By Jean Hofve, DVM

Are you thinking about allowing your cat to go outside without restriction? To make the right decision, you need to know the facts.

The average lifespan of an indoor cat is 15-18 years. For a cat allowed outdoors, the average life is only 2-5 years. There are many dangers that can harm or kill an outdoor cat. (However, there are safe alternatives to simply opening the door; see our article on Outdoor Safety for more info.)

If your cat roams outside, or you’re considering allowing it, please read this entire list. Then be honest with yourself, and answer this one question truthfully: can you absolutely, 100% prevent every one of these things from happening to your cat?

  • Injury from a fight with another cat (or other animal). A bite-wound abscess can cost a couple of hundred bucks to treat, not to mention that it’s very painful to the cat.
  • Diseases from other cats, such as Feline Leukemia, FIV (feline AIDS), distemper, rabies, toxoplasmosis.
  • Injury or death by car, truck, motorcycle or other moving vehicle. Even a bicyclist can injure or kill a cat (and if the cyclist is injured in the accident, you may also be privileged to pay her large medical bills, not to mention replacing the bike!).
  • Stationary cars—yes, even a stopped car can be dangerous. Fanbelts cause the most hideous injuries you can imagine, ripping the fur and skin right off the cat’s body and slashing through the muscle. It’s not pretty. Those few that survive carry the scars for the rest of their lives.
  • Leaking antifreeze can also kill. A cat walking through a small spill of antifreeze and then licking its paws has ingested a fatal dose—usually within days, although I have seen it take months for a cat to actually die of the resulting kidney failure.
  • Lilies (including Easter lilies, day lilies, Tiger lilies, and Stargazer lilies) are extremely toxic to cats. A cat just brushing up against a lily and geting pollen on its fur, then ingesting it while grooming, can die from acute renal failure within days. You might notice the cat looking sick or vomiting, but if extreme (and expensive) treatment is not started within 18 hours of exposure, it’s a death sentence.  It’s unlikely you or your vet will ever know the cause. See NoLiliesfor for more info, and a list of which lily varieties are toxic.
  • Dog attacks. Sometimes cats with seemingly minor injuries will still die from the extreme fear and trauma they experience from the attack. Dog bite injuries can be painful and costly to treat. I had to do multiple surgeries on one cat who was severely bitten. Of course, dog attacks often have even grimmer consequences.
  • Stolen to be sold to a lab for “research” or dissection. It’s estimated that 2 million pets are stolen every year. Many cats dissected in America’s classrooms today are stolen from owners or captured off the streets and sold, alive, to biological supply companies. In Mexico, children are given $1 for every cat they catch. “We have irrefutable evidence that the cats cruelly killed in Mexico were going to American biological supply firms who supply public schools with animals for dissection.” (Cat Fancy 1995)  In 1990, an undercover investigation of well-known biological supply companies documented Class B licensed dealers delivering hundreds of live cats of unknown origin to those companies. ( Tens of thousands of cats die every year so that children and college students, including pre-veterinary and nursing students, can dissect them.
  • Stolen, killed and eaten by people. In some cultures, this is perfectly normal behavior, just as some people eat beef, which would horrify a Hindu, and others eat pork, which is taboo in Islam and Judaism.
  • Stolen to be used as “live bait” for training fighting dogs (common, especially if you live in or near a good-sized city); live cats are thrown into the pit or tied up and dangled above it to be ripped apart by the dogs, to “blood train” them.
  • Abuse by juvenile delinquents (of any age)—beaten, shot, stabbed, sexually abused, dissected alive, etc. All of these are common and well documented in cities, towns, and rural areas. I personally saw many of these cases at our clinic, and was involved in others when I worked at the Animal Protection Institute:
    • A kitten with a fever of 107ºF and two shattered, infected hind legs and numerous puncture wounds. The kids apparently dragged her out of the dog’s mouth, but didn’t tell mom. The injured kitten did not receive veterinary care until it was almost too late. She survived, minus one hind leg.
    • A sexually abused 8-week old calico kitten.
    • A Birman kitten rescued by a street person from a group of kids who were repeatedly throwing him against a brick wall for fun.
    • Numerous cats injured or killed by guns or arrows or, for example, beaten to death with a golf club by a man walking his dog along a bike path. (Why he was carrying a golf club in the first place was never explained.)
    • Cats soaked in gasoline and set on fire.
    • A litter of newborn kittens deliberately crushed to death in a trash compactor.
    • A kitten set on a hot barbecue grill for laughs. Rescued by an outraged neighbor, she survived for a few agonizing hours before dying of massive burns.
    • A live adult cat tied into a black garbage bag and thrown into the South Platte River, where a passerby noticed the bag moving and pulled it out.
    • Unwanted kittens thrown from moving cars. This is extremely common. A client of mine behind one of these monsters picked up the kitten and adopted her. Angel was one of the lucky ones. I saw 2 dead kittens on the median of I-25 in Denver within a couple of months.
  • Encounters with a poisonous animal. Depending on where you live, the deadly options may include rattlesnake, copperhead, coral snake, water moccasin (also called cottonmouth), tarantulas, black widow and brown recluse spiders, and scorpions.
  • Predators. Besides people, there are a lot of critters that can hurt or kill a cat. You may have several of these in your area:
    • Alligators (if you live in the southeast, you probably know someone who has lost a cat or dog to a ‘gator).
    • Red-tailed hawks (wingspan over 4 feet, dive speed between 50-100 mph)
    • Owls – A friend of mine watched an great horned owl strike and fly off with a large, screaming Maine coon cat in his talons.
    • Eagles (cats are on the menu of Golden eagles, a family of which nests right beside a housing development).
    • Coyotes—these resourceful relatives of our domestic dogs live virtually everywhere in the U.S., including Manhattan and downtown Los Angeles. One night, on major thoroughfare in Denver, I personally saw a very large coyote trotting down the middle of the street! Coyotes are becoming numerous in cities, and encounters with humans and pets are on the rise. Visit Project Coyote for more information on these beautiful, intelligent canines and how to co-exist peacefully with them.
    • Foxes—one of my feline patients was brought in with a clear set of puncture marks across her back and down both sides, in a perfect imprint of a fox’s jaws. This particular fox was living in central Denver, which like many cities has a large resident fox population. A large cat might be able to escape a fox—or it might die trying.
    • Raccoons—they don’t necessarily kill, but they can cause devastating injuries. Raccoons also carry rabies and are the #1 rabies vector in the Eastern U.S.. Adult raccoons typically weight 25-40 lbs. Your cat is no match.
    • Skunks—the danger is not just from the unpleasant end! As members of the weasel family, skunks have vicious teeth and bad tempers. They are also spreading rabies throughout the west.
    • Fishers–large weasels that are being repopulated all over the country. The fisher is an excellent climber and can squeeze into any hole big enough to accommodate a cat. There would be no escape for a cat targeted by this quick, clever hunter.
    • Other large predators -— in a little town west of Boulder, Colorado, bears and mountain lions that have been seen near the schoolyard or trotting down Main Street. Many pets have been taken by lions; at least two cats were snatched within sight of their owners. One lion alone killed 18 cats and 4 dogs–it was finally shot and killed after being seen stalking children waiting for the school bus. However, mom still lives in the area, and each summer her teenage cubs still terrorize small pets all around town.
  • Diseases from other animals and from the environment (rabies, distemper, feline leukemia, feline AIDS, feline infectious peritonitis, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, cytauxzoonosis, ringworm, and hundreds of other infectious organisms you’ve never heard of). Some are merely annoying, others are fatal.
  • Traps and snares. Traps do not discriminate. Thousands of cats and dogs have lost limbs and lives to steel-jawed traps set for raccoons and other species. One of my neighbor’s cats had what was left of its leg amputated just recently after being caught in a leghold trap. These traps are legal for control of “nuisance” animals—even in states like Colorado that have banned leghold traps. Few of these nuisance-control trappers are licensed or regulated. They do not care what they catch; if they find a cat or dog in their traps, they usually just kill it and dispose of the body. One trapper was discovered throwing the traps–with the pets still inside–into a 55-gallon barrel full of water to easily and conveniently drown them.
  • Impoundment by animal control, an annoyed neighbor, or local cat-hater. At the shelter, your cat will spend a terrifying few days in a metal cage until:
    • you reclaim him (less than 2% of cats in shelters are ever re-united with their families)
    • he is killed (the fate of the vast majority of these cats)
    • (if he is extremely lucky) gets adopted to a family who will keep him indoors!
  • Parasites—fleas, ticks, heartworms, roundworms, tapeworms—as well as parasites of the parasites, like tapeworms that live in fleas, or viruses and bacterial  diseases (like Lyme disease) carried by ticks, mosquitoes and other insects.
  • Skin cancer—cats with white or light-colored fur around the face and ears are prone to cancer from exposure to sunlight.
  • Hanging/choking from a non-safety collar, or a malfunctioning safety collar.
  • Accidental poisoning from eating a poisoned rodent or walking through herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides, poisonous plants, and other sources.
  • Intentional poisoning. I grew up in a neighborhood where a vicious woman deliberately baited and poisoned cats for many, many years. In those days, all cats went outside; no one ever heard of an indoor cat. Our family lost several cats to poisoning over the years.
  • Exposure to weather (heatstroke, snow, ice, severe storms) and unable to find adequate shelter.
  • Being accidentally trapped in a garage, basement, car, or other enclosure. Before I knew how dangerous it is for cats to roam, one of my cats wandered into an open garage, apparently hid inside when the car started, then spent a long weekend locked inside while the people were away. I once found my other cat standing on the dashboard of a van across the way. Evidently she slipped in through the open sunroof and couldn’t get out again. Had the Southern California weather been just a little warmer that day, she could have died of hyperthermia. I thought it was safe to let them out there, because it was a cul-de-sac with hardly any traffic and open space all around. Not!
  • Undetected disease. Guardians cannot always carefully observe cats who spend a lot of time outside. Urinary tract problems are frequently missed because the cat so rarely uses an indoor litterbox. I’ve had clients find their male cats dead of a urinary blockage before they ever knew the cat was sick.
  • Stupid accidents. Things happen. One of my cats broke a toe when she fell off a fence and caught her paw between two of its boards, which is where I found her, stuck and dangling.

A lot of people let their cats out “supervised”. That is, the guardian is actually out in the yard with the cat, or pretty close by, mostly, at least until the phone rings or the timer goes off or the kids scream or some other distraction occurs.

If you think your mere presence is sufficient to protect your cat, you’re only fooling yourself. You’re always within earshot? Great…you might be lucky enough to hear the squealing tires—and the thud. Here are a couple of other experiences from people, including me, who thought their cats were safe outdoors:

  • A man was outside one morning, standing on his deck, with his cat sitting right next to him. He was drinking his coffee and enjoying the sunrise. Suddenly he heard a funny noise and looked to see what it was. He saw, already a long way off, a coyote with the cat IN ITS MOUTH—snatched from RIGHT NEXT TO HIS FOOT. The guy yelled, and fortunately the coyote dropped the uninjured cat and ran away. All concerned were definitely sadder, but hopefully wiser. Did you know that coyotes can run as fast as greyhounds? Cats can’t, and neither can you!
  • One lady’s cat was outside, on his harness attached to a clothesline. She went inside for just a couple of minutes. When she came back out, she found that the cat had tried to jumped over the fence, and was partially hanging from it. His feet were on the ground but he was slowly suffocating. The cat survived, but the trip to the emergency clinic was both terrifying and expensive,
  • My neighbor’s elderly cat, Boots, was sitting on his own porch one summer day, just 2 weeks before his 20th birthday. We had a big party planned for him. He was dragged from the porch and torn apart by two dogs, who played tug-of-war with his broken body. Unfortunately, he was not killed outright. His owner (who was in the house, literally only a few feet away) heard Boots screaming, scared off the dogs, and rushed poor Boots to the emergency clinic, where he survived for a few painful hours until he was finally euthanized. Happy Birthday, dear sweet Boots. I miss you so much! I cry every time I think of you.
  • A cat being walked on a leash was chewing on some grass. The cat started coughing, but the guardians couldn’t see anything in his mouth. They watched the cat, who was still coughing sporadically, overnight, and took him to the vet first thing in the morning. The veterinarian found a 3-inch piece of grass stalk near the cat’s larynx, which she removed. Lung x-rays showed fluid, possibly from lodged grass seeds. The cat eventually recovered.
  • Many years ago, my roommates and I were sitting on the porch one evening with our cat Mr. Crosby, watching our 2 dogs play in the yard, which was surrounded by a 6′ wooden privacy fence. Suddenly there were 3 dogs instead of 2; a large Irish setter had suddenly bounded over the high fence like a deer. When he saw us, boing! he jumped back out. We were so stunned we never even moved. (Even though that story had a happy ending, Mr. Crosby did not. He moved out with one of the roommates. As they were moving into their new place, Mr. Crosby slipped out through an open door and was never seen again).

Face it—as a human, you simply do not have the ability to react in time to stop EVERYTHING that could possibly happen to your cat. Your cat is faster than you. Your neighbor’s dog is faster than you. Cars are definitely faster than you.

Granted, some cats do live long and happy lives outside. My neighbor’s outdoor cat was 15 and doing fine. Then they got a kitten. Sweetest little black kitty you ever saw. They started letting him out when he was only about 8 or 9 weeks old. I found him outside at 10 p.m. one freezing winter night when I walked the dog. I took him in overnight, then went over to their house the next morning to discuss it with them. They said he could get under the house to stay warm, just like the older cat did; evidently the kitten didn’t know that. They also said their older cat would teach the kitten to be street smart. I guess he was a slow learner, because he died right in front of their house, struck and killed by a car on our very busy street long before his first birthday.

Think about this: when you have just a handful of cats who reach old age outside, how many other cats have to die very, very young to bring the average age of death down to less than 5?

None of these people whose stories I’ve told wanted or expected these horrible things to happen their beloved cats. But all of this pain and suffering could have been prevented by one simple thing: keeping them inside. It’s your choice, but it’s your cat’s life.

A cat who has never been outdoors probably doesn’t have the slightest clue that there is an outdoors. I think when they look out a window, it must be like “kitty TV” to them; with smell-o-vision if the window is open!

It is never safe for a cat to go out. Rural cats are in at least as much danger as city cats; the dangers are just a little different. Less chance of being hit by a car, but more dangerous predators. A fox or owl can and will easily catch and kill a cat. If you think your cat is safe outside because it stays in your yard or doesn’t go “too far”, you’re only fooling yourself. Unfortunately, that illusion could mean life or death to your cat. When your outdoor cat just doesn’t come home one day, you may never know why, and you will only be able to hope and pray that his death was quick and painless.

There is another side to the coin, too; and that is the danger that cats pose to birds and other prey animals, including many endangered species.

Free-roaming cats are superb predators who kill millions of birds and small animals every year. If your cat goes outside, be prepared to deal with the dead — or worse, dying — birds and small mammals (mice, voles, baby rabbits), snakes, and other wounded creatures that your cat may leave on your doorstep! If you think your outdoor cat isn’t killing multiple birds and rodents (besides the ones you know about), you’re deluding yourself. In fact, research shows that cat guardians are universally in denial about the damage their outdoor cats actually do. No wonder Audubon and others want to exterminate every outdoor cat (and some members take it upon themselves to help).

For those who really want to give their cats the outdoor experience, it can be done without the risk. If your cat is amenable, you can teach her to walk with a harness and leash (not completely risk-free, but a good alternative). The Kitty Holster is a secure, comfortable harness that cats accept far more readily than other types.

Or consider cat-proof fencing, or building an outdoor cat enclosure. It doesn’t have to be big. But it will keep your cat in, and danger out. However, be sure to build it strong–as we’ve discovered, the purpose is not just to keep your cats in, but also to keep other animals out. We know two people who had cats killed inside their enclosures–3 by a mountain lion (who was still stuck in the enclosure–and mighty annoyed–when the owner discovered the carnage), and 4 by a pack of loose dogs who broke through the barrier.

It’s a tough world out there–protect your kitties!