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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Should You Allow Your Cat to Discover the Great Outdoors?

Pictured above, Boris the Bad. Photocredit: FCEtier, Royal Flamingo Works, LLC

Domesticated cats are not that far removed from their wild cousins. When you’re stroking that sweet little kitten, you aren’t far from caressing the tiger. Humans prize cats for their independence, but often try to limit it. A cat that wants to be outside will get outside no matter what its owner wishes.

This is not to say that you can’t have an indoor cat. Nearly every shelter that adopts out animals prefers that the owners keep cats indoors; some require owners to sign an agreement that they will do just that. Some environments, such as cities, are not friendly to animals that roam. People certainly don’t want their beloved animals splattered across the pavement because of their need to “be free.”

Some cats prefer to be indoors, and some are afraid to go outdoors. Dusty was a seventeen-year-old ginger tabby that would run deeper into the house when a door was opened. His three-year-old sister, Natasha, once sat on a back step, found she didn’t care all that much for it and immediately returned to the house, never to stray outside again. But both these cats have an “until” added to their stories.

Dusty and Natasha lived in northern New Jersey, in a densely populated area, a few miles from New York City. There were lots of people and traffic, and few places to roam. When they moved to Louisiana they lived in a city that was much less densely populated than their village in New Jersey. Their environments changed radically, from differences in open spaces to air quality. Although their owner said, “They will never go outside,” they had other ideas. First Dusty, and then Natasha, discovered gardens and large yards; they grew to love the outdoors.

Dusty, who was the least interested in anything new (not all cats are curious), became an avid outdoorsman. He had a favorite garden spot where he rested in the shade and dense greenery. After he died, he was buried in that very spot. Natasha, a little fatty who shunned physical endeavors, became a tree-climber and roof-sitter. She would seldom go outside for long stretches of time, but she would go out several times a day.

Several months after Dusty died, Natasha was still moping around, looking for him. She was obviously lonely. Her family adopted a new member, Boris the Bad, a beautiful Bengal who had ended up in the city animal shelter (why do they call them “shelters” when they euthanize unwanted animals?). The original intent was to keep Boris indoors. Although Natasha enjoyed the outdoors, she wasn’t insistent on being let out, and seemed content indoors.

Boris is not a cat who would bend to his family’s desires. He makes it clear when he wants to go outside by making loud demands and rattling doorknobs. If that doesn’t produce the desired result, he sprays. Yes, he’s been neutered, but he doesn’t seem to know it. Instead of spraying, or in addition to it, he clears table tops and shelves, breaking valuable (and not-so-valuable) items. Boris appears to need to go outside many times throughout the day.

Boris and Natasha managed to pick up a sister, Fuzzy Lumpkins (a long-haired tortie); when she came crying at their doorstep in Louisiana, Boris invited her in, and she stayed. When the family moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina, Fuzzy went with them. Having lived part of her life on the street, Fuzzy is the least anxious to go outdoors. Both she and Natasha go out occasionally, but not for long. While these three are all hunters, Fuzzy, the tiniest, is also the fiercest (last week she killed an 18” snake; Fuzzy is about the size of a six-month-old kitten). She has caught chipmunks and rabbits, mice and birds, but if she doesn’t go out, she still hunts—she steals stuffed animals and howls victory (some of the toys she steals are at least twice her size).

Sometimes families, even those that have been “fixed,” experience unplanned additions. So it was for Natasha, Boris, and Fuzzy. After moving to WNC and settling in to huge open expanses alive with small prey, they were blessed with a baby brother, Fearless Leader, a ginger tabby. Fearless is nearly three years old now, and is the calmest, most serene of the family. He doesn’t demand to go outside like Boris, except for a little whimpering, but if he can sneak past the humans, he is out like a shot, and he stays outside for hours. If he can’t get out, he perches on a windowsill and cries when he sees birds on the feeders.

Four cats, four personalities. One demands to go outdoors, and Heaven help whoever stands in his way; he WILL punish. Two don’t seem to care one way or the other; open the door and they’ll go out for short periods but they make no demands. The fourth has a strong desire to go out, but exhibits no negative behaviors when kept in. He also doesn’t have the brains to come in from the rain, and will go out in all sorts of weather.

Boris is allowed out on demand, and a storm door with a built-in pet door was installed for his convenience because he likes to go in and out often. Natasha and Fuzzy, the two females and the eldest of the four, have access to the pet door, but seldom go out and their forays are short. They limit their adventures to their own yard. Fearless likes to alternate long periods in the house with long periods outdoors. Because they live on a farm, they don’t face the dangers that many cats in the cities and suburbs face. None of the cats are out overnight, so it is unlikely they will tussle with nocturnal animals.

Clearly, all of the cats have their own personal tastes (except when it comes to the best place to sleep—the humans’ bed—and the best place to sit—the best seat in the house), and decisions on whether to allow them access to the outdoors are based on several factors, the first being personalities, then weather and time of day. There are no universal guidelines when it comes to dealing with individual feline personalities.

There are some very good reasons to keep a cat indoors all the time. Indoor cats outlive cats that are allowed to roam by an average of six years. Many cats who live outdoors seldom live past the age of seven. Roaming cats are susceptible to diseases spread by other cats and are more likely to get into dangerous situations (including: cars, dogs, strangers, ingesting harmful substances, perilous terrain). Both city and suburban cats should be kept indoors, and it easier to do so with an animal that has never been outdoors (as was the case with Dusty and Natasha until their move to Louisiana).

The decision to keep a cat indoors or let it roam is not always easy, but the cat will certainly have an opinion on the matter. Yes, it would be better to have the cat indoors, but is it worth it if the cat is miserable? If keeping the cat indoors is contradictory to its natural instincts, doing so is more a punishment that is likely to result in neurotic behavior. Woe to the owner of a neurotic—or worse, psychotic—cat!