Indoor Cat or Outdoor Cat? The Risks and Rewards of Roaming

An outdoor cat roaming in the desert.

“It isn’t just dogs that are a danger to cats. Fights with other cats and cars are among the biggest threats a roaming cat faces.”

The rhythmic wailing coming down from the mountain sounded like a klaxon. It took me a few moments to recognize it was something alive. Only slowly did the horrible truth dawn on me that it was a cat. Or rather a kitten. I had been feeding several wild kittens for a while but had never heard their distress call before. When the kitten’s mother appeared – alone – and stared up at the mountain with a disconsolate look, I began to suspect the truth.

I had noticed the cats in the oasis were terrified of dogs, but coming from cozy England the implication hardly seemed possible; did dogs here really hunt cats as prey and eat them?

This wasn’t England, it was an oasis in North Africa, on the edge of the Sahara desert, and the answer was a resounding yes. The shock when I realized what was happening to the cute Egyptian Mau kitten I had half-tamed was appalling; he had been taken up to the mountainside and fed alive to the dog pack’s puppies. I could hear the barking of the adults, the excited yelping of the pups, and the terrified distress call of the kitten. It’s as well that I didn’t realize earlier, or I’d have got myself badly bitten trying to intervene. Later confrontations taught me to scatter the wild dogs easily, but in the early days, I was bad at dealing with them. As it was, the noise faded and disappeared before I had a chance to act.

I swore that night that neither of my own two kittens – who I had tamed and adopted into my house three months earlier – would ever end up inside a dog’s jaws. It took a lot of effort keeping my vow, but nearly five years later they are still alive.

The most poignant part of this story is that the cat which died had slept safely in my house the night before. Born wild, it was his first – and only – night ever in a house. That morning one of my cats had driven him outside, seeing him as a rival for my affections. And he was killed as a result.

So, indoor cat or outdoor cat?

Before this incident, I would have said ‘outdoor’ every time. I loved watching the kittens running wild through the clover fields or the oasis scrubland. Locking them up seemed cruel. But letting them be torn apart soon seemed even crueler.

There’s no doubt that cats love the great outdoors. The question is, whether it’s good for them? Indoor cats can live for 15 or 20 years. Outdoor cats average only about 5. Better a short but happy life outdoors? Or a long but dull one inside?

Dangers to outdoor cats

It isn’t just dogs that are a danger to cats. Fights with other cats and cars are among the biggest threats a roaming cat faces. Even neutered cats fight, as my neutered tom proves. His rage when he sees another cat is explosive. It transforms him. If I try and restrain him, this normally placid animal bites me instead.

This anger leads cats into terrible danger, and the injuries they inflict on each other can be horrible and even deadly.

Another threat is pesticides, which poison thousands of cats each year. Plus, outdoor cats inevitably pick up intestinal worms, either from eating contaminated grass or from hunting.

Yet giving a cat a rich and fulfilled life indoors is difficult. Cats hunt because it is a basic need. They derive real enjoyment from it – just like humans do from playing a sport or earning their living at a job they enjoy. If you like to think of it this way, cats get ‘job satisfaction’ from hunting. It is their purpose in life after all. Denying cats the chance to hunt is insufferably cruel. Chasing bits of string or a feather on a stick is no substitute for chasing mice and birds.

Watching the sheer pleasure my cats get from hunting, lying in the sun, and just being outdoors, meant that I needed to find a compromise which kept them safe but reasonably contented.

The answer was the yard.

A properly fenced yard keeps your cats in and dogs – or even other cats – out

A properly fenced yard gives your cats a territory to call their own. It fulfills an essential basic need. Fencing a yard effectively is difficult unless you have the money to buy a proper cat fence. But it can be done with patience and a little effort. The fence needs to be at least 6 ft tall, and appear wobbly to the cat, yet still be strong. Fine, flexible metal wire fencing is ideal. Most cats won’t climb a fence that wobbles or sways. An overhang at the top will deter the few that do climb that far.

And the rewards of getting it right are enormous for any cat carer who wants to see their pet happy and fit. Yard cats don’t spend all day snoozing under a blanket. They get out there, run around, chase butterflies and anything that moves. And if they need deworming every 3 months – so what? Read the stories about cats that live a long life, and most of them were hunters. Mice and birds are far better for a cat than commercial pet food.

Indoor cats live longer than outdoor, but my experience suggests that yard cats have the best of both worlds. They are fitter and healthier than their couch potato contemporaries but are saved from the dangers of roaming.