever make any progress in eliminating the staggering homeless-cat crisis.

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