Do Cats Need to Be Allowed Outside to Be Happy?

British shorthair kittens lying on window sill
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When we welcome pets into our homes, they become such integral parts of our families that it can be easy to forget their wild roots. Of course, sometimes even the most domesticated animals remind us that they still have the urge to roam free. Dogs love walks, but they're usually content to only venture out with their owners.

Cats, on the other hand, seem to love to go on solo explorations. But, do cats need to be allowed to go outside to be happy? If you're antsy about letting your cat roam outdoors, are you destroying something fundamental to its happiness and well-being? Here is what you need to know about how going outside affects your cat's happiness.

Do cats want to go outside?

The idea that cats want to go outside makes sense. Cats are predatory by nature and the desire to hunt is still alive within even modern, domesticated cats. The most significant thing your cat loses when you decide to keep them exclusively indoors is stimulation. The act of prowling and hunting provide cats with exercise and excitement. If your cat seems desperate to go outdoors, what it really might be craving is more entertainment and stimulation, both of which you can provide indoors. By providing your cat with indoor objects and toys that simulate outside adventures (scratching posts are stand-ins for trees and interactive toys can provide the same stimulation of, say, hunting a bird), you can help curb that desire to escape to the great outdoors.

Indoor cats versus outdoor cats

Some cats spend their entire lives inside, while others roam the world and survive on their own. Still other cats have humans who claim to own them, but these kitties come and go as they please and return mostly for food and intermittent affection.

What are the big differences in being an indoor or an outdoor cat from a feline's perspective? In terms of health and well-being, indoor life wins all around. The lifespans of indoor cats greatly eclipse those of their outdoor-only counterparts. Indoor cats live an average of 10-12 years (with some sticking around for 20 years or more), while outdoor-only cats survive just two years on average, according to Jacque Lynn Schultz, the Companion Animal Programs Adviser, National Outreach for the APSCA.

The American Humane Society also warns that outdoor cats (even those who split their time between indoor and outdoor environments) are at a much greater risk of contracting a number of diseases, including feline leukemia (FeLV), feline AIDS (FIV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline distemper (panleukopenia, and upper respiratory infections (or URI).

Cats who venture outdoors are also exposed to parasites like fleas, ticks, ear mites, intestinal worms and ringworm.

There are other risks involved in letting your cat explore the outdoors. As the American Human Society warns, they could be hit by cars, come into contact with people who would do them harm, encounter wild animals who would attack them, accidentally ingest poisons, or fall prey to the cliche (but very real) cat conundrum of getting stuck in a tree.

Indoor cats, by comparison, tend to be healthier and safer overall. The biggest threat to indoor cats, generally, is boredom. If you decide to keep your cat inside, consider getting it a companion (either another cat or, in some cases, even a dog) and supplying it with toys, perches and hiding places that will allow it to fulfill the primal desires that going outside would normally meet.

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Are indoor cats happy?

Rather than thinking of indoor cats as being happy, a better framework for understanding their mental health is whether or not the natural instincts of indoor cats are similarly fulfilled as their outdoor analogs.

In most cases, indoor cats are certainly healthier than outdoor cats, simply due to their relatively limited exposure to diseases, parasites and outdoor-specific dangers like predatory animals and zooming cars. For cats, happiness and fulfillment isn't so much about where they are, but, rather, what they get to do. An indoor cat with nothing to do but nap might be lethargic, overweight or bored. But an indoor cat with plenty of toys, scratching posts, perches and hiding places to occupy their minds and fulfill their animal instincts is probably pretty satisfied with its life.

Owners can also do creative things like installing perches by windows to allow their cats to soak up sunlight from inside, or placing bird feeders near windows to attract natural prey for cats to watch.

Kitten looking out of window
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Signs an indoor cat is happy

Happy indoor cats will display several tell-tale behaviors.

  • They will play with their toys and interact with their environment.
  • They will scratch (so invest in a scratching post).
  • They will stare at everything.
  • They will be relaxed with any humans and other pets who live in the house.

Can an indoor cat survive outside?

If you consciously decide to transition your cat from an indoor-only cat to an outdoor cat, it's definitely possible for your kitty to learn to survive outside. However, it's important to make the transition slowly. Start by letting your cat out for 10-minute intervals at a time and gradually increase its time outside. Ideally, you'll want to create an outdoor food and water station for your cat and erect some kind of outdoor shelter as well. You'll also want to make sure your cat is up to date on its vaccines.

Some cats are never going to be equipped to live outdoors. For example, if your cat is declawed, it won't have a primary defense mechanism and will struggle to survive outside. Older cats or cats that require special medical care will also struggle to transition to outdoors life.

Will my indoor cat come back if it goes outside?

Most cats do return home after being let outside. Cats are very territorial and will want to return to their own turf. Cats also have a good sense of smell and should be able to find their way home fairly easily in most cases. It's also worth keeping in mind that male cats have a wider "home range" than female cats do and are more likely to venture further from home and be away for longer periods of time when they leave.

If your cat has been gone for a while and you want to lure it back home, there are things you can do to encourage its return. You can leave the garage door open, which will give the cat access to a familiar space where it can wait safely. You can also try putting a dish of your cat's favorite food out in the yard. The smell should reach a hungry cat and attract it home. If you feel the need to call for your cat, try to do so in a calm voice, which will be more attractive than a panicked yell.

Cat Standing On Field
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Conclusion

Indoor cats are sure to let you know they're happy through their body language. They will lift their heads up high and let you rub the top of their heads. Happy cats meow and purr, and they will give you cuddles for days. Indoor cats, specifically, show their happiness with a proper balance of rest and play. They sleep like their lives depend on it (which they sort of do). While awake, a happy indoor cat will jump, scratch and pounce. This display of natural instincts is sure to point to a content cat.