The Great Outdoors: Giving Your Cat Safe Outdoor Time

In urban and suburban areas of the US, the general recommendation is that cats live fully indoors. This is for their safety as while as in consideration of all of the other living beings in the area. However, in other countries around the world, it is considered inhumane to deny a cat outdoor access. So should you let your cat outside or not? What are the risks and benefits? How can you do it safely?

Risky Business

So why do people advocate against letting cats outdoors? Because there are serious dangers out there.

General Risks to Outdoor Cats

Group of Outdoor Cats

Cats that have outdoor access, especially unsupervised access, are at risk of illness, injury, or death from:

  • Cars
  • Disease
  • Wildlife
  • Unfamiliar cats
  • Unfriendly people
  • Getting lost

It’s also worth noting that outdoor cats pose their own threat to wildlife like song birds. Some communities have been particularly damaged by wandering cats. Part of being a responsible cat owner is making sure your cat isn’t part of this problem.

Hidden Risks of Outdoor Access

Many owners aren’t aware that outdoor access can contribute to behavior problems, including but not limited to:

  • Litter box issues, especially spraying
  • Redirected aggression toward people and pets when they come back inside
  • Fear and anxiety

Because a cat outside their home can be exposed to wildlife, unfamiliar cats, and other stressful situations, they may feel insecure and stressed when they come inside. This can lead to problems in the home.

While owners dealing with these issues might interpret them as the cat wanting to be outside (and thus misbehaving inside), the reality is usually the opposite. Outdoor life is actually causing the stress.

Why Even Bother Then?

With all those potential downsides, why even consider letting your cat go outside?

What Can Be Gained

Even with all the risks, when done carefully, outdoor experiences can be very rewarding. New sights, smells, and sounds can be entertaining and engaging. A cat can use more of their senses and their mind. For confident and/or high-energy cats, the enrichment from outdoor experiences can burn excess energy and leave them relaxed.

Getting comfortable with more environments also prepares a cat to handle travel and change. Learning to wear a harness and leash can let a confident cat safely explore much more of the world, even if it is mostly indoor spaces.

Indoors Has Its Risks Too

Obesity in cats is a growing problem as are stress-related problems. Cats that have more to do, see, and experience are typically healthier. Indoor spaces should be enriched to give cats better lives but outdoor access can also play a role.

Boredom can lead to destructive or annoying behaviors. Unwanted play due to excess energy can cause conflict with both human and feline family members.  

Getting Outside

If you’ve weighed the risks and benefits for your cat and decided you want to give your cat some outdoor experience, there are safe ways to do so.

Cat on Leash

First Things First

Before exposing your cat to the hazards of the outdoors, talk to your vet about what precautions are important in your area. Make sure your cat is up to date on their vaccines and parasite control.

Get your cat microchipped in case they escape beyond your yard or out of their harness. This provides a way for them to be reunited with you. A vet or shelter worker can use a special scanner to read the number on your cat’s microchip and then that number is looked up in a database of information. The microchip isn’t a tracking device and can’t be used to search for your cat directly. You need to make sure your contact information is kept updated in the database. You may also want your cat to wear a collar and tag when outside so that anyone who finds them can know they have a home and contact you.

Considerations For Safety

Familiarize yourself with cat body language and particularly your cat’s own signs of stress. While any cat is likely to be cautious when exploring a space for the first time, your cat should never show signs of serious fear or panic. Give them time to adjust slowly to any equipment (like a harness) indoors. Expose them slowly to quiet outdoor spaces where they aren’t likely to see other people, pets, or moving cars. Remember that you are doing this for your cat and if they aren’t enjoying it, it’s better not to continue pushing it.

For safety, never let your cat have unsupervised time outside at night, even in a “cat-proofed” space. There is too great a risk from wildlife getting in when you aren’t able to monitor the fence.

As your cat becomes familiar and comfortable with the outdoors, be careful about not teaching them to run outside whenever they want. Depending on your home situation, you can consider one or a combination of these techniques. This isn’t an exhaustive list:

  • Always carrying your cat outside. Never allow them to just walk through an exterior door, even on leash.
  • Be consistent about what doors your cat is or is not allowed to go through.
  • Use barriers like exercise pens around doors where it isn’t safe for your cat to go outside.

Do It Right

There are many ways to give your cat safe outdoor experiences; some that require less time or money than others.

  • Bring the Outdoors In: Bring leaves, sticks, or rocks inside for your cat to sniff and investigate. Create a foraging box by hiding treats amongst the items. Watch for chewing or eating.
  • Train Your Cat to Walk on a Leash: Gradually introduce your cat to a secure harness and leash indoors. Start by walking in quiet areas and slowly increase where your cat goes as they show they are comfortable.
  • Build a “Catio”: Fully enclose an area (including a top) to provide a secure area for your cat to enjoy. This could be as small as an outdoor window perch or large enough for people to enjoy as well.
  • “Cat-Proof” Your Fence: Stop your cat from going over your fence by adding rollers or a diagonal piece of fencing to the top. Be sure to check the area every day for wildlife or other cats who could get inside and not be able to get back out.
  • Train and Supervise Your Cat: This is the least safe option and requires the most attention. Train your cat to return to you when called (for a treat) and actively manage where they go when outside. Just like with a dog, you must start in small, safe areas because the consequence of a mistake could be tragic.

Now go out and give your cat their best life!

If your cat has a behavior problem that you need help solving, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.