Is it cruel to keep cats permanently indoors?

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3 January
13:06
3 January
13:31

I think my answer to that would be that it’s much more difficult to meet a cat’s needs when they’re kept purely indoors.

There are a number of pros and cons involved in terms of cats being allowed outside versus cats being kept in the home. In terms of the concerns people tend to have about letting their cat outside, probably most of these focus around the idea of it being less risky and safer for a cat if they spend their life indoors.

If they can’t access the outdoors, you remove the chance of them potentially getting into trouble out there in the big wide world – whether that’s being hit by a car while crossing the road, taking a tumble from a big height, getting stuck up a tree, getting in to fights with other cats or animals, getting lost or shut in someone’s garage, being exposed to hazards such as poisons and toxins (e.g. anti-freeze) etc. Unfortunately, there are also some people out there who just don’t like cats and will intentionally try to harm them and sometimes kill them. There have also been reports of cats being stolen when they’ve been outside.

"At Battersea, we often find with cats that come to us having been ‘house cats’, they’re often not as resilient as cats that have spent time outside – which can make it more difficult for them to adjust." 

There are a range of downsides of keeping cats indoors. Cats have evolved as a species that spends time outside and have a territory, which is very much a feature of feline society. From an evolutionary perspective, having a territory enabled a cat to survive – as the cat would defend the territory and the associated important resources contained within it (e.g. animals to predate on, places to shelter). In domestic homes, cats may establish a ‘patch’ and then defend it vigorously, other cats will be more relaxed about it and ‘share’ their space with other neighbouring cats. So although cats very in terms of their motivation to establish a territory and look after it, they have evolved as a territorial species and so this can be very important to a lot of cats.

Not only can cats be strongly motivated to access the outdoors, it also provides them with greater space and also more choice and control over their lives (something which we talk about a lot at Battersea). Cats are often described as control freaks – because they’ve evolved as a relatively solitary and independent species, they’re used to doing what they want, when they want, how, where, etc. So cats can experience frustration when they don’t feel able to exercise choice and make their own decisions.

"If cats aren’t exposed to the outside world, then their experience of the world will be more limited, because they’ve led a more sheltered life."

In addition to choice and control, going outside gives cats more outlets for their natural, normal behaviour – enabling them to better display the full range of the feline behaviour repertoire. Having outlets for natural, normal feline behaviour is something that’s incorporated into the Animal Welfare Act and represents one of the five welfare ‘freedoms’. Outside access allows cats to roam, explore, have a territory, hunt, exercise, climb, play, scratch and mark, interact with other cats (if they wish to do so), etc.

Another issue is that if cats aren’t exposed to the outside world, then their experience of the world will be more limited, because they’ve led a more sheltered life – so they’ve not had the opportunity to deal with and cope with different scenarios and situations which can help to build a cat’s confidence and create a more resilient individual.

"We believe that the number of indoor only cats continues to rise – but it’s not something I’d personally want for my own cat."

At Battersea, we often find with cats that come to us having been ‘house cats’, they’re often not as resilient as cats that have spent time outside – which can make it more difficult for them to adjust and adapt to the cattery environment, and also to a potential new home. At Battersea, we aim to re-home cats to a home with some outdoor space where the cat can exercise control over their access outside, so they can go out when they choose to do so There are some situations in which Battersea would re-home a cat to an indoor-only environment; for example, we have a blind cat called Brooke with us at the moment, and she’s looking for a quiet, settled indoor home where she can feel safe and secure.

Having access to the outdoors also helps a cat to cope in increasingly challenging home environments. We know that cats can find busy homes stressful so being able to go outside provides them with the opportunity to get out of the house for a while to de-stress and relax away from the hectic home environment. Also being able to go outside can help a cat to meet their own needs should their owners not be providing sufficiently for them indoors.

"Ensuring that an indoor cat has lots of opportunities for play, and to be able to interact socially, but in a way that meets their needs as an individual, is also important."

With cats that stay purely indoors, it’s necessary to ensure that they’re fully provided for in terms outlets for normal behaviour, enrichment and stimulation within the home, and that all their key resources are provided. For example, providing a cat with an elaborate cat tree that a cat can jump on and climb up as well as be able to scratch on combined with elevated platforms for the cat to snooze and rest on whilst allow them the opportunity to survey what’s going on around them from a nice safe height is welcomed by most cats.

Ensuring that an indoor cat has lots of opportunities for play (e.g. using wand toys to help mimic and replicate the hunting sequence for the cat so they can watch, stalk, pounce etc.) and to be able to interact socially, but in a way that meets their needs as an individual, is also important. Cats also need to have access to options for hiding indoors, to provide the cat with places to go away and rest undisturbed, so they can ‘decompress’.

So, overall, I think my answer to that would be that it’s much more difficult to meet a cat’s needs when they’re kept indoors as it limits the opportunities a cat has to engage in natural, normal behaviour for a cat. For me, it’s more difficult for a cat to be a cat when they live purely indoors. We believe that the number of indoor only cats continues to rise – but it’s not something I’d personally want for my own cat.

More information on caring for cats, or adopting a cat, can be found at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

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