Perhaps nothing is as pitiful as the wail of a cat who wants to be on the other side of a door. When it's the front door, many of us take that to mean that our cats won't be truly happy unless they go outdoors. But, then again, most cats make the same kind of racket when they want to come inside (or, for that matter, when they want to get through any door). Do cats really want to go outside? Do they need to? And even if the answer to both questions is "yes," is it really in their best interest?
Do Cats Need to Go Outside Like Dogs?
The main reason dogs are walked is elimination, followed closely by exercise. Only the smallest dogs can get enough running indoors. Dogs are pack hunters, which means they work cooperatively to run their quarry to exhaustion. That can take all day, which means dogs have a natural instinct to run...and run...and run. You need a lot of open space for that kind of work. Cats, on the other hand, are "ambush hunters." They rely on relatively short bursts of very fast running. A hallway of any decent length provides plenty of room for that. That combined with the instinct to bury wastes (which is why cats will use a litter box) adds up to no pressing reason to take a cat outdoors.
Is It Natural for a Cat to Go Outside
Of course, fresh air and sunshine are good for anyone -- human or cat. But is the outdoor life really more "natural" for your cat? Sure, his wild ancestors lived outdoors. But that was a few thousand years and several hundred generations ago. To top it all off, those ancestors lived in the arid regions of the Mideast -- a far cry from the climate and surroundings of the United States today. Once cats were domesticated, they stopped being completely "natural"; once they were uprooted from their original habitat, they had to do their best to adapt instincts honed over tens of thousands of years of living in Middle Eastern deserts to their new circumstances. Some of those circumstances -- the bitter cold of a Midwestern winter, dogs and wild animals that will turn them from hunter to hunted, and speeding cars and trucks, just to name a few -- they can never really adapt to.
The Not-So-Great Outdoors
What's waiting for your cat just outside your front door? Yes, there are trees and grass and all the sights, sounds, smells, and joys of nature -- good things for all of us to savor. But there are also vicious animals, cruel people, traffic, disease, and animal control officers (who may be within their legal right to grab and impound your cat, if he steps off your property). The only reliable way to keep your cat safe from all of these deadly hazards is to keep him indoors.
Truth be told, country cats aren't necessarily safer outdoors than city cats. Sure, there's a lot more chance of being hit by a car or mauled by a stray dog in the city. But out in the country, we've got some predators that run bigger, quicker, and savvier than a feral city dog. We've also got less light on the roads, making strays harder to see -- and easier to hit -- and usually more kinds of disease-bearing insects, such as ticks.
A whole host of serious and fatal feline diseases need contact with infected cats -- or areas where infected cats hang out a lot -- to spread. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which causes a breakdown in the cat's disease-fighting immune system, is mostly passed by bites from infected cats. And feline leukemia virus (FeLV) generally requires prolonged close contact with an infected cat, such as sharing litter boxes or food and water bowls, or mutual grooming. Time and again, the risks for disease are minor or negligible for indoor cats, significantly higher for outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats. Cat owners -- especially those with young children -- should be particularly aware that outdoor cats are more likely to pick up diseases and parasites that can affect humans, from minor annoyances like fleas to more serious illness like Lyme tick disease to extremely dangerous conditions like rabies.
Going Outside Safely
Just because it's safest for your cat to live indoors and not roam free doesn't mean he can never see the light of day except through the window. A leash and harness (not a collar) is a fairly safe way for both you and your cat to get some fresh air and sunshine. Walking on a leash is an acquired taste that some cats will never acquire, though. Regular experience from kittenhood helps, and some leash-trained cats will even request a walk. Of course, a cat on a leash is still at risk for picking up fleas -- and for encounters with unleashed cats and dogs in the neighborhood.
Building a cat run is actually not as hard as it sounds. Runs must be enclosed on all sides (including the top) and solidly anchored and constructed. Screens should be the heaviest grade of outdoor mesh, and walls should extend a few inches below the ground to prevent cats from digging their way out -- or other animals from digging their way in. If the run isn't built attached to your home with a pet door or other door leading indoors, be sure it includes some sort of heated, waterproof shelter for your cat to retreat to in case of inclement weather.
It's especially important for a run or other outdoor enclosure to have a roof. Cats are terrific climbers and leapers, and even an eight- to ten-foot wall may not hold them, especially if there are screens to hook onto. The roof and walls of the run provide another kind of security, too -- they keep other things out. Openings in the roof or walls let unfriendly or dangerous animals, people, and things into an area that your cat may not be able to escape.
Free-roaming cats get into loud, late night spats with other cats, chew or dig up neighbors' plants, kill local birds (but also may help control the local rodent population), and bury their wastes in other people's gardens. While some folks -- and some cat owners -- see these as minor annoyances, many other folks see them as much more serious problems. If your cat gets into a fight, it may do more than wake the neighbors because of the yowling and screaming. The superficial scratches you may see on his face or back aren't so bad. But he may also have bite wounds that close up quickly, sealing in dirt and germs and creating a painful abscess several days later. Bites during fights also seem to be the main way to spread feline immunodeficiency virus. Unaltered cats that roam free also contribute to pet overpopulation, a problem that fills animal shelters to capacity and beyond, resulting in millions of dogs and cats being "put to sleep" every year.
Now that you've chosen the perfect cat for you, it's time to learn how to take care of it. We'll begin in the next section with tips for feeding your cat.