How Long Does an Outdoor Cat Live? Facts & FAQ

a cat sitting on the street
Image Credit: MariaMaslova, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Eleanor Glaum

Under natural conditions, cats are potent predators that effectively stalk and capture prey in a variety of outdoor environments. Cats have, however, become domesticated by humans in the last 10,000 years, and in modern times, the number of domesticated cats exponentially outnumbers true wild cats remaining in natural habitats.

Domestic cats are found in just about every sector of human society, and just as humans exist in conditions varying from squalor to luxury, so too do cats. The sad truth is that for creatures living in terrible conditions that often lack shelter, food, and adequate health care, life expectancy is low. Of course, the opposite is true for humans and their pets that exist on the opposite end of this scale—general good health and happiness are a result, and life expectancy is optimal.

The life expectancy for a well-cared-for predominantly indoor pet cat is in the region of 15 to 20 years. There is a significant range for the life expectancy of an outdoor cat, anything from 2 to 15 years of age. Read on to find out why.

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Life Expectancy of an Outdoor Cat

There is not much reliable data available regarding the true life expectancy of feral cats, possibly because there isn’t a single definition of these. A popular belief is that they might only expect to live between 2 and 5 years, but some organizations with real, on-the-ground experience disagree. They estimate that feral, or free-roaming, cats most often live to between 12 and 15 years of age.

However, things are not always this black and white—all scenarios are likely to hold some truth under certain conditions. We will look at the “gray” areas between these extremes in the next section, as well as the many types of outdoor cats.

a stray cat sitting on the sidewalk
Image Credit: Rodrigo Munoz Sanchez, Shutterstock

The Definition of An Outdoor Cat

There are varying degrees of “outdoor” cats, as you may have already realized and wondered about. Let’s take a look at some typical scenarios and how they might affect a cat’s longevity.

True wild cats in natural environments can live up to 15 years of age. Even small wild cats the size of the average domestic cat are apex predators and as such are at lower risk of predation themselves. Natural environments are less stressful and disease transmission is low compared to urban areas with a high density of humans and other animals. The risk of injury or death at the hands of humans is negligible. There is no cruelty, no neglect, no traffic, and fewer encounters with larger dangerous animals, such as dogs, and easier escape options in this likelihood.

Now, let’s discuss domesticated outdoor cats. There are two general types of feral or free-ranging cats, with many that fall somewhere between these types. The first type is the feral cat, which can be found in squalid conditions. These are usually economically impoverished human settlement areas, often in third-world countries. These cats live in unhygienic conditions and often have little access to food or shelter. Veterinary care is non-existent, and they certainly would not be sterilized. Animal cruelty is frequently rife. These are the cats that would generally not live beyond 5 years of age, if that.

The second is the feral cat that can be found in economically robust urban areas. These cats are often tended to by welfare organizations and unofficially cared for by kind local inhabitants. Many would be sterilized. They could realistically live between 10 and 15 years.

The life expectancy for these kinds of outdoor cats is understandably lower than for a cosseted and much-loved pet cat. The risks of death and injury from human-associated causes such as rogue dogs, cars, cruelty, population density-related disease, and parasites are proportionately greater, particularly for the first type discussed.

Many pet cats are happy outdoor cats, too. They may range from felines that prefer never to set foot inside the house to those that are free to come and go as they please. The latter you will probably find curled up in bed with their human for part of the night. The risks are much lower for these cats, and their life expectancy will probably be higher than for feral cats, anywhere from 12 to 17 years of age. The highest risks for this group are cars, dogs, and injuries resulting from neighborhood catfights.


The Indoor Cat

Depending on one’s strict definition, an indoor cat could also be a part-time outdoor cat, so it’s worth discussing them too. For many cat lovers, the risks associated with allowing their beloved kitty to come and go from the home at will are, understandably, too great. In many instances, such as apartment living in cities, it’s simply not possible for them to do so.

Some apartment-dwelling felines enjoy walks on a lead with their humans and this is a great way for them to satisfy their natural curiosity. Others may have a yard that they are allowed to explore under supervision. Cats that live under these conditions are those that will probably realize their optimal life expectancy of between 15 and 20 wonderful years, provided they remain healthy in other respects.

Some indoor kitties will never visit the outdoor world and they may be happy with this arrangement. But other felines in this situation could experience underlying stress and anxiety that could potentially cause unhappiness and compromise their well-being and overall longevity. A little further on, we will provide a few useful tips for keeping the stresses of indoor living to a minimum.

a black cat sitting in the backyard
Image Credit: Ciprian Gherghias, Shutterstock

Considerations for Part-Time Outdoor Cat Owners

There are tremendous advantages to affording your puss cat outside time. It’s good exercise for them to have a little run-around, chase butterflies, and climb some trees. The mental health benefits are significant too. They are inherently outdoor predators and naturally curious. But enjoying the great outdoors is not without its risks to your darling kitty.

Here are a few considerations for maintaining your outdoor cat’s well-being:
  • Make sure that they cannot go anywhere near busy roads.
  • Ensure that there are no aggressive neighborhood dogs that could be encountered.
  • Consider prophylactic treatments for ticks, fleas, worms, and other parasites.
  • Rabies is a deadly disease for both animals and humans for which there is no cure. Speak to your veterinarian about getting a rabies vaccination administered.
  • If your cat will be allowed to come and go freely, make sure that it has free and constant access to its food, water, and refuge.
  • Free-roaming pet cats should be sterilized to avoid unplanned breeding.
  • Your cat should have some kind of identification such as a collar with a tag or microchipping in case it gets lost or is mistakenly thought to be lost.


Tips for Keeping the Indoor Cat Healthy, Happy & Entertained

Here is a short checklist of considerations to help keep your exclusively or mostly indoor cat content:
  • Have fresh food and water freely available at all times.
  • Pamper them with unlimited cuddles, with their permission, and healthy treats when appropriate.
  • Ensure that their litter tray is easily accessible, always clean, easy for them to use, and located in a quiet area where they won’t be scrutinized or disturbed when they are “busy.”
  • Entertainment is key! Particularly younger cats need plenty of entertainment and stimulation. Have toys that they can play with alone but also dedicate plenty of human-cat playtime. If you have the space, consider a kitty playground or climbing tree. Set up hidey-holes around the home for your kitty.
  • Invest in scratching posts and train your kitty to use these, not the furniture!
  • Train your kitty to walk on a lead if it will permit, provided it enjoys this.
  • Set up a window in the house where they can sit and watch the outdoors.

How Do You Decide Whether to Allow Your Cat to Go Outdoors?

Deciding whether or not to allow your cat outdoors, and how, will require careful evaluation of your particular kitty as well as deciding what risks you as their fur parent are comfortable taking. If you are not comfortable making the decision alone, you should chat with your veterinary practitioner for some advice.

Certain cats will let you know in no uncertain terms what they prefer in terms of living environment. Some may naturally make themselves comfortable indoors, venturing outside very seldom, whilst others may sit at doors and windows waiting for any opportunity to escape. Hopefully, you are in a situation that allows you to satisfy your kitty’s wants and desires.

There is usually no need to force a cat that prefers the indoors to go outdoors, but it may be necessary to restrict an outdoor-loving cat’s movements. If the latter is the case, our tips for keeping an indoor cat entertained will hopefully help.

ragdoll cat lying relaxed in the garden in summer
Image Credit: absolutimages, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

There are both pros and cons to allowing your kitty to explore the great outdoors. It will ultimately be your decision as to what is best for your precious feline. If possible, a bit of outside time has enormous benefits for most cats, but there are those few that simply don’t require it.

We hope this article has provided you with enough information to help make the decision, as well as some useful tips and suggestions to manage your cat’s well-being in either an indoor or outdoor living arrangement.

Featured Image Credit: MariaMaslova, Shutterstock

About the Author

Eleanor Glaum
Eleanor Glaum
Eleanor is a freelance writer, science, and math high school teacher. She lives in South Africa's picturesque KwaZulu Natal Midlands with her six-year-old son, cat, horse, and three chickens. She is happy to be able to convert her enthusiasm for animals, science, and life-long learning into valuable and interesting writings. Eleanor and her son enjoy exploring their wonderful nation in their spare time. Road trips to exotic camping places are a cherished pastime. They particularly like unwinding near the sea, in the mountains, or among African animals.

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