Indoors or outdoors? That is the big question.

We are in full swing of kitten season and the time is fast approaching when new owners view their kittens and ask The Question: 'Should I keep my cat inside, or should I let it run outside?' There are many pros and cons to both. Many owners give their feline companions freedom to come and go as they please. However, more and more are deciding to keep their cats completely indoors. Are these indoor cats better off, or is it an unnatural hardship for cats to be kept indoors?

The Feline Advisory Bureau magazine looked at some of the viewpoints from both sides:

Until fairly recently, all cats spent part of their day outside; hunting, patrolling their territory and relieving themselves.

It wasn't until the advent of cat litter in the 1950s that cat owners had any choice about letting their cats out. Pet owners then began to keep cats indoors for their own safety. Indeed, indoor cats can have longer, physically healthier lives than cats allowed outdoors.

But, on the down side, indoor cats are also more likely to suffer physchologically and develop behavioural problems than those allowed outside.

Weighing up the pros and cons will help you decide what is best for your cat. It is easier to opt for an indoor-only cat right from the start than to convert an outdoor cat successfully into an indoor one. The benefits of keeping the cat away from possible dangers outdoors have to be weighed against the effects on the cat's behaviour.

While you won't have to put up with daily hunt offerings if your cat is kept indoors, you must balance that against the natural behaviours on which your cat has missed out and the need to provide alternative opportunity for the expression of hunting behaviours. Much will depend on the personality of the individual cat and your circumstances.

The outdoor cat.

Letting a cat control its own movements in and out gives it freedom, but lays it open to the dangers of the great outdoors. The main risks:
Injury - traffic accidents account for many cat lives every year. If you live in a town or near a busy road, then the risks are greater. Dogs, other cats and humans also are the cause of cat injuries.
Poisoning - cats can become poisoned by chemicals used in the garden or by eating poisoned prey.
Disease - contact with other cats (especially fighting) and the environment can lead to infections with, for example, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukaemia virus, cat flu or enteritis viruses.
Infestation - fleas and other parasites can be picked up from prey and the environment.
Loss - cats can sometimes get shut in garages or are driven away in cars or vans into which they have climbed. They may even move in with someone else.
Stress - a timid cat may find the great outdoors stressful and prefer to be inside.

The outdoors benefits

However there are also many benefits to letting your cat go out:
Rodent control - cats help to keep the rodent population around your home at bay.
Social contact - outdoor cats can have social stimulation if they want to interact with other cats in the area.
Regular exercise - outdoor cats are well exercised through hunting and generally being out and about, and are less likely to become overweight.
Outlet for behavioural needs - there is less stress for the cat and therefore improved welfare.
Good behaviour - outdoor cats are less likely to develop behavioural problems such as inappropriate urination in the house, clawing furniture or stalking humans or other household companions. They are less likely to become bored or frustrated.

Minimising the risks for the outdoor cat

Before deciding that the myriad risks of a free-roaming outdoor cat are too great, consider ways in which you can minimise them. Let your cat out in the day, but shut it in at night as this is a more dangerous time to be out and about. There are more wild animals around and cats can be dazzled by car headlights on the road. A reflective or fluorescent collar may help get it seen, particularly in the winter months when it gets dark earlier. If you can train your cat to come when called, you will be able to let it out at dawn and make sure it is in by dusk each day. If you are near a busy road, try to encourage your cat to come in (by feeding at this time) at busy times in the morning and evening.

Ensure that your cat is vaccinated against all infectious diseases possible to cover (there is no vaccine for FIV). Worm your cat regularly, especially if it is a hunter. If your cat is wearing a collar make sure it is of the elasticated type or one with a safety catch which will enable it to escape if the collar gets caught up in a tree or fence. Write your name and phone number on it clearly so that anyone finding your cat sick or injured can let you know.

Some people now have their cats microchipped. A microchip the size of a grain of rice and that carries a unique number is injected under the skin. Cats taken to rescue centres are usually scanned for this and matched to the address on file. Cats can also be tattooed, but the marks become blurred with time.

Make sure your cat is neutered. The risks to entire animals are much greater than to neutered ones. An unneutered tom will wander for miles, often crossing busy roads. The average life span of an unneutered male is probably only a couple of years. Neutered animals do not wander so far, do not fight so much (and therefore are not at such a great risk of being infected with various diseases), and do not cause the noise and smell nuisance to neighbours that an unneutered tom can inflict. The risks of pregnancy to the unneutered female are also obvious.

The indoor cat

Keeping a cat permanently indoors, away from all the potential hazards outside may sound the ideal solution. However, the benefits of safety need to be weighed up against the needs of that particular cat.

Stay-at-home problems

Some of the potential problems are listed below:
Behavioural problems - cats in the United States have a much-higher incidence of anxiety- related problems, such as urine marking, than cats in Britain, possibly because British cats are allowed out more. In the US, they are more commonly kept permanently indoors. There are many stress-linked psychological problems in indoor cats.
Fear of change - indoor cats may become overreactive to changes within their small- territory (the house) and become unable to cope with novelty, be it people or objects or new smells. It can be difficult to introduce a new cat (or even a new person) to your cat's restricted territory. There is no neutral ground to retire to for either party.
Obesity - a lack of exercise can lead to weight problems.
Overdependence - a solitary indoor cat will rely on its owner to provide stimulation, companionship and exercise.
Cleaning litter trays - this is a chore those with outdoor cats don't have to do.
Damage to the house - your furniture and carpets may suffer from being scratched excessively. Cats may also expend energy climbing, jumping and generally whizzing around the house in mad moments - again damage can occur.
Keeping doors/windows shut or covered so cats cannot escape can be impossible with children around.
Household hazards - an active indoor cat will explore crevices that an outdoor cat would probably not bother to investigate. Boredom and curiosity can be a dangerous combination. Washing machines, toilets, medicines, cleaners, small holes, exposed wires and wobbly shelving are all particular hazards for curious kittens. While outside, cats will often nibble grass or herbs. If there is no access to this, they may turn to outdoor plants, some of which are poisonous.
Escape - an indoor cat that gets out may be disorientated and will not have any street skills. Escape from a high-rise flat could be fatal. The cat may also be highly stressed to find itself suddenly in an environment of which it has no experience.
Frustration or boredom - cats may develop behaviour problems if they are stressed by the lack of opportunity to express their normal behavioural repertoire. They also have the problem of being unable to escape from a situation or another cat with which they find it difficult to deal.

The upside of indoors

There are benefits to keeping cats indoors:
Fewer risks to physical health - indoor cats can live longer lives because they are kept away from the diseases and accidents associated with the outside world.
Parasite free - presuming that humans or other animals do not bring in fleas, once they are clear indoor cats should not suffer from infestation again. Likewise, worms should not be a problem.
Happy neighbours - there will be no complaints from neighbours about the cat using their garden as a litter tray.
No dead prey on the carpet - with no access to the outside world, owners won't be faced with the unpleasant discovery of animal corpses on the carpet.

Overcoming indoor drawbacks

The main problem faced by the indoor cat is lack of opportunity to display a normal repertoire of behaviours. The cat is a natural hunter and, if it cannot go out, may become frustrated and develop behaviours which stimulate this activity.

Thus, if you wish to keep an indoor cat content you will have to continue to be creative and produce new toys and games to keep it stimulated and exercised - physically and mentally. Kittens and cats love newspaper tents, cardboard boxes and paper bags, not to mention various cat-play centres, fishing-rod toys/laser spots and so forth, which encourage stalking and pouncing.

It is best to get two kittens instead of one from the start. Another cat will bring change and interaction and really is a must in a totally indoor situation. It will also help you to get over feelings of guilt associated with leaving one kitten on its own while you are at work.

Having two kittens relieves you of some of the burden of having to stimulate and exercise them as they will happily wear each other out playing and then collapse in a heap to sleep. They will, however, need somewhere safe to play.

Make sure that you have regular visitors and life is not too quiet, especially when your kitten is small, because this is what he will come to see as normal. Because the cat's whole world may be made up of a couple of rooms in a flat which he knows inside out, he can become hypersensitive to change. Human or animal visitors or even changes in household routine can introduce a potentially huge novelty to the cat's day-to-day environment and cause stress.

Indoor cats, especially when young, are likely to have quite an impact on your furniture and fittings. Try not to be too house-proud about the ensuing damage. Prevent rather than regret. Move all the ornaments and imagine that you have a toddler that can fly! Provide places where cats can have a 'free for all'.

Your cat will need to act out its natural behavioural repertoires, such as sharpening claws within your home. Outdoor cats usually use a tree or garden post. An indoor cat must be provided with a good scratchpost and, even with this, he is likely to use the furniture occasionally, too.

Monitor your cat's food intake if he is tending to put on excess weight, either through lack of exercise or is overeating because of boredom. A cat that goes outdoors will nibble on grass and herbs as part of its diet. It is believed that eating vegetation helps cats to regurgitate hairballs. You can overcome the deficit by providing the cat with an indoor window box. Grass, catnip (Nepeta), thyme, sage, parsley or wheat and oats can all be sown indoors in a potting mixture. Sow seeds every couple of weeks to provide a fresh supply for your cat.

Invest in some good nail clippers as your cat's claws may not wear down as quickly as they would if it went outside and walked on hard surfaces. Long claws can become snagged in carpets and upholstery.

Cat-proof your home carefully. An inquisitive kitten can get through a very small hole. If you live several storeys up, put mesh over the windows and train everyone in the family to keep doors shut.

The best of both worlds

A purpose-built outdoor enclosure could provide your cat with the sights and smells of the outside world and give its life some variety without exposing it to many of the outdoor risks. Alternatively, you might consider using high fencing and Elizabethan collars on trees to keep your cat within the confines of your own.

You may like to train your cat or kitten to walk on a harness and lead so you can both take safe walks in the garden or park.

Outdoor to indoor?

Some cats will adapt more readily to an indoor lifestyle than others. A cat which has spent years outdoors is unlikely to accept an indoor life. In the US, veterinary surgeons say many cats may not adjust to this change and suggest a programme of "behaviour modification" to get over the problems that may arise.

This often includes temporary treatment with anxiety-reducing drugs. However, when the cause of the stress is not being able to go outside, a temporary course of these drugs is unlikely to work, as it does nothing to change this. As a consequence many cats in the USA end up being on long-term drugs. It is wiser to let an active outdoor cat continue to pursue a happy, but risky, life outside than have a long and miserable one inside.

On the other hand, a very timid cat may be quite happy to stay indoors and avoid the circumstances, which it may find stressful. A controlled and predictable indoor environment may be ideal and many such cats choose not to venture outdoors a great deal, anyway.

In the end, it is up to owners to weigh up the pros and cons and to judge how their cat is coping with the risk and strains put upon it by the different lifestyles.