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Is It Bad for an Indoor Cat to Occasionally Roam Outdoors?

It is best to keep our pet cats indoors as the dangers of being outside far outweigh the benefits.

Each week, Dr. Patrick Tate, chief of the veterinary staff and a general practitioner at , answers reader questions about pets. This week's question comes from Joe Turner.

Question: Is it bad for an indoor cat to occasionally roam outdoors?  

Answer: As I stated in , it is best to keep our pet cats indoors and prevent them from roaming around outside if at all possible. Some pet owners believe that cats are happier if allowed to go outdoors and they “deserve” complete freedom. Even if cats do enjoy being outside, the dangers far outweigh any benefits. Studies have shown that the life span of an indoor-only cat is usually much longer than that of an indoor-outdoor cat. Most veterinarians, animal professionals and animal protection agencies agree that responsible cat ownership means doing what is best for our feline friends – keeping them indoors.

Here are a few of the dangers to cats when they roam outside unsupervised – even if it is just occasionally:

  1. Injury or death from being run over by cars and other vehicles. Even the most timid cat can wander into a street, driveway or parking lot.
  2. Injury from other animals like dogs, predatory birds, snakes, raccoons, foxes, coyotes and of course, other cats. Even a strong cat with a full set of teeth and claws can be seriously maimed or killed in a confrontation with other animals. A wound from a fight with another cat is painful and can become infected easily (called a cat-bite abscess).
  3. A higher risk of disease. Cats allowed outdoors are exposed to parasites like fleas, heartworms and other types of worms. They can also contract more serious diseases from roaming cats and other animals like feline leukemia, feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), rabies and toxoplasmosis.
  4. Getting lost, stolen or picked up by animal control. Cats are smart but can get lost when they wander (or are chased) out of their own territory. Often, well-meaning animal lovers rescue or adopt a stray”cat, but don’t make an effort to look for the real owner. In both St. Louis City and St. Louis County it is illegal for a pet owner to let their cat (or dog) roam outside of their property line. Animal Control officers are allowed to pick up and impound a cat if they find it running free or get a complaint. Statistics show that only a small percentage of pet cats that end up in shelters are ever reunited with their owners. Collars can break, microchips can fail and your cat could be adopted or euthanized before you find him/her.
  5. Neighborhood problems. Cats frequently venture into neighbors’ yards and can get into all kinds of mischief. They use gardens and sandboxes as litter pans, knock down birdfeeders and waterers, hunt birds and rabbits, get stuck in trees and buildings, mark houses and yards with urine, () and worse! Studies have shown that cat predation has a significant impact on neighborhood songbird populations. We used to have a 90-year-old neighbor that sat by her birdfeeder with a shotgun, waiting to surprise visiting cats.  

For more information about the indoor-outdoor cat issue, and cat behavior in general, talk with your veterinarian and/or read The Cat Who Cried for Help – Attitudes, Emotions and the Psychology of Cats by veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman.

Do you have a question for Dr. Tate? Email your questions to Webster Groves Patch Editor Sheri Gassaway. Be sure to attach a photo of your pet, and we'll feature it along with your question!

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