My Cat’s Lazy. Should I Put Her Outside to Get Some Sunlight?


Here’s a question I recently received from a reader:

Is it mean to put my smelly old cat outside during the day? She’s so sedentary that she only goes from couch to bowl to litter box and back again.

Putting her on the deck to get a little bit of sun and vitamin D (do cats even need Vitamin D?) and fresh air seems like a good change of scenery, but all she does is sit on the back step and look grumpy. I do bring her in when it gets dark or cold, though.

A reader,

San Francisco

Veterinary medicine, as a field, has certain official party lines. One of them, in the United States at least, can be well summarized by borrowing from Orwell’s brilliant Animal Farm: indoor cats good, outdoor cats bad.

Anyone who has read my many dissertations on neutering and spaying will recognize that I am not much of a party-liner. (The party line in that case: spay/neuter good, no spay/neuter bad.) I don’t believe in the simple indoctrination to which the sheep in Animal Farm were so susceptible. There has to be a reason to toe the line.

It turns out that there are plenty of sound reasons to keep cats indoors, in general. Many outdoor cats behave like drunken sailors in port — they go out looking for trouble, and they are pretty good at finding it. Outdoor cats frequently get into fights with other cats, leading to abscesses and the risk of contracting FIV/feline AIDS. They are frequently struck by cars. They wander into yards where large dogs attack them. They may be subject to predation. If caught in inclement weather, they may suffer from hypothermia. Since they generally are effective predators, they also have the potential to devastate wildlife in the neighborhood.

But, I have to confess that your cat doesn’t exactly fit the model of cats “in general.” She doesn’t seem likely to wander into the street or into a neighbor’s yard, and it doesn’t sound like she’s much of a predator anymore (although she could be the victim of predation — red tailed hawks are common in San Francisco, and I have treated cats who have been attacked by them).

But two thoughts are running through my mind, making me think that you shouldn’t continue to put your cat outside. The first boils down to this: There’s a first time for everything. Your cat hasn’t left the stoop so far, but if one day she decides to venture further afield she could be creamed by a car, a dog, or another cat (and bear in mind that the neighborhood bully cat might decide to attack your girl even if she doesn’t leave the stoop).

The second thought is that your cat doesn’t seem to enjoy being put outside, so why do it? I have known cats whose lives were not complete without going outside. These cats made their owners’ lives hell if they were not allowed outside. Your cat isn’t one of them. She sounds like she’s perfectly happy on the couch-bowl-box cycle. Why not let her do what she wants in her dotage?

Vitamin D is not a reason to put cats outside. Their hair blocks the ultraviolet rays that lead to vitamin D synthesis, and even bald or shaved cats do not synthesize significant vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. Cats do require vitamin D, but they obtain it from food. So my vote is that you feed her well and let her stay indoors.

You said something else that caught my attention: Your cat is smelly. It is not normal for a cat, even when elderly, to smell bad. Issues including poor grooming, skin infections, dental disease, and major metabolic problems such as kidney disease might contribute to your cat’s malodorous nature. For more information, visit my web page dedicated to uncovering the reasons why a cat may smell bad.

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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