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The Indoor Outdoor Debate – Part 1

| December 27, 2011

The Indoor Outdoor Debate

This was originally written due to newsgroup participants inability to respect one another’s local and cultural conditions governing an indoor or outdoor lifestyle. It has been rewritten into a general discussion of the two types of lifestyle and their applicability to certain local conditions. Views and comments from both sides of the debate have been included. It is based on factual information and does not seek promote, condemn or impose either lifestyle.

In the UK, most of cats are indoor/outdoor pets. Britain has no predators which hunt cats and the traffic situation is nowhere near as bad as in the US (either that or generations of this lifestyle have led to more cautious cats). Some American correspondents have condemned me for not evangelizing an indoor-only lifestyle and for allowing cats to be homed to indoor-outdoor or outdoor-only situations. Readers from localities where the accepted lifestyle is indoor-only must respect the fact that cat-keeping habits differ in other localities and that indoor-outdoor lifestyles are not a sign of lack of care or irresponsible ownership. I found that newsgroup users in particular need to respect these differences and to discuss the indoor/outdoor issue without starting flame wars; many email addresses give no clue as the sender’s location and it is location, culture and tradition which determine whether cats may go outdoors.

One matter which needs to be cleared up immediately is the supposed “statistic” that British outdoor cats only live for 3 years. As a British cat owner and cat worker, this is a long way from the truth, even among feral cats. This figure is sometimes used by non-Britons against British cat owners. It has no basis in fact, only in hearsay and propaganda.

There are great cultural differences in cat keeping. Cat keeping culture and traditions in Britain, other parts of Europe and New Zealand maintain that ‘indoors-outdoors is healthier’ while that of America is ‘outdoors is unhealthy’. However, owners usually fail to take into account the differing outdoor environments when condemning owners in other regions. What is acceptable and right in one area may be unacceptable or considered wrong elsewhere.

In Britain an estimated 88%-92% of cats have access to outdoors. Some are restricted to securely fenced gardens or are supervised by the owner, but most have free access to the outside world, often via their own cat flap. Cat shelters quiz owners about their lifestyle and many require that the cat has access to a garden. Shelters do not, however, refuse to home cats as indoor-only pets if this is right for the individual cat concerned and for the owner. In America the situation is almost the reverse of that in Britain with most shelters refusing to home cats unless the cat is to be kept strictly indoors (except for specialist rescues dealing with feral cats; these seek locations where the risks are acceptable for the non-tame cats concerned).

In Australia, the indoor only or outdoors-if-supervised lifestyle is becoming increasingly common due to potential problems of cat predation upon wildlife and legislation and cat licensing in some areas upholds this. A number of cat societies recommend leash-training the building of an enclosure as the safest way of letting a cat outdoors and eliminating the various hazards to the cat as well as preventing predation upon native wildlife.

In South Africa, a different set of local circumstances lead breeders and shelters to recommend either an indoor lifestyle or the use of an enclosure for outdoor excursions. Most South African cats are indoor-outdoor cats though breeders are making buyers aware of the hazards that their cats can face there: rampant burglary/theft, cars, dogs, pigeon fanciers and their weapons and also razor wire. South African breeders encourage people to build an outdoor run attached to their homes, reminding them to put a gate in the perimeter fence for clean up and when the cat is being difficult & doesn’t want to come in. A persuading factor is the increase in the price of a pedigreed cat. Some would-be owners take along photos of their ‘installation’ when buying or adopting a cat.

One factor influencing the indoor/outdoor statistics is the number of moggies and pedigree cats – in Britain it is thought that only 10% of pet cats are pedigree cats, a figure which appears to correspond to the number of indoor cats. Far more American pet cats are pedigreed, which contributes to the indoor-only philosophy.

Indoor-only owners frequently attack indoor-outdoor owners as being cruel or negligent for exposing their cats to the dangers of the outdoor world – traffic, sadists, feral dogs, large predators or diseases such as FeLV, FIV or rabies. In return indoor-outdoor proponents attack the unnatural limitations of the indoor lifestyle including the fact that indoor-only cats may be declawed in order to protect furnishings (i.e. for the convenience of the owners).

Statistics: All Things Not Being Equal!

In America it is claimed that indoor cats live twice as long as outdoor cats, although no-one has yet produced enough statistical evidence to support this claim beyond doubt. Neutered cats live longer and house pets are more likely to be neutered than free-living cats; but this longevity difference is due to neutering, not to indoor-living.

British indoor/outdoor cats frequently reach their teens and a good number reach their twenties despite their indoor/outdoor nature. Feral cats (living outdoors only) also manage to make it into their teens; the Cat Action Trust reported that one cat living on allotments (communal vegetable gardens) was 19 years old and still breeding (the Cat Action Trust neutered her). The oldest feral on record at the time of writing is 28 years old and living as a maintained feral cat at a cat shelter (free-ranging, but with access to a barn).

Studies of different lifestyles and associated behaviours have been carried out by Tufts (USA), Cornell (USA) and Bristol Veterinary University (UK). As with any study, the evidence they present can be interpreted in different ways. Statistics present only part of a study, empirical data (from observation and experiment) is important. Statistical methods often rely (erroneously) on “all things being equal” – the resulting data is highly misleading for those whose local conditions differ from the study conditions! Statistics should be qualified by environmental data to put them into perspective. Readers who have grown used to seeing statistics must realise that sometimes the most helpful information is qualitative not quantitative!

Many of the web articles which promote/evangelize indoors-only repeats the same information/propaganda and do not qualify their statements. How up-to-date are their statistics? A common “statistic” is that life expectancies of outdoors cats is between 2 and 5 years. In biological terms, a 2 year old cat is mature and will have reproduced while a 5 year old cat is middle aged. The data may well apply to feral cats since wild animals rarely reach old age. Feral cats are not pet cats – they are wild animals and subject to all the laws of nature (predation, environmental conditions etc) and they do not have the same nutrition or health care that pet cats have. Readers place far too much faith in statistics and put too little effort into assessing what is right for their locality and, moreover, for their cat. There is little doubt that some of the bodies using estimates based on feral cats aim to scare owners into keeping pet cats indoors.

Predation surveys are largely conducted by those already opposed to free-ranging cats (as in Australian Studies). Their surveys are intended to spotlight the cat as a villain rather than compare cat predation to other causes of bird decline (environmental change, shooting, birds of prey etc). The surveys do not put feline predation into a wider perspective – they set out to prove a theory. Figures of “hundreds of millions” of birds killed annually by cats may have been extrapolated from statistically poor sample sizes using a simple mathematical scaling up (e.g. the much criticised British Mammal Society Survey). In America, similar statistics are used by the Audobon Society (a pro-bird group). Such surveys formulate a hypothesis and set out to prove it, sometimes disregarding data which does not fit the hypothesis. However, their figures are trotted out in support of the indoor-only argument.

Not All Cats are Housepets!

For some people, it is tempting to assume that feral cats deserve a humane death by euthanasia rather than being allowed to live wild. Would such people apply identical logic to foxes, coyotes, raccoons etc? Of course not – it would lead to the extinction of all wildlife. Because feral cats are wild creatures, it makes sense to judge them by the standards applied to wild animals and not to the standards we adopt for house pets.

Our pet cats are genetically virtually identical to their wild living ancestors, as demonstrated by the success of feral cats and the ability of cats to produce fertile hybrid offspring with African and European Wildcats. They have not evolved to live purely indoors and though some breeds have been bred to be placid or indoor-oriented, most cats retain their wild instincts and a natural curiosity about the outdoor environment. Proponents of the indoor only lifestyle claim that the outdoor environment is now so unnatural as to be unsuitable for cats. This may be true in some areas, but should not be applied to all cats since local conditions vary greatly.

An analogy: I see plenty of rabbits dead on the roadside, or caught by foxes, cats, dogs etc. I also know that rabbits are kept as hutch-pets. Does that logically lead to euthanizing all wild rabbits because they live only 8 months compared to 6+ years for a domestic rabbit? It may seem like double standards, but it is necessary to distinguish between the house pets we protect from nature and the wild/feral animals which have become part of the natural order. The majority of humans have long since ceased to be controlled by natural selection and we tend to find the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ perspective distasteful, but by saying ‘euthanasia is preferable to living wild’ we risk anthropomorphizing.

Britain has plenty of working cats at farms, stables, smallholdings, parks, factories etc and rescue groups work hard to ensure that these are neutered in order to prevent the birth of kittens. These working cats (maintained ferals/semi-ferals/outdoor domestics) can’t reproduce. Sometimes the farm, factory etc needs new or additional cats. It is preferable to place non-socialized cats, semi-ferals or ferals as working cats or in maintained colonies. Feral cats are wild animals – just as wild as foxes etc – and though they look identical to pet cats they live and interact as wild creatures. Shelters are delighted to hear from someone able to provide a working environment (with bed and breakfast thrown in) for a non-domestic cat.

For some while I maintained a neutered feral in my garden (which he regarded as his territory and I regarded as his home). I was fond of him in the same way I’m fond of my garden hedgehogs and being neutered meant no fight wounds, reduced risk of diseases spread by such interaction with other cats and no siring kittens. Neutering is not the sole preserve of the cherished house cat and though I took responsibility for this aspect of his welfare, I was aware that he was not a tame cat.

Copyright & Credit: Sarah Hartwell – MESSYBEAST.COM
Photo copyright and courtesy:
Consuelo Pizarro

Category: Feline Articles, Feline Health and Care, Feline Resources

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