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Episode #4—The Great Outdoor Cat Debate

Episode #4—The Great Outdoor Cat Debate

Dr. Leslie Brooks: Hello everyone. It’s Liz and Leslie again with the My Lovely Feline podcast. Today we wanted to talk about the controversy on indoor versus outdoor cats or The Great Outdoor Cat Debate.

Not sure if any of you heard of it before or have been in discussions with it or if you keep all your cats inside, or feed a feral colony, or if your cat likes to roam around outside every now and then.

If any of those ring true to you, then I think this conversation would be of interest to you, even if you only have indoor cats because you might occasionally see a stray cat roaming around your house and it might drive your indoor cat crazy.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.


Leslie: So, Liz, what are your thoughts and what is your knowledge base on the issues of outdoor cats?

Liz: Well, I’ve heard over the past couple years some people who are unfamiliar with outdoor cats and that there are even outdoor cats. Some people saying, “I don’t think cats should be outdoors at all.” And it’s actually very interesting to me because my love of cats came from growing up and spending summers at my grandparents with their outdoor cat colony.

I would spend all day outside with their colony, so, to me, I love outdoor cats. I see them as being incredible survivalists and so independent.

And the colonies have their own social structure, which is, to me, fascinating, and that’s been my experience. But I understand some people may not have ever been around an outdoor colony or been in an area where having a cat outside is an option. If you’re in a rural area, which I think you might be in a rural area, you can have them indoor/outdoor and it’s not as dangerous, per say, as being in a city. What are your experiences?

Leslie: I would say my personal experiences with it, is I had two cats for a minute there, and they had claws, and I know we’ve talked about this before, I’m against declawing my cats. And they were scratching the furniture quite a bit after I got married, which was not okay, and I’m sure it’s not okay in many relationships, for them to continually tear up certain things that are not theirs. I was faced with a dilemma:

Do I continually try to put these nail caps on my cats? Do I make them stay in one room of the house that in and of itself gets more torn up because they are restricted to that room? Or, do I test out the idea of letting them be outdoor cats? And I went with the third option of trying to let them be outdoor cats for multiple different reasons, because I felt bad having them cooped up in one room.

I felt bad having them live in a house and not fully express who they are, partly because of my neglect in training them what’s okay to scratch and what’s not.

And then thirdly, I remember during my clinical internship after veterinary school, one of the surgeons I was working with … we were talking about why cats have so many stress-induced urinary issues, like the feline lower urinary tract disease, which causes a lot of issues, and feline urinary blockages.

And he mentioned, and this was just him, you know I highly respect his opinion and his experience, and he mentioned it’s because we bring cats inside and we make them live this lifestyle that’s not natural for them. Obviously this doesn’t ring true for every cat out there, but he made a point that we’re trying to change their natural behavior and living style and it brings stress upon them and that’s why we see so many cases of cats with urinary issues.

And that outdoor cats don’t suffer from that as much. Now I have seen an outdoor cat that did get a partial blockage, so obviously it can still affect outdoor cats as well, but less commonly because they’re able to go climb and run around and be free and use their natural hunting instincts to catch prey and stuff.

Liz: And if they don’t get along with another cat, they can get away a lot easier than in a home or an apartment, which leads to your stress comment, you know what I mean? If they can’t get away from a cat and they don’t like one of the cats you have and you have multiple cats, there’s nowhere for them to go, so I feel like that increases their stress level because they can’t completely get away.

Leslie: Exactly, but, that does bring up the natural hunting instinct of cats. That does bring up the point that some of the people who are against outdoor cats make, and that is if you let your cat be outside or if there are feral cats running around, it’s detrimental to the wildlife population, particularly the songbirds.

And I found one article that stated that in the US alone, more than 14 billion birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians a year are killed by domestic cats, which includes feral and outdoor cats. The group that is mainly against allowing cats to roam outside is the conservationists, the wildlife advocacy groups, and interestingly enough, even PETA.

Liz: While I get their point, if you live in a big city – I live near Philadelphia – if you didn’t have outdoor cats, you’d be euthanizing an obnoxious number of cats. You cannot find homes for them, it’s just not realistic – the number is so high. And I don’t think Philly’s alone in that, I think most big cities have this issue, which is why Trap Neuter Return or TNR has become so popular.

And in areas where they practice that against moving the cats out of the area or putting on feeding bans, the only thing that seems to work is TNR long term. Because when you have an environment where there’s shelter and water, either you move the cats out and other cats move in or another type of wildlife moves in. You’re not going to remove that because you have the necessary pieces for a living thing to exist.

So that’s what they have found, in studies. Yeah, you can move a cat out, but some other cat’s going to come in or some other wildlife is going to come in and you’re dealing with that on top of it so you’re not actually removing the living thing from the space. If you have a problem with a living thing being there, something else is probably going to end up there, and I’m speaking specifically of these large cities where the population has just exploded and they’re everywhere.

Leslie: And you mentioned it would be a large number of cats that we’d be capturing and euthanizing. And yes, some pieces of literature I was reading said there’s somewhere around 50 million free-roaming cats in the US, and just about as many cats that also have an indoor home and go outside every now and then or unfortunately are abandoned or maybe lost from their owners.

And I would agree that in the cities, especially the urban areas, they might be playing a role in keeping the rodent population at bay, because in an urban environment you’re not going to typically have your normal predatory wildlife roaming the streets to keep rodents and mice and rats at bay, like coyotes and whatnot, they’re trying to stay away from the human population.

So, I think if we did do that, rounding up of all the feral cats in an urban environment and killing them all, then you might see another outbreak of plague or some infectious disease that’s transmitted by rodents, or overpopulation of rodents or something. Again, that’s just me. Just my opinion.

Liz: You bring up a good point, and I think it’s a bigger conversation of ecosystems and how things work, and all of that, when you remove a species from an environment, there are always repercussions.

Now, in saying that, you can’t always predict what those repercussions will be, but to say you’d remove all the cats from outside and there wouldn’t be repercussions in the ecosystem is just not smart, and I don’t think that’s realistic. There would be repercussions, but we don’t know what they would be.

Leslie: Well, on that point, what I was reading was some of these conservationists, they make the point that the free-roaming domestic cats are an invasive species, so they’re saying they’re already causing destruction to the ecosystem because they consider them invasive, and they need to be, put under control like we do for plant invasive species or insects.

So, that’s where they’re coming from in that regard, and then some of them say that it’s detrimental to public health as well, and they didn’t mention this, but I would expect if cats are going outside and still coming into contact with people, that could be people at risk of rabies, if the cats are coming into contact with rabid wildlife.

But one thing they point out mostly is toxoplasmosis, because cats are the main mammal host of toxo, so the more free-roaming cats there are, the more chances there are for toxoplasmosis getting into our food supply and other issues there.

I can understand a little bit that point, but again, regardless, whether or not they’re an invasive species, they’ve become part of the ecosystem, so yeah, I agree. I wonder if we did round them all up, if that’s even possible, how that would affect things.

Liz: Yeah, there’s a species, it’s a wildcat, it’s in Scotland, and I think it’s called the Scottish Wildcat. I watched a documentary on it, and they estimate less than 100 of them left, and they were talking about how the impact it’s made on the other wildlife there and the birds and all these types of things, and it was really interesting.

Although, that’s a wildcat, not the exact same, but it’s in a small area and the impact it had, and if they can – they’re trying to breed them and reintroduce them – that it will balance things out there.

Yeah, there’s lots of different opinions on this. I would say too, what has your experience been with outdoor cats? Like, some people don’t really have positive experience, they think they’re always skittish and scared of them, I guess you could say. What’s your experience been?

Leslie: It’s a mixed bag. Certainly I’ll see some of the ones that are just terrified and defensive, and those are typically the ones who are truly feral. They never come around people except to sneak out to grab a meal if someone’s feeding them outside, and then there’s also the ones who are super loving, easygoing, and you can touch them, do whatever exam you need to do, draw blood, and they’re perfectly fine, so it’s certainly a mixed bag.

And we have people in the rural areas that need, not necessarily feral, but outdoor cats to be barn cats, to help with the rodent population on their barn and protect their barn. So, for some situations where a cat might not be living in an indoor environment well, we’ll try to find these places where they can go on to be barn cats.

Liz: We call them working cats, and we’ll place them at farms but also in breweries or factories, warehouses, any place where they need help with rodent control. It’s really nice because the cat gets someone to look after it, but the cat also gets to do what it does best.

Leslie: Exactly, yes, for sure. And, you know, let’s go ahead and touch on, you mentioned TNR. So what does TNR stand for? 

Liz: Trap, neuter, return, and it is the process of setting up a humane trap to trap an outdoor cat, and then get the cat, altered, so neutered or spayed, and then returned to where they came from so they can live out their life and not make more animals, and be healthier and calmer. A lot of nonprofits will help with that and shetlers will help with it.

They have programs usually. You can do it yourself. You can buy traps if you want, but it’s an effort to try to control overpopulation but still have the cat live out its life.

Leslie: Yeah, and I would say if people are feeding feral cats or feral cat colony, that would be a form of responsible management of that colony is to try to trap them, get them spayed or neutered, and then release them back out so that they aren’t continuing to breed and kill more wildlife, or contribute to cat overpopulation or spreading potentially toxoplasmosis.

And there are tons of resources so check with your local shelters, check with your local veterinarians, some places will do them at discounted prices as well, and there are some local nonprofits that can help provide you with traps, as well and maybe even have volunteers who can come out and capture the cats for you.

I know here in Indianapolis, we definitely have an organization called FIDO, which helps with that, and Indy Neighborhood Cats which also helps. So, look into those resources. My own mother, she’s in Tennessee, but she feeds a feral cat colony, but she loves them.

She wants to take care of them. She’s always like, “Leslie, can you come and do their rabies vaccines for me because I really want them to have their rabies vaccines but it’s really hard for me to get them into the vet,” and yadda, yadda, yadda. It is more difficult but it’s manageable when you look out for your support systems and reach out for help.

Liz: Totally. The cat colony I grew up around was amazing. They all had their very distinct personalities, and interesting structures between them. And these two sisters were best friends, and this one didn’t like the other ones and was always by herself. There was one that was a terrible mom. And her sisters would always end up taking care of her kitties.

I mean, it was a whole thing. Now, let me preface it, this was a while ago, and TNR was not as popular as it is now. My grandparents kind of lived in the middle of nowhere, and their opinion was sort of survival of the fittest and see what happens. That used to be a very common point of view. But it was very interesting, and I loved them. Some of them you couldn’t get too close to, but, they were happy.

They were living their lives, they were chasing after things, and climbing and doing all sorts of crazy stuff. They’d disappear for a couple of days and then come back, and it was very interesting to watch them. And I would say if you know of anyone who has a colony, to watch how they behave is incredible. It’s such a lesson in cat behavior, because that’s the way you can truly watch them, when they’re outside.

Leslie: Absolutely, it’s interesting to watch how they slowly begin to trust you as well. And if you do put out food for feral cats, it’s always prudent to pick it up after they’re done, especially overnight because you’re going to attract racoons and other wildlife to your house that you mostly don’t want there. They have the potential to have rabies and spread other diseases or get in fights with your cat. Try to pick up the food and bring it inside at night.

Liz: I would say another reason to fix the males is that the males can get in fights and fights can cause injuries, and injuries can get infected, especially outside, especially without someone watching over them. To lower the chances of a fight occurring, when you remove the testosterone in the males especially, you’re going to help with that.

So that’s another benefit. If you have an outdoor cat, it’s protecting them from other outdoor cats too. When they don’t have hormones, they don’t fight as much. They may still fight, but it’s not gonna be the knockout drag out fights that the unneutered ones have with their big heads. You know the males have big heads?

Leslie: I love their big block heads. Well, and that would be another reason for the people who advocate against letting your cats go outside is because of the health effects that can happen to your cat.

So if you have a kitty cat that just likes to go outside and roam around for part of the day, there’s a group of people out there who say you shouldn’t let them, even if they beg to go outside. Because they’re worried about the welfare of that cat. They’re more likely to get hit by a car, mangled by a dog or a coyote or something, or to get in fights with other outdoor cats.

And then they’re more at risk for infectious disease as well. That being said, I’m one of those people that have had those cats that need to go outside for their health as well – their mental and emotional health.

Liz: I think too, it’s important to remember that, you know, if you do let your cat outside, it should not be a surprise to anyone that they’re at increased risk of an accident or something happening. The same can be true for humans. If you’re a hermit, probably less is going to happen than if you’re going out all the time. So I think you have to accept that responsibility a little bit, and if you can’t accept it, then you shouldn’t let your cat outside.

I think that letting your cat outside and knowing there’s that risk and you accept it, and you know studies have been done that outdoor cats can live just as long as indoor cats, with a caretaker, which is someone feeding them. While the risk is higher of something happening, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a cat that lives into their teens, which I think is pretty cool too.

They’re such great survivalists. I love watching them outside. I have one that I take outside on walks, but I still will always love watching outdoor cats. I have one that went to a farm and I went to visit him and that was so cool … seeing him go up these big trees and stuff, it was awesome.

He was someone who just had too much energy, and to have him indoors was miserable for him because he couldn’t get it all out, and he was fixed, but some cats have certain personalities and certain drives. But he’s much happier at the farm than he was indoors.

Leslie: And you take a cat out on a leash, don’t you?

Liz: I do. Miss Lucy. Yep.

Leslie: And she walks pretty well on it? It’s a harness though?

Liz: It’s a harness, yeah. She walks great on it. It took a lot of practice, and cats do not naturally like to be controlled. And if you think about their social structure, they don’t live in packs, right? They’re mostly solitary.

They don’t “want to be led” where as a dog you have an easier time with that, because it’s kind of their natural … their instinct is to be part of a pack and be led.

So that was challenging for her, getting used to that. Once she got used to it and realized what the routine was and she could go near the trees and all that kinda stuff, she’s okay with it now. It was a little bit of a challenge, but you’ve heard me talk about Lucy before.

She’s not the easiest cat, but if she can walk, that’s saying a lot because she’s tough. She loves it. And people love seeing it. They video us and stuff; it’s so funny to me.

Leslie: Oh yeah, I love seeing people out with their cats. I think it’s really cool. Do you make sure to keep her on flea medicine and maybe heartworm medicine?

Liz: She has a flea allergy that I know of, so it’s really important, it’s extra important, and just so everybody knows, it’s because they’re allergic to fleas’ saliva. They can get just one bite, and they have an allergic reaction to it. They’re scratching and they’re really uncomfortable and inflamed. I know that about her so she stays on it, and yes, I do sometimes get the dewormer, flea med, heartworm one.

Not all the time, but sometimes I get that one. But I do treat her and I haven’t had any issues at all. The benefit is I would know because of her allergy, even if one got on her I would know. She loves it. And I don’t let her go deep in the woods or anything, We just go along the edge. She wants to go in the woods but I won’t let her. And I say, “Lucy, no,” and she growls at me, sometimes hisses, and then comes back to the walkway.

Leslie: If I have clients that have cats that go outside or just barn cats in general, I do recommend they keep them on regular flea and heartworm prevention and have us check a stool sample a couple times a year or just make sure we get them dewormed a few times a year just to make sure.

And then as far as extra vaccines they might need, feline leukemia vaccine if your cat is outside would be ideal, and then maybe an occasion leukemia plus immunodeficiency virus test to make sure they haven’t picked that up if they got in a fight with another feral cat.

Well, and I wanted to go ahead and give some resources for our listeners too in case they wanted to look further into this because this is definitely a controversy out there. There’s a group called Alley Cat Allies, and they are all about trap, neuter, and return programs, and advocating for the healthy management of feral cat colonies.

Liz: I love their resources. They’re amazing.

Leslie: They have a good resource page. They have studies and information about the outcomes of their TNR programs and how they’ve been successful. So check out Alley Cat Allies.

And they might also be a good resource for any of our listeners who have feral cats that they take care of and have been trying to figure out how to get them trapped to get spayed or neutered so they don’t have more babies.

Now, on the flipside of that, there are the other groups that are against trap, neuter, release programs and are against any animals going outside. Again those are mostly the wildlife advocates and the conservationists and they do dispute the studies that have trap, neuter, release programs are successful.

So they do claim the opposite, that they’re not. There’s a book out there called Cat Wars that is from the perspective of those who are against outdoor cats. So that would be the opposite of Alley Cat Allies.

Of course someone like me, I’m all about us finding a middle ground, because it seems like both of the groups just want what’s best for humans and the environment and wildlife, it’s just we can’t come to a collaborative determination of what would work. I think we can get there, it’s just too many opposing opinions, and I think we’re just not looking at all the data and statistics with a clear openmind, from both sides.

And there is one more resource I wanted to bring up, because there was a good article from Purdue University. It’s called, it’s actually a book, but online you can find a summary of each of the chapters in the book. It’s called Cats and Conservationists: The Debate Over Who Owns the Outdoors, and that’s through Purdue University. Liz, did you have anything else you wanted to talk about?

Liz: I wanted to mention one other thing. If anyone out there fosters at all, and you have a cat and you just don’t feel that this cat would be best in a home, you should be honest with the nonprofit you’re working with, or the shelter, and see if they have a working cat program, because some of these places do, and you might not know if you don’t ask.

And I had a cat who was really depressed inside, and it was actually heartbreaking to watch and to see how depressed she was, and that she was not changing. I reached out to the shelter and asked if she could be returned.

They said yes. She had three caretakers, not just one. And she was released and one of the caretakers found me online and sent me a picture of her a few months later, and she looked like a completely different cat.

She was fluffy. You could just tell she wasn’t the way she was when I had her, and so, if you are fostering a cat or even if you have a cat and something just doesn’t seem right, there are resources out there.

You should talk to people and see if there’s a solution, because some cats are not happy inside. In her case, she was an outdoor cat that had kittens, and that’s how she ended up in the shelter.

She was living outside. Not every cat can be transformed, and you know me, I do a lot of behavior work, but not every cat can be transformed from an outdoor cat to an indoor cat. Some of them are just happier outside.

Leslie: Yes, that is very true. There is another resource for those who don’t want their cat to go outside but they’re having issues living inside: The Indoor Pet Initiative. I think it’s through Ohio State University, but look up Indoor Pet Initiative.

They have a lot of good resources for ways to make your home more compatible with the natural behaviors of your cat to hopefully decrease their stress and cohabitate better together. Okay, well, look into that outdoor cat debate, and we’ll be around for the next podcast next month.

Liz: Thanks for joining us everybody.

Leslie: Alright, bye.

Podcast Hosts:

Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩‍⚕️

Elizabeth Italia 🙋‍♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist