Are outdoor cats happier?

Cat outside

AHS experts weigh in on the ongoing debate about giving cats access to the great outdoors.

Cat lovers agree on a lot of things. We know cats can make working from home difficult and wearing a black T-shirt a total mistake. We can tell you where to get the best deals on lint rollers, and we still purchase cat toys knowing full well the packaging is what really counts. 

But there remains one strong divide between many with feline family members: Does access to the outdoors add to a kitty’s quality of life? 

Though having a long history of domestication (nearly 4,000 years!), cats still demonstrate keen hunting skills, can quickly climb trees, and express other instinctual behaviors when outdoors. Watching your kitty pounce and play in the sunshine may lead you to believe they’re happier outdoors, but all that stimulation comes with even more stressors and life-threatening hazards. Cars, toxic plants, poisons, other cats, and wild animals are all dangers that cats may encounter in just one day!

Cat

People who let their cats outside may have the best intentions, but that doesn’t change the outcome of a recent study, which found the average life span of a cat is dramatically shorter for those that roam freely outdoors — by as much as 10-12 years! If you love letting your cat lounge outside, you may feel tempted to stop reading, but AHS experts want you to know that your outdoor kitty isn’t any happier than it could be indoors. 

"It’s true that it’s much easier for your cat to get enrichment outside," says Dr. Graham, Chief Veterinarian at Animal Humane Society. "However, it’s still possible for a cat to live as happy of a life indoors without all the risks."

It’s all about providing opportunities to express their normal behaviors, such as hunting and exploring.

Indoor enrichment

Indoor cats are actually busier than we may think. They’ll typically cover the entire area of a house or apartment each day (or often at night). You can make this daily routine even more fun by hiding food and treats around the house. You can also use a variety of toys to help your cat practice hunting and get the exercise they need. 

Providing enrichment is an important part of caring for most pets. Experiment with different types of cat toys like wands, balls, and scratching posts to give your pet variety in their day. Playtime is quality time, and it can go a long way in the health of your cat!

Giving your kitty access to a window seat also provides a lot of safe stimulation. Birds and squirrels make great entertainment, and a window seat allows your cat to observe the outside world for hours without risk.

Kitty in a harness

Alternatives for cats who insist 

While most veterinarians acknowledge that cats are much safer without going outside where they risk exposure to disease or trauma, there are some cats who may resist being indoors only. AHS encourages leash-training kitties who incessantly beg to be outdoors. It’s easier than you think!

You might also trying building a cat enclosure (also called a “catio”), which will give your cat fresh air and the feeling of being outside while keeping them safe from cars, predators, and even poisonous plants.

Proactive protection

If you do allow your kitty to venture outdoors, just make sure you’re doing what you can to keep them protected. That includes:

  • Annual trips to the veterinarian for wellness checks and necessary vaccines
  • A collar with ID tag AND microchip (just in case the collar falls off)
  • Year-round flea and tick prevention
  • No direct contact with other cats, as they may carry contagious disease like feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
  • Bringing your kitty indoors at night time

Also, make sure you’re prepared to pay for additional trips to the vet for possible injuries or illness. 

No claws? NO OUTDOORS!

DO NOT allow declawed cats outside. If your kitty is declawed, they will be unable to protect themselves from other animals. 

Bottom line: AHS veterinarians recommend keeping your cat indoors. But the decision is yours. If you choose to allow your cats outside, take the proper precautions to keep your kitty healthy and safe.

Learn more about your kitty and their lovable, quirky behaviors in our Pet Behavior Library.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline