You wouldn't think of allowing your dog to wander freely around the neighborhood, but millions of cats come and go as they please. I doubt a single animal welfare group or shelter in America today would argue with Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president and science advisor at the ASPCA in New York City, when he says: "For their own benefit and for the benefit of the communities where they live, owned cats should not be allowed to roam freely."
Forty years ago, most pet cats were allowed to wander freely outdoors.
"Big cities have forced us to change our views," says Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, anthropologist and author of "Tribe of the Tiger."
Thomas, who lives in rural New Hampshire, proudly allows her cats to call their own shots — indoors or outside.
"Choice is very important," she says. "There is no busy road nearby, and there are no other cats. I feel cats should control their own destiny, even if there is some risk; live by the sword die by the sword."
The problem is, curiosity can kill the cat, and allowing death by the sword isn't responsible stewardship. It's a fact that life is safer indoors.
"While it's true that coyotes, stray dogs, birds of prey, even alligators are real potential threats to outdoor cats, the most widespread predator is the car," Zawistowski notes. "Somehow, people have this notion that cats are cunning enough to avoid being hit by cars, but that's just not true."
Cats are attracted to the sweet taste of anti-freeze, but just a few licks can be deadly. Some plants cats nibble can be toxic. Catfights are not uncommon, and even the winners can return home with wounds.
Cats may also share infectious diseases. Wandering cats can even find themselves ensnared in traps meant for wild animals, or even shot at. In winter, cats may slink under car hoods to warm up — ending up mangled when a driver turns on the engine.
Aside from questionable safety for indoor/outdoor cats, there's an issue about being a responsible neighbor. You may think you're being fair to your cat to allowing it a big measure of freedom. However, that freedom may mean the pet uses your neighbor's car as a scratching post, or their garden as a litter box. In some locales, you may be responsible for damage to another person's property.
Outdoors, roaming cats can wreak havoc at homes with indoor cats by spraying nearby; the mere presence of an interloping cat is enough to freak out the indoor felines. The indoor cats can develop significant behavior problems, such as redirected aggression (one cat attacking another, or attacking a person) or territorial spraying. Such behavior can cost their owners money, and might even cost the cats their lives — should aggravated owners give up and have their pets euthanized.
Another argument for keeping cats indoors is the impact outdoor cats can have on the environment. While everything from habitat loss to global warming may contribute to dwindling songbird numbers, even well-fed cats catch the occasional bird. Mice, voles and other rodents, even small reptiles, are also on the menu.
"Cat owners concerned about the health of birds, other wildlife and their cats can play an important role by keeping cats indoors," says Phillip Kavits, a spokesman for Audubon.
Most animal welfare experts advocate keeping cats inside, or allowing them outdoors only when supervised.
Millions of cat owners, including Marshall Thomas, disagree.
Marshall Thomas concedes that indoor/outdoor cats may not enjoy as long a lifespan as their indoor counterparts, "But many of those cats will be happier. Allowing the cats to be cats is important," she says.
A cat's indoor environment can be enriched for just that purpose. For example, you can feed your pet from a food puzzle toy, or hiding the toy, enticing the cat to "hunt" for its meal.
Providing lots of vertical space and ledges with a view can help. Rotating toys and providing novel stimuli, such an empty box, or even a homemade toy (such as a bottle cap inside an empty tissue container) can be stimulating.
There are ways to allow cats outside safely. Some owners build backyard fences (so predators can't easily get in and cats can't escape). Several manufacturers sell cat fencing (http://www.purrfectfence.com, http://www.catfencein.com, http://www.catfence.com).
Some owners fence their patios, turning them into "catios." Kittywalk offers component pieces to create an outdoor playground (www.kittywalk.com) with tunnels and playhouses.
Kittywalk is also one of several manufacturers of strollers for toting your cat around "the hood." Cats can also get a taste of the outdoors by taking walks on a leash and harness.
Remember, for all cats who spend time outside, protection from parasites, including heartworm and fleas, is important. Consult your veterinarian.