Outdoor Cats: Protecting your cat, and protecting wildlife, neighbours and others from your cat

Some people say that cats should never be allowed outdoors, while others leave their cats outside most or all of the time. Americans and Australians especially have good reasons for wanting to keep cats indoors. There are big risks to cats in many parts of the US, such as traffic, large wild animals like coyotes, off-leash dogs, and feral cats. Australia is home to many marsupials and other indigenous fauna, which are at risk from cats and dogs, so both Americans and Australians often argue that cats should never be allowed outside.

Yet there are also people who believe that cats should never be allowed indoors. In many parts of the world, cats live in barns or outhouses, and are seen as useful in keeping down rat and mice populations, rather than as part of the family. Some people also believe that allowing cats to come indoors is unhygienic, because cats like to walk on high surfaces, especially in the kitchen.

When people talk about 'outdoor cats' they're often thinking of cats they know. Sometimes the term 'outdoor cats' is used to describe feral cats, other times, barn cats, and even cats only allowed outside in the daytime when there´s a human at home to keep an eye on them. Cats in much of Europe often lead a half-and-half life, neither purely indoors, nor purely outdoors. There are fewer predators likely to harm cats in Europe than in the US. Wolves live in some of the wilder parts of Europe, but in British suburbs, urban foxes, loose dogs, other cats, and motor vehicles are the biggest dangers a cat is likely to meet. However, urban and suburban cats in the UK are more likely to create problems for others, unless their owners are aware of the risks, and take steps to reduce them. Roughly speaking, the more human input in terms of neutering, vaccination, worming, and controlling the freedom of cats, the fewer the risks for the cat, and the fewer the problems caused by cats.

Many of the problems attributed to 'outdoor cats' are caused by ferals. Feral cats are more likely to kill wildlife, and spread diseases. They are a particularly serious problem in Australia and some parts of the US, though less so in the UK. Programmes to neuter and vaccinate feral cats can help to reduce their numbers in isolated colonies, though they're less effective when new cats are continually joining the colony. Feral kittens have a very high mortality rate, but they can turn into good house pets if they are caught when young enough. They should be wormed and vaccinated, and then quarantined, so they don't pass on infections. 

Public health concerns

Feral cats pose the biggest risk of passing on infections, but any cat allowed outdoors can pick up and pass on infections from local wildlife and other cats. Cat poo doesn't just pong, it may harbour parasites. Unfortunately, dogs can find cat poo a tasty snack. Humans may tread on it, so spread it into the home. Children may play on ground where cats have pooed, and then touch their mouths. Cat poo can infect humans with a type of roundworm, Toxocara catis, and children are especially at risk. The larvae can migrate to the eye, and cause blindness. Collecting and burying cat poo in a deepish pit is one way of reducing the risks of infection. The pit has to be deep enough for the poo not to be unearthed. If you grow vegetables, and cats have access to the vegetable plot, the veggies should be washed thoroughly

Cats also love to help in the kitchen. Keeping them off work surfaces reduces the risk of their passing on infections to humans. If your cat is very helpful, it's safer to keep the kitchen door shut so your cat can't get in!  Handwashing before cooking, especially under nails, is very important for people with cats, as is regular worming for the cats. Worms aren't the only problem, Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoic parasite, poses a threat to pregnant women and people with damaged immune systems, who should avoid contact with cat poo, and contact with kittens, which are more prone to infection than are adult cats.  

Risks to cats allowed outdoors

The dangers an outdoor cat may face depend on where you live. It's worth asking the local vet and other cat owners what they consider the risks to be where you live, and how long they expect cats to live if they're allowed outside. Your cat may be very safe in a quiet, rural location, with no predators, or other cats nearby, and little traffic. In areas of heavy, fast traffic, cats are obviously at risk, as are cats in localities where there are a lot of other cats, especially feral cats. Gamekeepers may shoot cats in hunting areas, so 'rural' does not always mean 'safe'.

Cats are more at risk if they aren't neutered. Toms tend to roam and get in fights more as they get older. They can be injured by traffic on their travels, or suffer serious injuries from fights. Unspayed females can be injured if too many of the local males try to mate with them. There's also more of a risk of cats catching diseases from their neighbours, as well as being injured, if your pets lack a quiet outdoor territory that isn't invaded by other cats. This means that if you live in an urban area with a lot of fast traffic, with many other cats living nearby, it's probably safer not to let your cat out at all, or just in an enclosed area, or for short periods under supervision. Persian cats in particular, tend to not defend themselves against neighbouring cats, and are usually content to stay indoors.

Neutering helps to protect cats, as well as reducing numbers of unwanted litters, but it's not enough on its own. It also makes sense to give young cats less freedom than oldsters, because young cats are especially at risk from traffic accidents. This applies especially to young male cats, which were found in one study to be far more at risk than females, regardless of whether or not they were neutered. Male cats may be bolder than females, so more likely to wander. Whatever the reason, statistically, females appear to be less at risk. Neutered cats tend to become less involved in traffic accidents as they get older, maybe because they become better able to cross roads, or maybe because they roam less. Entire males, however, tend to roam further after they reach adulthood. 

Cats are more at risk from traffic accidents and from predators and fights if they're out at night. Some owners still put their cats out at night, while others call their cats in! There are also people who simply leave the cat door open. It's really safer to bring your cat in at dusk, and if you live anywhere near busy roads in the UK, your cat's bedtime should be before the pubs close, since cats are especially at risk from drunk drivers. Cats may also find it difficult to judge the speed and size of cars at night. One way to encourage a cat to come home at a particular time is to have an evening ritual with some very tasty titbits, which the cat gets as a reward for coming through the catflap. In general, rewarding your cat every time he or she comes when you call, helps you to train a very fast recall.

Keeping your cat's vaccinations up-to-date, and controlling fleas, ticks and worms are also important. Cats are much less likely to catch infections if they're kept free of parasites. It's also worth thinking about microchipping your cat, so that you have a better chance of finding your pet if he or she ends up in a rescue centre, or in a vet surgery. Collars with identity tags can be useful, but all too often they get lost, or the part holding the address falls out!

Are there ways of keeping barn cats safe? First it's important to choose the right sort of cat. Some cats are better suited to living outdoors than indoors, and this applies especially to half-wild cats that shelters have problems with rehoming. A cat that's used to home comforts and a lot of attention won't do well. Barn cats may also be at risk from traffic, predators, and other cats. If these risks are high, then you can reduce them by shutting your cat in a barn or other secure outdoor place for the night. Again, feeding the cat at the time you put it to bed, gives the cat an incentive to be ready to be shut in! Farm cats may also be at risk from poisons. Generally, cats are much more sensible than dogs about what they eat, but they can be poisoned by rodenticides through eating poisoned rats. It makes sense to confine cats somewhere safe while you're using rat poison, and to ensure that poisons are kept in a secure container.

Cats and local wildlife

Many people think cats shouldn't be allowed outside because they kill wildlife, especially birds. Cats were domesticated because of their ability to kill rats and mice, and hunting does come naturally to most cats. However, cats vary. Some cats, especially Persians, aren't too bothered about hunting, and older cats tend to hunt less than youngsters. If you're thinking of getting a cat, adopting a Persian, or an older cat which prefers to lie on the sofa most of the day, means that local wildlife is less likely to be disturbed.

Research on cats' hunting activities tends to show that cats kill more prey than their owners realise. Owners see what cats bring home, which is only part of the story. Fitting cameras to cats allows their activities to be monitored when they're away from home. What cats kill depends a lot on the local fauna and the time of the year.  Cats tend to prefer small rodents as prey, and in some city areas, they mainly kill rats and mice. They're more likely to kill birds in the spring when there are fledglings about, because adult birds are more difficult to catch. Cats may also catch reptiles, though this is more common in hotter parts of the world than the UK.

Owners of cats with strong hunting instincts can give birds more of a chance by only allowing the cat out for short periods, supervised if possible, when there are a lot of vulnerable fledglings about. If the idea of supervising your cat makes you laugh, because your treasure pays you no attention whatsoever, then you could try confining your cat to your garden with high fences, with netting at the top that cats can't climb up. If this doesn't work, you could build a cat run, to confine your pet during the fledgling season. Cats tend to hunt more at dawn and dusk than in the daytime, and, if you want to protect the local bird population, this is another reason for bringing in your cat at dusk.

Cats are a particular problem for wildlife in areas that have recently been built on, and where cats have access to rural land with wildlife that isn't used to cats. They also find it easier to catch and kill wildlife if there's very little cover, so planting trees and shrubs can give wildlife more of a chance.

Neutering your cat helps to protect wildlife, because you're less likely to contribute to a cat overpopulation problem. There are simply too many cats for local wildlife to thrive in some parts of the UK, as well as too many cats for them all to find good homes. All too often, cats have unwanted and unexpected kittens. They're offered 'free to a good home' and taken on by people who love cute kittens, but don't know much about cats, and are surprised when their kitty becomes pregnant at a young age. Female cats can have their first season from as young as four months, so it's worth talking to your vet to plan a spay as soon as you get a female kitten.

If you neuter your cat, there's also less risk of kittens being born in the wild, and a population of feral cats being established. Feral cats are really bad news for wildlife, because they have to hunt to eat, and only the best hunters tend to survive as ferals. Barn cats are more likely than house cats to contribute to a feral cat problem, because they're less likely to be neutered. As barn cats are kept for their hunting skills, they're also more likely to kill local wildlife. Neutering barn cats, and shutting them in the barn at dusk until after dawn, allows the cats to perform a useful role without causing problems. They can police the barn for rodents, without contributing to the feral cat population or killing birds.

Cats who annoy the neighbours

Gardeners are often driven to distraction by cats that scratch up their seedlings and poo in their gardens, and they sometimes threaten to do unpleasant things to the intruders. Neighbours are quite rightly annoyed when other people's cats use their gardens as a toilet. It's not just unpleasant, it's also a public health risk because cat poo can carry parasites. 

One way that you can minimise annoyance to neighbours is to set up a cat toilet in your own garden, with sand or very fine soil. You could also put in some used cat litter, to give your cat the idea of what the toilet area is for. You may find that neighbouring cats come to use the toilet, as well as your cat, but it should cut down on scrabblings among your and your neighbours' seedlings. If your cat is causing havoc next door, you could also consider putting up higher fences, and/or using a cat run in spring, when your neighbours' plants are vulnerable. 

Tomcats are especially likely to cause problems with neighbours, and have been known to enter neighbouring houses and spray there, which is another reason for neutering. Yowling, courting cats, and loud cat fights, tend to make owners unpopular with neighbours, a further reason for neutering, and for keeping your cat indoors at night. If you're on good terms with your neighbours, and they know you are making an effort to ensure that your cat doesn't bother them, they're more likely to help your cat if he or she is in trouble, and less likely to throw stones at him or her!

So should my cat be allowed outside?

Deciding on whether or not to allow your cat outdoors is a question of working out the risks, which vary from place to place, and how far you can reduce those risks.  There are both risks to your cat, and risks that your cat poses to humans and other animals. Whether you look at the public health issues, the risks to wildlife, or the risks to your cat, neutering, vaccination, and regular worming are especially important for people who let their cats go outdoors. Controlling access to the outside also helps to reduce risks. In fact a barn cat, shut in a barn at dusk, poses less of a risk to wildlife, and is at less risk of being killed, than a house cat which has 24-hour free access to the outside through a cat flap. If you decide it's safer to keep your cat indoors, then please check out our page on indoor cats for some ideas on how to give indoor cats an interesting life.


Further reading:

Kitts-Morgan, S. E. (2015). COMPANION ANIMALS SYMPOSIUM: Sustainable ecosystems: Domestic cats and their effect on wildlife populations 1. Journal of Animal Science, 93(3), 848.

Loyd, K. A. T., Hernandez, S. M., Carroll, J. P., Abernathy, K. J., & Marshall, G. J. (2013). Quantifying free-roaming domestic cat predation using animal-borne video cameras. Biological Conservation, 160, 183-189.

McGregor H, Legge S, Jones ME, Johnson CN (2015) Feral Cats Are Better Killers in Open Habitats, Revealed by Animal-Borne Video. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0133915. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133915

Rochlitz, I. (2003a) Study of factors that may predispose domestic cats to road traffic accidents: Part 1 Veterinary Record 153(18):549-553 · December 2003 

Rochlitz, I. (2003b) Study of factors that may predispose domestic cats to road traffic accidents: Part 2 Veterinary Record 153(19):585-588 · December 2003