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Indoor versus outdoor cats

Indoor versus outdoor cats


outdoor cat by the ocean

If you’re looking to start a fight, ask a bunch of cat lovers whether cats are better off living indoors or outdoors.


In truth, there are valid arguments to be made on both sides of this debate. I’ll cover most of them in this post.


That doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion about whether cats should be kept inside or out. I do. I feel strongly that cats should be kept indoors, even though they miss out on some of the benefits of an outdoor life. The advantages to a cat of indoor living far outweigh the disadvantages, in my view.


cat near computer

I also believe that loving cat guardians can capture some of the benefits of a wild life for their indoor kitties, with a bit of effort. I’ll share those ideas in this post, too.


And finally, I’ll discuss whether (and how) you can transition an outdoor cat to living indoors, if that’s what you decide to do.


A short history of cats living indoors


The question about whether cats should live inside or not is a thoroughly modern one.


Until around the 1800s, animals in the Western world were not kept as pets. They were meant to be eaten, or used for some other purpose. People just didn’t get emotionally invested in their animals.


In the 19th century, people start feeling differently about pets


Victorian woman with a dog

The Victorian era (in the U.S. as well as Europe) was a time of social change, and with it came a different point of view regarding pets. Victorians were interested in the idea of a moral society, and viewed pet ownership as character-building for children. It was believed that caring for a pet would teach children to be responsible.


A Victorian’s idea of the kinds of animals that make good pets was sometimes different from ours. A person of means could buy an expensive pedigreed dog, but a working-class person might just capture and keep a wild animal, like a blackbird. The wealthiest families would show off their status by importing exotic animals, like wild parrots or monkeys, to keep as pets.[1]


But what about cats?


Two inventions allow cats to live indoors


While some people viewed cats with affection during the late 1800s to early 1900s, they were still primarily considered to be mouse-killing machines. People who kept cats did so mostly to keep the vermin population at bay.


In fact, keeping cats indoors as pets was not really possible until the advent of two important inventions.


Spaying and neutering


fighting cats

Can you imagine keeping a bunch of intact spraying, howling, fighting, and mating cats all together indoors? Me neither.


Unfortunately, techniques for safely spaying and neutering pets hadn’t been developed, and weren’t accessible to most people, until the 1930s. Cats needed to be kept outdoors at least some of the time, by necessity, until then.


(Read about when cats can be safely spayed and neutered in this post.)


Kitty litter


Until the 1950s, cats used the world as their litter box. Enterprising guardians might keep a pan of dirt, ashes, or sand as an indoor toilet for their cats, but most people just kept their cats outside.


original ad for Tidy Cat litter

Clay litter was discovered, accidentally, in 1947 (by Ed Lowe), but the use of litter boxes didn’t catch on until Tidy Cat actively began marketing the product in the mid 1950s.[2]


Cats could not be easily be kept indoors until litter and litter boxes became widely available.


Do most people keep their cats indoors or outdoors?


As a world, we’re divided about how and where to keep our cats.


According to an international study, 63% of Americans keep their cats indoors exclusively, while most Europeans and Australians allow their cats to come and go.[3]


Those statistics may be changing, however. In the United Kingdom, more than 26% of people now keep their cats indoors,[4] up from just 15% in 2011.[5]


The benefits of keeping cats indoors


child holding cat

The number one benefit of keeping cats indoors might be the most compelling: indoor cats live longer. A LOT longer.


While an indoor cat is likely to live at least 15-17 years, the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only two to five years.[6] What happens outdoors to cats that shortens their lives?


Cars. It’s estimated that 26 million cats are killed on the roads in the U.S. every year.[7] Contrary to popular belief, cats do not have an inborn instinct to avoid cars.
Animal cruelty. It’s hard for me to even write these words, but there are people who think nothing of shooting cats with BB guns or arrows. Cats are sometimes trapped and then abused or killed in the name of “fun.”
Other cats. Territorial disputes between neighborhood cats can lead to aggression and injury. If you live in an urban environment, there may be more cats than a particular area can support.
It can be difficult for some cats to deal with the constant pressure of defending themselves against unfriendly cats.
Disease. A cat allowed outdoors will likely encounter other cats. If any of these cats carry disease, your cat may contract a serious or deadly illness, too. The possibilities include:
Cats who go outdoors can also pick up parasites and fungi, including fleas, ticks, mites, worms, and ringworm.
While parasites and fungi are usually treatable, they still cause real suffering. Some are contagious to humans; others can infect your home.
(Read, “My cat has fleas! What should I do?”)
Predators. Cats may be predators, but they are also prey. Depending upon where you live, your cat may be at risk of being hunted by coyotes, raccoons, foxes, alligators, and even loose or stray dogs.
Trees. It’s easier for a cat to climb up a tree, than to climb down. An adventurous cat might find himself stuck in a tree, far from your sight, for days. A stuck cat will become progressively dehydrated and weak, until he eventually falls.
(Read, “My cat is stuck in a tree! What should I do?”)
Poisons. Outdoor cats are at risk of consuming deadly toxins, many of which, unfortunately, taste good to them. Antifreeze poisoning is common. Cats may also hunt rats, which have already consumed rat poison.



The dangers of allowing your cat outdoors aren’t limited to the cat herself. Letting a cat roam can have a devastating impact on wildlife. Even well-fed cats will satisfy their need to hunt at the expense of birds and small animals:


Cats destroy wildlife populations. The American Bird Conservancy says that outdoor cats kill 24 billion birds in the U.S. every year and have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild.[9]
The loss of birds, in particular, has had a devastating effect on our ecosystem. We rely upon birds to pollinate plants, control insects, and spread seeds.


The benefits of keeping (or allowing) cats outdoors


cat running on road

While indoor cats live longer and physically safer lives, they also lead more monotonous lives. Indoor living can lead to a number of physical and psychological health problems in cats.

Boredom. There are fewer opportunities for indoor cats to engage in important natural behaviors, such as exploring and hunting. A cat who has no outlet to express her cat-ness can experience significant frustration.
A cat who is unable to cope, may express his frustration in ways his human guardians might find objectionable. Scratching furniture, spraying indoors, meowing excessively, and fighting with other cats in the household can be signs of a very frustrated cat.[10]
Obesity. In 2018, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found that nearly 60% of domestic cats were overweight or obese.[11] A separate study the following year found that cats who lived exclusively outdoors were much less likely to be obese than cats who lived indoors.
It’s actually stressful for cats to be bored, as some indoor cats can be, and bored cats may overeat to deal with the stress.
The outdoor life is also more physically demanding. Cats burn calories without even trying: chasing rabbits, running to a favorite hiding spot, and exploring the neighborhood.
(Read, "How to help a cat lose weight.")
Safety. While outdoor cats are prone to certain kinds of accidents and injuries, indoor cats are not necessarily free from harm.
Indoor cats can suffer from poisonings from house plants, medications, and cleaning products. Cats fall from balconies, ingest objects they shouldn’t, get accidentally scalded or burned, and get injured by household appliances.
(Read, “Why do cats chew on plastic?”)
Escape. Indoor cats who find their way outside have no street smarts. They may wander away and not know how to find their way home. They won’t understand the nature of the dangers outdoors, from other animals and traffic.
(Read, “Should I put a collar on my cat?” and “Should you microchip your cat?”)
Neighborhood cats. Feral and neighborhood cats who wander near your cat’s home, spraying and marking, can make life stressful for an indoor cat, who cannot overmark those spots with his own scent.

Can you make an outdoor cat an indoor cat?

(Note: As an Amazon Associate I may earn from qualifying purchases)


cat at the door

You can acclimate an outdoor cat to living inside, so long as you dedicate yourself to the process, and commit to providing a stimulating indoor environment for your cat.


Start slowly. If you currently have a free-roamer, begin slowly introducing her to a full-time life indoors.
If she already feels comfortable entering your home, you can start by extending her stay on each visit. Feed her indoors only, and wait a bit before letting her out again. You can also start by keeping her indoors just at night, gradually increasing the time she spends indoors during the day.
If your cat has never been indoors, or if you need to transition the cat all at once, consider setting up a “sanctuary room,” just for him. A sanctuary room is a private space you can close off from the rest of the house, such as a spare bedroom or office. The room will contain everything your cat needs, including food and water bowls, a large, uncovered litter box with unscented litter, comfy bed, hiding place, and climbing structure.
A sanctuary room will allow your cat to become acclimated to the smells and sounds of your house, and the purpose of her litter box and bowls, without all of the stressful distractions of a busy household.
Make indoors fun. Living outdoors is physically demanding and mentally stimulating for a cat. Outdoors, he gets to express all of his normal cat behaviors of scratching, climbing, jumping, hiding, and hunting, without even trying.
Indoors, it’s up to you to provide the enriched environment that your cat needs to be happy.
Provide a variety of scratching surfaces, both vertical and horizontal, that are made of different materials for a cat to explore, such as cardboard, carpet, and sisal rope. I love this sturdy sisal scratcher by SmartCat, and this carpeted, extra-wide scratching board by Lean-It, which probably works best just lying on the ground.
cat in a tentProvide climbing structures, such as tall cat trees and towers, wall-mounted cat shelving and hammocks, or ramps and ladders, to give your cat a variety of perches from which to view the world.
This Yaheetech cat tower is 70” tall and reasonably priced. Fukumaru makes a number of wall-mounted cat perches, including this adorable hammock, and this fun cat stairway.
Provide hiding places for your cat to get away from it all whenever he needs to. These can be commercial cat tents, like this inexpensive crinkly cat tent by SmartyKat, and beds, or simple cardboard boxes and paper bags. You probably know that I make this cardboard gingerbread house for cats.
Gingerloaf HouseProvide a wide variety of toys, especially puzzle feeders (anything from this simple treat ball by Catit, to this fancy activity board by Trixie), that encourage a cat to work for his food.  Rotate toys frequently, so that even “old” toys feel new and exciting again.
Spend quality time. Spend time with your cat (this is the best part!). Engage in short play times, just 10-15 minutes per session, several times a day. Play games that engage your cat’s hunting instinct, such as the use of laser pointers, and fishing-rod toys. I like this simple laser toy by Doloedy, and this Worms Teaser by Pet Fit For Life.
Be sure to spend time grooming and cuddling your cat, too. Nobody needed to tell you that, though, did they?
Expect escape attempts. Even though you are doing the right thing for your cat, she might not agree with you just yet. A determined cat may try to escape through an open door.


Have a plan in place for human entrances and exits. When you plan to leave the house, try tossing a puzzle toy to your cat, filled with her favorite treat, to distract and engage her.


On the flip side, get into the habit of “meeting” your cat with a favorite treat at a location away from the front door every time you enter. With any luck, your cat will head to her special spot for a treat every time you return home, instead of trying to sneak out.
If you have the option, enter and exit the house through a garage or mudroom, which has a “backup” door should the cat escape through the primary door.


Expect your cat to meow, howl, or scratch at the door, and prepare to be annoyed by it. Better yet, be prepared with a distraction. Before the meowing and howling begins (you don’t want to reward the meowing) toss a treat or toy away from the door. Hopefully, you will be able to redirect her interest away from the door.
Stick with it. Know that you are doing the right thing for your cat, even if she seems miserable or upset with you. This too shall pass.


How to bring the outdoors to your indoor kitty


Just because your cat lives indoors, doesn’t mean that he can’t enjoy a little bit of life on the wild side.


There are ways to limit your cat’s exposure to the dangers of the outdoors, without preventing her from enjoying some of the unique smells, sights, and textures of the outside world. Some cats love the feel of wind in their whiskers, and grass between their toe beans.


Depending on your living situation, one or more of these options might work for you and your cat:


Catio. A catio is just an enclosed space that provides a taste of the outside world, with few, if any of the potential dangers. It could be a sturdy, commercially manufactured pen that has multiple perches and a real roof, like this one by Pawhut.
Or, a catio could also be a moveable, lightweight enclosure, that you can pack away when you need to, like this gazebo by Kittywalk. (Be sure to monitor your cats while using it.)

And, a catio could be as simple as an enclosed balcony or fire escape, or even a dog crate connected to an open window. If you’re handy, you can make your own simple catio. Here’s a great post on the topic by Adventure Cats.
The main thing is that your cat gets a taste of the outdoors.
Leash walking. Most cats can be trained to walk on a leash, but not all cats enjoy such a big taste of the outside world. Some cats may feel threatened by strange people, dogs, cars, and loud noises. Other cats don’t enjoy feeling restrained. If your cat is more interested in hiding than walking, find another way to provide the enrichment outdoor access affords.
If you decide to try leash walking, use a harness designed for cats only and a lightweight leash. Do not attach the leash to a cat’s collar, which could easily slip off, or choke a cat who decides to roll. Don’t use a retractable leash, which entangles easily and has been known cause burns, cuts, and even amputations.[12]
Fenced-in garden. If you have outdoor space that you are willing to partially or fully enclose for your cat, consider the products offered by Purrfect Fence.
If you have an existing fence, you can try the fence toppers offered by this company. These extend the height of your current fence, and include a series of pivoting arms that prevent your cat from climbing over the top. If you don’t currently have a fence, the company also offers a freestanding system, too.


Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!

Indoors or outdoors? Which is better for your cat - Pinterest-friendly pin




DAwn and Timmy
Dawn LaFontaine

Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.



[1] Mahdawi, Arwa. “How the Victorians Turned Mere Beasts into Man's Best Friends.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Oct. 2019,


[2] “The History of the Domestic Cat.” Alley Cat Allies,


[3] Foreman-Worsley, Rachel, et al. “Indoors or Outdoors? an International Exploration of Owner Demographics and Decision Making Associated with Lifestyle of Pet Cats.” Animals : an Open Access Journal from MDPI, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Jan. 2021,


[4] Finka, Lauren R, et al. “Owner Personality and the Wellbeing of Their Cats Share Parallels with the Parent-Child Relationship.” PloS One, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 Feb. 2019,


[5] “Paw Report on Animal Well Being 2015 - PDSA.” Paw Report 215, PDSA,


[6] “Can an Indoor Cat Be a Part-Time Outdoor Cat?” PetMD,


[7] “Roadkill.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Oct. 2022,


[8] “Indoor Cats vs. Outdoor Cats.” American Humane, 8 July 2022,


[9] “Cats and Birds.” American Bird Conservancy, 25 Sept. 2020,


[10] Care, International Cat. International Cat Care, 9 Sept. 2019,


[11] “2018.” Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 12 Mar. 2019,


[12] Gait, Cathy. “Vets and Dog Trainers Want You to Stop Using Retractable Leashes.” Furtropolis, 23 Aug. 2022,


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