I’ve definitely shared plenty about indoor-only cats, and there’s information on our blog about how to care for outdoor-only cats too.
You may as well find the episode #4 of our podcast interesting. Me and Dr. Leslie Brooks discuss the eternal outdoor cat debate.
But what about cats who spend time indoors AND outdoors? Let me first explain that although many of the tips below apply for all cats, I’m more so talking about cats that live inside and spend time outside unattended, as opposed to cats that walk on leashes or spend time in enclosed catios.
Here’s how you can best care for indoor-outdoor cats and keep them healthy and safe.
Having an indoor-outdoor cat comes with assumed risk. There are dangers outside not found indoors like cars, wildlife, Mother Nature, hunters, and pets and people you don’t know.
If your cat goes outside, you have to accept that it’s impossible to protect them from every hazard, and they will have an increased likelihood of being harmed as opposed to an indoor-only cat.
This doesn’t mean something bad will happen, but if you can’t accept the added risk of letting your cat outside, then you should just keep them as indoor-only.
Spay or Neuter
Please, please, please spay or neuter your cat. There are so many reasons this is a good idea. Although the #1 reason to to prevent adding to overpopulation, other reasons include:
Improve overall health and decrease chance for reproductive-related cancers.
Decrease chance of your cat fighting with other outdoor cats over territory and mating; fights like these can result in awful wounds that can get infected.
In females, eliminate chance of dying during labor, as well as infection in uterus called pyometra, which is fatal if the cat isn’t spayed in a timely fashion.
- Decrease urine spraying (inside and outside).
Plus, even a single unaltered cat that has never been around other cats will mate with another cat outside because it has the instinct to reproduce. The only way to remove the need too reproduce is through spay/neuter.
Stay up to date with vaccinations to prevent your indoor-outdoor cat from getting sick or contracting an illness from another cat or animal. The crucial vaccines you want to make sure your cat gets include:
- Rabies - Although not as common as it used to be thanks to education and vaccines, rabies cases are still reported each year. Bats are one of the biggest carriers in the U.S., which is an animal cats love to chase.
Be sure to get your cat vaccinated with the 1- or 3-year rabies vaccine, and if your cat ever brings back a bat, it would be a good idea to talk to your vet and see if they want to give a rabies booster to be on the extra safe side.
- Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) - Often called the lover’s disease, feline leukemia is transmitted most often through bedding, but also through sharing litter boxes and bowls. Talk with your vet about your cat’s outdoor habits and they can recommend the best vaccination schedule.
- Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia (FVRCP) - Feline viral rhinotracheitis is most often feline herpes virus which is a kitty cold. Most cats already have it in their system, and it can flare up with stress. Getting the vaccine will help your cats immune system keep the virus at bay.
Calicivirus is similar to herpes, but it also causes painful mouth ulcers. Panleukopenia is a virus that is often fatal in young kittens and cats that haven’t received the vaccine. It’s extremely contagious and decimates the intestines, causing severe dehydration.
Microchips & ID Tags
If you have a rescue kitty, the shelter or rescue where you adopted them likely inserted a microchip into the back of their neck. Also, many vets will put a microchip into your cat as part of a spay and neuter procedure. It literally takes two seconds to put in the microchip, so if your kitty needs one, don’t worry – it’s a fast and easy process.
To find out if your cat has a microchip, have your vet scan them (there is a special tool used for this). Make sure your cat is registered through the microchip company, and that you have your current address and contact info attached to the chip number. Then, if your cat is scanned anywhere, you’ll be contacted right away.
It’s also a good idea to put your cat in a breakaway collar with an ID tag. Breakaway collars will break away from their neck if your cat gets its collar caught on anything. On the ID tag, you can include just your phone number or even your address. ID tags can be made at many pet supply stores or even ordered from online retailers.
For supper shy or fearful kitties, I recommend getting a custom color made that has the cat’s name and your number on the collar itself. That way, even if someone can't touch your cat, they can still contact you.
People know when they see a cat with a collar that it belongs to someone. And yes, you may get a call when your cat isn’t lost, but it’s still a good idea to keep a collar on them at all times anyway.
Flea & Tick Treatments
It’s no secret – there are some pretty nasty things your cat will find outside. Near the top of list: fleas. These circus-like jumping little reddish brown parasitic bugs love to live on your cat and drink their blood (no, really, they are tiny vampires).
They can also pass along other parasites like tapeworms. Some cats are even allergic to flea saliva, and just one bite can cause itching leading to red, raw skin, and even small wounds that can get infected.
Ticks are another nuisance that enjoy feeding on the blood of cats. They latch on and enjoy an endless meal. Bottom line, if your cat goes outside, be sure to treat them with topical flea and tick meds or use a flea and tick collar (breakaway-type recommended). Make sure the meds you use also kills eggs and larvae.
A few other notes about this. Follow the directions for management (meds and collars work for different periods of time). Also, make sure you get flea meds labeled “For Cats” and get the correct one for your cat’s weight. Dog flea meds contain a chemical that is toxic to cats. At the same time, giving a smaller cat a flea treatment dose for a larger cat will likely make them sick.
Lastly, if you didn’t treat your cat before they went outside and you notice fleas, you can administer something like Capstar, which is an oral OTC medicine that will kill all living adult fleas on your cat within 30 minutes.
You will still need something to manage long term and kill larvae and eggs, but Capstar is a great solution when you need to act quickly.
I just mentioned tapeworms, but there are all sorts of other gross things your cat can pick up from other cats or even prey they kill outside. To keep these unwanted parasites at bay, make sure you ask your vet to administer a dewormer at your annual wellness visit. It’s also a good idea to take in a stool sample, which they’ll examine for parasites, and treat accordingly.
If you happen to notice worms in your cat’s stool – don’t freak out, just take him/her to the vet. Seeing worms is super disgusting, but in small amounts and especially over short periods of time, they don’t do much harm. Plus, dewormers are very easy to give to cats (many are oral), and they start working right away.
Even fixed cats can have some brutal fights with each other. If your cat comes home and looks like they were in a battle, it’s safe to say they were. Usually scratches can be monitored but any bite wounds will need medical attention. Cat bites are dangerous at all times because of the bacteria in a cat’s mouth, along with how sharp the tip of their fangs are.
Some bites (from cats or other animals), may require surgery to remove infected or damaged skin and stitch up open wounds. Your cat may also need a round of antibiotics while they heal.
Insect & Snake Bites
Spider, mosquito, and other bug bites and bee stings can be part of a cat’s outdoor adventures. It’s very important that if you notice a strange bump, redness, or hair missing on your cat after they were outside, check in with your vet.
Many times they are nothing to worry about and your vet will recommend monitoring, but cats can have reactions to bug bites or bee stings (just like us). Your vet will advise you on next steps.
Snake bites can be fatal in cats or dogs. If you think your cat has been bitten by a snake, they need immediate medical attention.
You can never ensure your cat stays away from every poison plant out there, but if you notice any poisonous plants from the list below, it might be a good idea to keep your cat indoors. This is a partial list of the most poisonous plants from Pet Poison Helpline. You can view the full list of poisons here.
- Lilies: Tiger, Day, Asiatic, Easter, Japanese Show, Peace, Peruvian, and Calla - Even just licking the water in the bottom of a vase can cause kidney failure.
- Autumn Crocus
- Lily of the Valley
- Sago Palm
- Tulips & Hyacinths
Just like with bites, if you think your cat consumed something toxic, reach out to your vet and call the Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661.
Tell Your Neighbors
It’s often a great idea to tell your immediate neighbors your cat goes outside and what it looks like. I even suggest just printing out a super short note with a picture, and leaving it in their mailboxes. In the note, explain they shouldn’t worry if they see your cat outside, and ask that they avoid feeding your cat.
This will prevent your cat from getting extra meals that you don’t know about, which can cause obesity or digestive upset. If your cat starts getting a brand of food they aren’t used to, or even people food, it could make them sick.
Your indoor-outdoor cat will likely roam a specific territory when they’re outside. It’s possible he or she brings back prey they’ve caught, or even steals things from people’s yards or porches. There are many stories of cats bringing home shoes, tools … literally all sorts of things.
If you end up having a klepto kitty, you will need to spend some time reuniting your neighbors with their belongings. Adding a GPS tracker to their collar can make this process easier, and you also might find that discovering exactly where your cat explores is fascinating.
Every now and then, your cat may be gone longer than normal, taking an extra long journey. Over time, you should learn your indoor-outdoor kitties habits, and you may start to see a pattern emerge, where once every few months they’re gone for a few days.
Cats that do this make it harder to know when they’re actually lost or if something has happened. Stay in tune with your kitty so that you can more easily identify what is a habit vs. cause for concern.
Cats That Should Be Kept Indoors If Possible
Although many cats can enjoy being outside, there are some situations where you should try to always keep your cat inside. These include cats that are:
Declawed - These cats don’t have the ability to climb to get away from other cats or predators. They’re also missing their first line of defense.
Positive for Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) - There are two reasons to keep these guys inside. 1) These cats already have compromised immune systems, so you want to protect them from any other pathogens. 2) Both FeLV and FIV are contagious to other cats. You don’t want your cat spreading these diseases.
Dealing with Chronic Health Problems - Cats that go outside can sometimes take day trips, or even be gone for a few days. If your cat has a chronic illness, you need to monitor their health daily, and that will be difficult if they’re on a journey. Additionally, your cat may be on a prescription diet, and eating other things they find or people give them could have a big impact on their health, rendering the prescription diet ineffective.
Toothless - Dental problems are a fairly common occurrence in cats, and sometimes they need to have full mouth extractions to get rid of chronic pain. If your cat doesn’t have any teeth, I recommend keeping them inside. Even though they have claws, teeth are an important line of defense, and it’s dangerous to let a cat be outside that can’t fully defend itself.
Stay Safe Out There
Take the right precautions and your cat can have fun indoors and outdoors. Just make sure to keep a close eye on them when they return from their walks, and talk to your vet about any strange physical signs or changes in behavior. Bon voyage!
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist