Should cats be kept indoors all the time? Pete the Vet’s podcast on Newtalk’s Pat Kenny Show

To listen to the podcast, click on the link at the foot of this page

What’s the problem with cats being allowed outside?

In Ireland, while owners are legally responsible for the actions of their dogs, there is no such responsibility on people for their pet cats. Cats are regarded under Irish law as independent animals, and their owners cannot easily be held accountable for their actions. Most cats do not cause problems, but examples of possible issues include the following:

  • Cats digging and toiletting in other people’s gardens
  • Cats hunting wildlife, especially garden birds
  • Cats attacking other cats
  • The issue of hunting garden birds is particularly challenging at this time of year, with young birds emerging from nests just now, making them very vulnerable to prowling cats.

These issues lead to a debate which has been ongoing for many years: Should all cats be kept indoors?

Keeping cats indoors

In some parts of the world, this is seen as the only acceptable way to keep cats. As an example, in Australia, the protection of native wildlife is seen as more important than the right of cats to enjoy the freedom of outdoor life. In Ireland, it’s been estimated that less than 10% of cats live indoor-only lives, but some people still believe that all cats should be kept indoors, all the time.
There are pros and cons to indoor-only life for cats: while they live for longer (they avoid the hazard of road traffic, attacks from predators and many other outdoor risks), indoor cats are more likely to get obese and to develop stress related illnesses.
There are ways to keep cats indoors successfully, including:

  • Plenty of toys to entertain them
  • Owners spending extra time interacting with their cats
  • Designing a cat-friendly home (shelves for cats to lie on, high up perches to sit on, low down cupboards to hide in etc)
  • Installing a “catio” (an outdoor run for cats)

Keeping cats outdoors

Cats that spend time outside are able to take part in the full range of their natural behaviours. This means that they live more fulfilled lives, so they are likely to be leaner and more contented, suffering from fewer stress related disorders. In the UK, only around 10% of cats are kept permanently indoors: the figure is likely to be even lower in Ireland. In Europe, there is a broad acceptance that cats should be allowed to spend time outside, as they’ve done for thousands of years.

Risks of outdoor life

  • Injury – Around one in four cats die by being run over by a car: these are mostly young cats who have not yet learned how to deal with the risk. There’s a higher risk for town dwellers or any house near a busy road. Cats can also be injured by dogs, foxes, other cats and humans.
  • Poisoning – Cats can be poisoned by chemicals (e.g. those used in the garden).
  • Disease – Social contact with other outdoor cats (especially fighting) can lead to viral infections such as feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukaemia virus, cat flu or feline enteritis.
  • Parasites – Fleas, ticks and worms can be picked up from the environment and also from prey caught by hunting.
  • Getting lost – cats are sometimes shut in sheds or garages, or they may climb into cars or vans that then drive away. Some cats are also prone to finding a new home and leaving their own one.
  • Stress – For some nervous cats. the outdoor life can be too active and too stressful: they may prefer to stay inside

Benefits of outdoor life

  • Pest control: cats are experts in controlling rodent populations
  • Social life: Cats may be mostly loners, but some social contact is stimulating, and many cats have outdoor friends
  • Regular exercise – Outdoor cats are less likely to become overweight or obese, getting plenty of exercise by running, jumping, socialising and hunting
  • Expressing behavioural needs – outdoor cats carry out normal, natural behaviours (climbing trees, socialising, hunting etc) so are less likely to suffer from stress

Minimising outdoor risks

  • Allow your cat out only in daylight hours, bringing him indoors at night when the risk of hazards is higher
  • If you live near a busy road, bring your cat in at the times when the road is busiest (rush hour etc)
  • Vaccinate your cat against the viruses for which it’s possible (all apart from FIV), and give your cat regular worm and flea control.
  • Either get a collar for your cat with name and phone number (quick release type) or get them microchipped
  • Get your cat neutered – this stops male cats from straying and reduces fighting behaviour by 80%.

Keeping neighbours happy

With increasing population density linked to our more urban lives, and the increasing popularity of cats as pets, it’s inevitable that will be more conflict between people’s outdoor cats and neighbouring households.
The best answer is that people communicate about any issues with each other: if your cat is causing problems for someone else, you should take some steps to help. This could involve keeping your cat indoors at some times of the day or night, it could mean erecting some sort of barrier to stop your cat climbing over a boundary or it could even involve wearing a special cat bib to lessen your cat’s hunting ability.

It’s not acceptable to say “It’s my cat, but it’s not my fault”: this does not solve the issue and just creates neighbourly discontent.

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Questions for pete from listeners

  • I’m about to take delivery of a beehive and swarm. I know i have no allergies as I have been stung numerous times. However, I wondered would my dog have adverse reaction to bee sting , she is a small terrier cross. Also are there other considerations around dogs and bees. Mick in Connemara
  • I have 4 fox cubs that have taken over our small walled in city center garden. They jump in and have learnt to climb out. We had to rescue one that couldn’t climb out and released it out the front. While they are entertaining and cute to watch they cause chaos every night keeping us awake. I have to clean up their droppings and the mess (broken pots, bones, feathers, rubbish etc) every day so the kids can use the garden after school. What can I do to discourage them and encourage them to move on or can I only wait for them to mature? David
  • My cat is being attacked and chased by magpies non stop. She tries to play with them and chases them back until she gets hurt and they always come after her in twos, one gets her tail while the other one comes at her from the front. Short of getting a sling shot to try take them out how do I stop this, afraid they’ll go after her eyes and really hurt her. I don’t know if they’re being mischievous or being vicious. Thanks Susan
  • My 4 year old little male whippet was badly attacked by a huskie on the beach recently. It has altered his personality drastically. He has gone from being happy go lucky, friendly and a trusting dog to a nervous one. He reacts to all dogs now on lead with a mixture of crying, barking and frightened behaviour. What can I do about this?
  • Fran says “My cat was a bit feral when originally adopted by my daughter in the East end of London. He likes to bring live mice into the house and chase them for a while before reclining on a sofa or in bed (while I have a nervous breakdown) – why is this?!”
  • There is a stray cat calling to my back door every day, it was starving so I feed it now., It had hair loss and red scores on it back, it is improving but should I catch and bring to vet?
    “Can you recommend a good outdoor farm house cat to keep mice away?”
  • A local cat keeps coming in to our houses when windows or doors are open. He got in to mine last week and set my alarm off. Is there anything I can do?

To listen to Pete’s answers to these queries, click on the podcast below

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