Cats and the Perils of Outdoor Living

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, MSc, CVH

Many cat owners worry that making their cats stay inside is unnatural and deprives them of their need to roam, explore, and meet other cats. However, in our modern world, the risks of an outdoor life are far greater than the benefits. This handout answers some of the questions you may have about letting your cat spend time outdoors.

I have a fenced-in backyard and my cat never leaves it. Is this okay?

While having a fenced-in backyard works well for confining most dogs, cats can readily climb fences. Even if your cat does not usually leave your backyard, it’s always possible that something will frighten her and cause her to jump the fence.

"A fence also will not keep other cats out – or raccoons or other wild animals."

A fence also will not keep other cats out – or raccoons or other wild animals. Your cat is at risk of getting into a fight with one of these other animals or getting a disease from them.

Some diseases, such as feline panleukopenia, can survive in the environment for prolonged periods of time. Others, such as feline herpesvirus, can only survive for a short time. Cats passing by can contaminate your property with these viruses, potentially exposing your cat to an infection.

My cat is vaccinated according to the recommendations of my veterinarian. Does this not protect her?

Although no vaccine is 100% effective, to a great degree, vaccines protect your cat against the diseases that she has been vaccinated against. However, there are no available vaccines for some serious infectious diseases.

My cat is very gentle by nature, and I don’t think she would fight with another cat. Why should I worry?

Cats are territorial by nature and will usually defend their home from intruders. Even if your cat is not interested in defending her territory, the intruder may pick a fight with her.

What are the risks if my cat gets into a fight with another cat?

When cats fight, they cause injuries with both their claws and their teeth. These curved weapons can force bacteria and other germs deep under the skin of the victim, potentially causing a painful abscess at the site of the injury, or more serious cellulitis or septicemia that spreads to other parts of the body.

In addition, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus are spread through the saliva, and your cat can become infected if the other cat is carrying one of these diseases. For more information, see handouts “Feline Immunodeficiency Virus”, “Feline Leukemia Virus Disease Complex”, and “Fight Wound Infections in Cats”.

Isn’t my cat capable of defending herself against other animals?

Cats are good hunters, and we assume they can defend themselves with their teeth and claws, but outdoor cats often become the hunted species, particularly by larger predators such as dogs, coyotes, foxes, predatory birds, and even alligators, if you live in alligator country. Poisonous snakes also present a serious threat to a cat that inadvertently encounters them.

"Wild animals are usually more aggressive than domesticated cats, so fights may be more ferocious, potentially causing life-threatening injuries."

Cats that roam outdoors are at a greater risk of injury or death from other animals. Wild animals are usually more aggressive than domesticated cats, so fights may be more ferocious, potentially causing life-threatening injuries. In addition, wild animals may carry diseases that could infect your cat, including rabies.

Are there any parasites that should be of concern to my family?

Cats that go outdoors are at a much greater risk of picking up fleas, ticks, or even lice. These parasites can cause itchiness or other problems for your cat and members of your family. For more information, see handouts “Flea Control in Cats” and “Ticks in Cats”.

The soil outdoors may be contaminated with eggs from parasites such as roundworms that are spread in the feces of raccoons, dogs, or other cats. Cat roundworms can be particularly harmful to your cat. If your cat decides to hunt and eat mice or birds, it could get a tapeworm infection. Tapeworms rarely cause serious problems in adult cats, but it is unpleasant to find tapeworm segments on your cat or in its litter box or bedding.

Less common parasitic diseases that your cat can get include lungworms from eating crayfish and Giardia infections from contaminated soil or water. Many of these parasites can be harmful to people, and especially to people who are immunocompromised.

Are there any other safety concerns?

Your cat can be exposed to poisons such as slug bait or other pesticides that are sprinkled on neighboring gardens or they can get into toxic substances stored in garages or sheds. If your cat eats mice or other rodents that have been poisoned with one of the short-acting rodenticides, she can be exposed to these toxins and become ill.

Contrary to popular belief, cats are not naturally wary of cars. Even in quiet suburban areas, where traffic travels at relatively low speeds, a cat always loses in an encounter with a motorized vehicle.

The final concern about your cat’s safety outdoors is her risk of injury from humans. Not everyone likes cats that roam, and some people set traps to catch cats they feel are soiling their gardens or pestering wild birds. Cats come into veterinary clinics and animal shelters with injuries from BB guns, arrows, and shotguns. Cats that are outdoors can also occasionally become the victims of deliberate animal cruelty.

Despite these risks, I still believe that my cat should go outdoors. How can I ensure my cat’s safety?

You can train your cat to wear a leash and collar and go for walks with you if you feel that she needs to have fresh air and exercise.

If space permits, you can purchase or build a cat enclosure that will allow your cat some freedom to be outdoors in a more controlled environment. If you do choose this option, you should be aware that your cat can still come in direct contact with other cats through the open walls of the enclosure. Although your cat cannot directly fight these intruders, she will be at risk of picking up infectious diseases or parasites. Advise your veterinarian of your cat’s situation so that the appropriate protective measures can be taken.

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