Thursday 10 June 2010

Indoor Outdoor Cat Debate

I feel that I have to revisit the indoor outdoor cat debate. People have strong views about the subject. And they are often very polarised views. In the USA people tend to keep cats in full-time. This is a culture thing, the norm it seems. One reason for this, I sense, is because there is a much greater possibility in the US for cats that are outside to be attacked by large wild animals. There are few large wild animals in the UK that would attack a cat. It is extremely rare for a domestic cat in the UK to be attacked by a wild animal whereas in the USA coyotes are commonplace it seems to me and they attack cats. Coyotes are dog like animals to people who are unfamiliar with them.

I see many indoor outdoor cat debates on the internet and many words written but I have never seen anyone mention or discuss the philosophical or more profound issues behind the whole thing.

We must admit that the outdoors is the cat's natural home. It is full of fantastic stimulation, the smells, sounds and activity is exactly what a cat needs to satisfy its natural innate drives. Deny these to a cat and you are asking for trouble, I say. But the full-time indoor advocates will rightly say that to let a cat outside is to place a cat into a potentially very dangerous environment. I suspect that more domestic cats die from road traffic accidents than any other cause. The car is the enemy of the domestic cat.

We have responsibilities towards our cat, of course. The first responsibility is to keep him or her safe. That points to a full-time indoor cat existence as the correct choice. We also have a responsibility to make our cat's life as natural and therefore as interesting as possible. I would wager a bet that the lives of a great percentage of full-time indoor cats is not very interesting. We like our cats there for us, nice and safe but do we do the extra work required to make their lives interesting in what is a very unnatural and potentially unstimulating environment.

So, is a long boring life better than a interesting short one?  I think on average and in general it comes down to this choice.

I think that to keep a cat indoors full-time is a complete admission of failure on our part. I believe that people generally should not keep cats at all if it means providing them with such an unnatural life. That is a provocative thing to say and if followed would lead to there being far fewer domestic cats in the world but that I say is not a bad outcome.

We need to raise the bar in terms of standards of cat caretaking. I think we need to turn the clock back in respect of keeping cats. The outdoors of 2010 is very different to the outdoors of thousands of years ago when the cat was first domesticated. With human population growth we have massively increased the dangers for outdoor domestic cats. As mentioned the car is the biggest killer. Lower human population would result in less cars. We can't turn the clock back in terms of human population but we have created a hostile world for the domestic cat and we then fix the problem by making the cat's life dull by keeping the cat indoors. I just feel that we have it all wrong at a fundamental level or that we can do a lot better.

As a compromise the cat enclosure must be the best solution but few people take up this option. The next best "solution" is to let a cat outdoors but take precautions. This is a compromise again but one that I think strikes a better balance between safety and letting our cat live a normal interesting life.

How do we achieve cat safety outdoors? We also need to ensure that our cats do not cause a nuisance to neighbors who don't like cats.

Careful preparation and/or thought is required. One suggestion from Dr Bruce Fogle the well known veterinarian and writer is to train your cat to speak back to you when you call his or her name. If a cat can do this, you will be in a better position to find your cat if it has gone missing, is trapped, injured or too frightened to return home.

He suggests that the best way to train your cat to "meow on command" is to hold a food treat in front of your cat while it is hungry and repeat its name. During training most cats will meow to demand the food. When this happens the cat should be rewarded with food and plenty of verbal praise. The sound to which your cat meows need not be your voice, Dr Fogle says. It might, for example, be the sound of a dry food container being shaken. This may be more appropriate if more than one person will do the calling. A cat is more likely to respond the voice of one person.

I would be remiss if, in the indoor outdoor cat debate, I did not mention cat identification. For an outdoor cat this seems sensible. The modern method is to microchip. Dr Fogle says this is a safe option. I am not entirely sure that that s true (Microchipping pets including cats). There is some risk in microchipping. He also suggests that an outdoor cat should always were a collar with an identity tag containing the cat caretaker's telephone number. Collars can be dangerous too so it should be one of the fail-safe kind that prevents the possibility of strangulation. A person should be able to slip two fingers under a collar that fits correctly. If travelling with a cat the ID tag should contain a local telephone number of course.

Outdoor cats should also use cat friendly gardens. There are such things. But God knows how many people even think of this never mind create one. The cat friendly garden should cater for a cat's natural behavior. One such piece of behavior is scratching. Wooden posts can be used to edge flower beds. These are ideal as scratching posts. If the wooden posts can be placed at different angles and heights so much the better as some cats like to scratch horizontally and some like vertical objects.

Posts at the edges or boundary of the garden could also serve as places where a cat can mark his territory by spraying. This would mainly apply to unneutered male cats. Most cats should be neutered for obvious reasons. Garden decorations such as brick for paths are cat friendly as brick retains heat. Cats as we know like a bit of warmth to lounge on.

If you want to avoid your cat using your garden as it would cat litter, soil can be covered using ground covering plants that are effective all the year. I am sure the local garden center can advise. Personally, I would prepare a special area where my cat could go to the toilet!

Such a toilet could be a small sand pit, for example. It should be sifted regularly like cat litter. It should be sited away from children play areas as there is a slight risk of passing toxoplasma (feral cats spread disease).

Other outdoor cat hazards to be aware of are:
However, one good element of outdoor life is that we have the chance to grow herbs in the garden and cats love herbs and that goes far beyond catnip. See these posts:
The last and obvious note to make about outdoor cat life is the fitting of a cat flap. In my experience cats use cat flaps naturally in much the same way that they use cat litter naturally. They will be drawn to using it because it leads outside to the smells and sounds that are so attractive to cat. A bit of commonsense and gentle encouragement can help if the cat is reluctant.

Checklist for a safer outdoor life:
  1. Prevent access to roads - this is a difficult call but vital. We must be aware of the potential for being killed by a car. If there is a road nearby the only way a cat should be let out is under close supervision (with a leash for example) or in an enclosed garden or enclosure. Or if the cat is very old and will not travel far. 
  2. Train the meow response to calling the cat's name.
  3. Provide ID tag and microchip.
  4. Make garden interesting and useful.
  5. Don't force a cat outdoors. These suggestions only really applies to cats who crave outdoor life and who have problems adjusting to FT indoor living. Some cats demonstrate clear signs of distress when confined to indoor life.
  6. Vaccinate cat - outdoor cats are obviously more open to receiving infectious and contagious diseases
Indoor Outdoor Cat Debate - Note: 

Photo of cat on wall: by lambertwm
Photo of feral cat in tree: by * starrynight1
Photo of cat on patio looking at another cat: by :: Wendy :: 

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