Should cats stay or stray?

July 8, 2019
Kerry Lengyel

Veterinary clients have several beliefs about the benefits of keeping cats indoors, but are they really true?

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What is the best way to house a cat? Some pet owners believe cats should be strictly confined indoors while others believe they should be allowed to roam free outdoors.

At the 2018 Chicagoland Veterinary Conference, Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice), an international lecturer of feline medicine from Vancouver, Canada, spoke about the lifestyle risks of both indoor and outdoor cats and how veterinary professionals should advise pet owners to optimize their home environment to better the well-being and health of their feline friends.

Beliefs around indoor cats

There are several beliefs around the benefits of keeping cats indoors, such as the fact that they live longer, but Dr. Scherk said these are mostly just beliefs-there is no scientific evidence showing these benefits to be true.

“We have this belief that if you're a responsible cat parent that you will keep your cat indoors,” she said. “That's strongly entrenched in our society.”

Pet owners believe that indoor cats are less likely to be hit by a car, catch an infectious disease, fall and hurt themselves, eat something toxic or poisonous, or get pregnant. While some of these may be true, pet owners are not aware of some of the increased risks of an indoor lifestyle.

“The fact is that cats have not been selectively bred to be indoors 24 hours a day,” Dr. Scherk said, “and many don't adjust to living in close contact to people-they're forced to.”

The risks associated with indoor vs. outdoor cats

What are some of the negative effects that an indoor lifestyle has on cats? Dr. Scherk mentioned how the stressful indoor environment can actually increase the potential lifestyle risks of indoor cats to where they outnumber the potential lifestyle risks of outdoor cats. (See Table 1 for more information.)

Table 1. Comparing feline lifestyle risks

Increased risks associated with

living strictly indoors

Increased risks associated

with outdoor access

Lower urinary tract diseases (idiopathic and calcium oxalate urolithiasis) Infectious diseases (FeLV, FIV, rabies, parasites) Hyperthyroidism    Vehicular accidents Obesity    Trauma (falls) Diabetes    Altercative trauma (other cats, other animals) Odontoclastic resorptive lesions    Getting lost Boredom    Theft Household hazards (burns, poison exposure, falls)    Poisoning Inactivity, decreased fitness    - Problem behaviors (spraying, scratching)   - Behavior problems (obsessive behaviors) - Dermatologic problems (atopic dermatitis or acral lick dermatitis)1 (

Amat

) -

Adapted from Rochlitz 20052

Even with these understood risks of an indoor lifestyle, pet owners will still opt to keep their companion animals “safely” indoors. And as a veterinarian, Dr. Scherk says it is your job to help these pet owners create an indoor environment to foster and improve the well-being and health of their indoor cats.

The Five Freedoms

You've probably heard of the Five Freedoms,2 originally defined for farm animal welfare under human control that have been extended toward companion animals. What you might not know is that they've also been adapted specifically for cats. They are:

Provision of food and water: a balanced diet that meets the animal's nutritional needs at every life stage, supplied appropriately, fresh water

Provision of a suitable environment: adequate space and shelter, no extremes of temperature, adequate light, low noise levels, cleanliness, indoor-only or access to the outdoors

Provision of health care: vaccination, neutering (sterilization), internal and external parasite control, identification of the individual (microchip, collar), prompt access to veterinary care

Provision of opportunities to express most normal behaviors: including behaviors directed toward conspecifics and toward humans

Provision of protection: from conditions likely to lead to fear and distress

“I'm not going to be able to change the fact that the majority of people are keeping their cats indoors,” she told attendees, “but what I can do is try to encourage people to make the indoor environment more suitable for cats.”

Optimizing the indoor cat environment

When it comes to creating a cat-friendly home environment, Dr. Scherk expressed that there are two aspects that need to be considered: decreasing stressful stimuli and enriching and improving the environment.

You want to find specific ways to bring the natural stimulation of the outdoors to the indoor cat, she said.

One way to do that is to take a page from the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the International Society of Feline Medicine Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines,3 which defines the five pillars of a healthy feline environment.

Remind your veterinary clients with indoor cats of the following pillars they need to institute in their home environment:

  • Provide a safe place.

  • Provide multiple and separated key environmental resources: food, water, toileting areas, scratching areas, play areas and resting or sleeping areas.

  • Provide opportunity for play and predatory behavior.

  • Provide positive, consistent and predictable human-cat social interaction.

  • Provide an environment that respects the importance of the cat's sense of smell.

“If we're not going to let these cats outside, we need to make sure they have all the resources that they need,” Dr. Scherk said. Some examples of this may include rotating their toys, using feeding devices or puzzles, moving their food bowls around the house occasionally and supplying them with multiple water stations throughout the home environment.”

What veterinarians currently know does not answer the question of whether strict indoor living for cats is better than allowing cats to have outdoor access. Practitioners should assess the risks of both lifestyles with their cat-owning clients to make sure the physical, emotional, social and environmental needs of each feline patient are being met.

References

1. Amat M, Camps T, Manteca X. Stress in owned cats: behavioral changes and welfare implications. J Feline Med Surg 2016;18(8):577-86.

2. Rochlitz I. Basic requirements for good behavioral health and welfare of cats. In: Horwitz DF and Mills D (eds). BSAVA manual of canine and feline behavioral medicine. Gloucester, UK: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2009, pp 35–48.

3. Ellis SL, Rodan I, Carney HC, et al. AAFP and ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines. J Feline Med Surg 2013;15:219-230.