Creature Feature: The In Or Out Question

Elizabeth Schaffner | January 1, 1998

"To let the cat out or keep it indoors? Oh, that is the eternal question!" laughs Dr. Claude Grosjean of Southampton's Olde Towne Animal Hospital. To those accustomed to the more traditional role of the cat as mouser around the house, yard, and barn it might seem a ridiculous question, but many experts in feline care advocate keeping cats exclusively in the house, where they will be safe and sound.

The outside world is fraught with danger for kitty. Disease, attacks from other cats and from dogs and wildlife, parasite infestation, and cars are just a few of the hazards that await the free-roaming cat. However, the indoor cat may be very safe, but is it happy?

"It all comes down to the individual cat," said Dr. Nora Klepps of the Mattituck-Laurel Veterinary Clinic. All of Dr. Klepps's six cats live indoors and she adamantly states that they are indeed very happy.

They Adjust

The general consensus among experts is that cats who have always been indoor pets usually adjust to their restricted environment. Conflict between feline and human interests can occur when a well-meaning owner attempts to limit the activities of the previously free-roaming cat.

Not always, however. The only cat in my household who does not go outside (even though she has free access should she want to) is a one-time feral cat called Ghost. This tiny, once-wild creature has been firmly ensconced in my kitchen for several years and demands all the accessories of an indoor cat: toys, soft cushions, and (groan!) a litter box.

Dr. Mark Davis of the South Fork Animal Hospital in Wainscott states that keeping cats in or letting them out often depends on the personal philosophy of the owner. "Some owners just can't tolerate any risk when it comes to their pet," he said.

Safety Question

Dr. Davis does let his three cats out. "Number one, because they really want to go out. I want them to enjoy themselves. They have a good time outside; they play outside. But it depends on where you live. Busy streets, dangerous dogs, and lots of feral cats around are some of the perils in the environment that threaten cats."

Though cats are considerably more conservative in their attitude toward cars than dogs are (at least they aren't usually inclined to chase them), local veterinarians report that they all too frequently treat cats that have been hit by cars. Alas, these animals are usually too badly injured to survive.

Heavily trafficked roads are an obvious danger. Dr. Grosjean said another important safety factor to consider even if the cat owner lives on a relatively quiet road is how close their house is to the street. The farther the house is set back from the road, the greater the margin of safety.

Exposed To Disease

Feral cats are a definite hazard to house cats. Aside from injuries that result from fights, the pet cat is likely to be exposed to several diseases. All cats, and especially those that are allowed out of doors, should be vaccinated for distemper, feline leukemia virus, feline infectious peritonitis, and rabies.

Cat owners should be aware that feral cats are frequently carriers of the feline immunodeficiency virus, for which there is no vaccine or cure. F.I.V. is usually transmitted by fighting. Letting a pet cat wander among ferals puts it at considerable risk of infection.

Dogs can be a very real threat, too. Southampton Town has a leash law that prohibits owners from allowing dogs to roam, so, theoretically at least, outdoor cats are safer in Southampton.

Hunting Instinct

East Hampton does not restrict the roaming of canines and cat owners and their pets should keep a very wary eye out for strange dogs, particularly packs of them. Dogs that tolerate cats perfectly well in their own households are quite capable of killing cats they encounter elsewhere. The hunting instinct remains very strong within our pets.

The hunting instinct of cats is another reason people choose to keep them inside. The toll cats can take on birds, songbirds in particular, is a justifiable concern for cat owners. Though very expert hunters indeed, cats are not especially proficient at hunting birds, being far better equipped to dispatch rodents.

However, recent studies of cat predation disclose that it is far more likely to be the well-fed house cat that catches the bird, as opposed to the much maligned feral cat.

For The Sport

Feral cats are far too desperate for food to waste precious energy on prey that is so elusive and difficult to catch. Housecats, on the other hand, are hunting for the sport of it and appreciate a challenge.

Owners who opt to keep kitty in face another set of problems, primarily those dealing with behavioral problems. Though all adult cats sleep for at least 18 hours a day, what the animal does with its remaining time can be crucial to its physical and mental health.

Cats that live exclusively indoors are far more likely to be obese. Obesity is a serious and common condition among house cats and various medical problems are associated with it. Owners who are depriving a cat of its normal range of physical activities by keeping it indoors need to replace those activities with regular daily playtimes.

"Furniture"

Mental stimulation is important too. Humans tend to judge an area by how much floor space it has, but cats, as climbers, utilize vertical space as well. The addition of carpeted climbing posts with stepped platforms to the cat's home can increase the cat's activity level and sense of well-being.

Cat "furniture" is available at local pet stores or, for more elaborate custom designs, through the Angelical Cat Company based in Sunrise, Fla.

Indoor cats will scratch furniture, no two ways about it. Placing scratching posts next to the object of attention may conflict with an owner's decorating scheme but doing so, coupled with consistent, patient training, is the only way to reliably deflect the cat's natural, albeit destructive from the human's point of view, clawing inclinations onto an acceptable object.

Dr. Grosjean suggests hiding small portions of a cat's food throughout the house as a way to provide stimulation. This forces kitty to "hunt" for its dinner and can circumvent destructive behavior.

Dr. Grosjean suggests hiding small portions of a cat's food throughout the house as a way to provide stimulation. This forces kitty to "hunt" for its dinner and can circumvent destructive behavior.

Cats do have a need for fiber and an attraction to greenery. Houseplants will take a beating. And some of them can hit back. Dieffenbachia, philodendron, caladium, amaryllis, daffodil, and tulips are just a few of the plants that can cause serious illnesses or even death. Keep them out of reach.

Amputation of the claws, commonly known as declawing, should only be considered as a very last resort, when all else fails, including trying to find another home for the cat. Local veterinarians are reluctant to perform this drastic surgery, for good reason.

Half And Half

Clearly, keeping a cat indoors requires more work for the owner. There are some compromises available. There is a company manufacturing fencing built specifically to keep cats in an outdoor area. Whether it works as effectively as advertised is unknown to this writer, but it's certainly an appealing option. Cat owners interested in this can contact Cat Fence-In, located in Sparks, Nev., for information.

Another option is to do as Dr. Davis does. He lets his cats enjoy their freedom during the day but they are shut-ins at night. Dr. Davis reports that his kitties seem content with this arrangement. They've let off enough steam while outdoors so they aren't inclined to scratch the furniture and chew the plants, but they're home safe during the, in many respects, more hazardous nighttime hours.

Compromise

"Nighttime is big trouble for cats. It is the time of highest activity for feral cats when most of the fighting occurs. And cats are also more likely to encounter nocturnal wildlife like raccoons." he said.

What do cats want? Well, after years of observation, it would seem that their concept of the perfect solution to the in-or-out question is to be both in and out simultaneously. A cat's-eye view of perfection appears to be sitting in an open doorway in a state of deep contemplation while letting the cold weather blow through the house. Sorry kitty, but we all have to compromise.