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Do You Let Your Cats Go Outside?

I took a calculated risk and let my cats go outside when I moved to the country. I calculated wrong.

 |  Jan 8th 2014  |   90 Contributions


I’ve been giving advice to cat caretakers for more than 10 years, and one of the most common things I tell people regarding cat health and care is to keep their cats indoors. After all, it’s safer for the cats and for the wildlife those cats like to hunt.

When I lived in urban areas, keeping my cats indoors was a no-brainer: the traffic, the drunken idiots, the perils of traps, and people with bad intentions -- there was no way I was going to let my babies outside to face those risks.

Sinéad, 2004

But when I moved to the family homestead in 2005 and set up housekeeping in a tiny apartment carved out of the corner of an unheated barn, I knew there was no way I’d be able to keep my ridiculously quick-footed and agile cats inside if they wanted to go out. I also knew the odds were good that three cats in a 12-by-30-foot apartment would probably get so stir-crazy that they’d start fighting, and the territorial stress might cause other behavior problems like spraying or litter-box avoidance.

This is the view from the door of my little apartment at the family homestead. The road is a few hundred feet away.

I figured the cats would be safe enough. After all, my little apartment was at least a couple hundred feet from the road -- arguably the biggest danger of outdoor life -- and I was almost sure that Sinéad, Siouxsie, and Thomas were smart enough to stay away from the traffic.

In the country, wildlife can be an issue. But the family homestead was situated far enough away from the woods that I figured that any critter interested in a snack of pampered cat wouldn’t want to get near. My brother had cleared a lot of trees and brush, too, so there wasn’t much in the way of camouflage for a hunting predator.

Aki, an Akita-Samoyed cross, and Conan, an Irish Wolfhound-Great Pyrenees cross, guarded the family homestead. And they loved each other, too.

The property was also home to two dogs, one of whom had been pals with Sinéad and Siouxsie since she was a puppy. There was also a small herd of goats, a flock of chickens, and a bunch of geese. If you’ve ever had a run-in with geese, you know they don’t take any crap from anyone or anything!

Letting the cats go outside had one immediate benefit. In the first month I lived in that barn apartment, Thomas single-pawedly annihilated the colony of rats that had taken up residence in the attic. I’d wake up every morning to find at least one very large dead Norwegian wood rat on my doorstep. Thomas quickly earned the title Most Puissant Rat Slayer.

Thomas and Sinéad share some "deniable snuggling."

As the months turned into a year, all my cats became stronger, their muscles became firmer, and their fur and eyes sparkled with robust health. Their diet, regularly supplemented by rodents and the occasional rabbit, had turned them into true exemplars of cathood.

Of course, there were the problems inherent in indoor-outdoor life: tapeworms, regular applications of flea and tick preventive, occasional wounds from fights with the feral cat who had taken up residence in the barn. But I knew I’d signed up for that when I decided to let my cats go outdoors, and I provided them with all the vet care they needed.

Sinéad always did have her eyes on the horizon. Here, she's gazing out the window of my apartment on the family homestead.

All the cats enjoyed their outdoor time, but Sinéad was the bravest explorer. Even as a kitten, she searched the horizon from a sun-drenched windowsill and keenly observed the activities in the streets below the city apartments where we’d lived.

Sinéad was so curious and adventurous that even when we lived in the city, she tried “jailbreaks” on a regular basis. One time she even sprinted off the back porch, down the fire escape, and into the alley before I could catch her. She was missing for more than 24 hours, until after much desperate and frantic searching, I found her in the basement of my building, where she’d gotten herself stranded when she hopped through a half-open window and couldn’t get out again.

Sinéad strolls across the front yard, loving life.

I guess it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that Sinéad would fully exercise her desire for adventure when she had acres and acres of fields and woods to explore. She always came home in time for supper and a nice cuddle and snooze with me, so it didn’t worry me much -- until one morning when she didn’t come home for breakfast. When she didn’t return for supper, either, I got really concerned.

I called all the vet clinics and animal shelters in the area, and no cats matching her description had shown up. I put up a lost cat poster at the local grocery store and began searching. I looked in the ditches by the roadside for a quarter of a mile each way and bushwhacked all over the property and the surrounding woods. I was heartbroken to think that maybe she was gravely injured and couldn’t get back home.

Sinéad basks in a sun puddle by my window, 2006.

My heart sank when I found cat-sized pawprints by a stream and a bunch of much bigger pawprints nearby.

I remembered that I’d heard a pack of coyotes crying and howling very, very close to the property the night Sinéad went missing. And I remembered that Aki had insisted on going outside in the middle of the night, and the ferocious growling and barking I’d heard ... followed quickly by silence.

Aki was fine, but I never did find Sinéad or her remains.

Sinéad is so proud of her outdoor exploits that she licks her nose with pleasure.

Although I’m grateful that my cats enjoyed a great quality of life as country kitties, I do regret that Sinéad died because I chose to let my cats outdoors. If my cats get to go outside again, it’ll be on a harness or in a safe “catio” or fenced-in yard.

What about you? Do you let your cats outdoors? Have they ever suffered serious consequences from that choice? Would you ever let your cats out? Tell us about it in the comments.

The garden at the family homestead.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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