The Indoor-Outdoor Cat Controversy

During this period of change brought on by COVID-19, we have had to learn a new set of rules. Through hand hygiene, greater physical awareness, and social distancing, we have, at least as I write this, helped to flatten the curve in British Columbia.

Social distancing has been extremely challenging for us, especially for the extroverts among us, as we are a social species. (The term “physical distancing” more aptly describes the desired public health management technique and is less scary.) We have learned new ways to remain in touch by creatively holding social events at a distance via technology. Had the pandemic occurred 20 years earlier, mental health would have taken an even greater hit.

It has been challenging to only leave the house every week or two to pick up essentials. Our former habit of just stopping somewhere to pick up a (fill in the blank) has been restricted. Going to work, either in clinic with the pervasive challenge of assessing clients, determining whether a patient really needs to be seen, and maintaining distance within the clinic are exhausting. We have to stay outside our normal physical space with others: no touching, no hugging. We are unable to express normal human behaviours. We are stuck indoors and are experiencing “cabin fever.”


  • Lethargy
  • Sadness or depression
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Lack of patience
  • Food cravings
  • Decreased motivation
  • Difficulty waking
  • Frequent napping
  • Hopelessness


People who care enough to bring their cats (or dogs or other nonhuman companion) in to see us probably try to meet the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare. Yet many of us may not take the inherent nature of the cat into consideration sufficiently when we bring them into our homes. Certainly we are providing food, water, a comfortable resting place, and shelter, but are we in fact providing an appropriate environment, the ability to express species-specific behaviours, and conditions that do not create mental suffering or distress?


Stress in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad. Its physiological, mental, and emotional components help us respond appropriately to situations. In the short term, it is healthy. But when stress is prolonged or ineffective and exceeds our ability to cope, it becomes distress. Stimuli that result in distress and the degree of distress produced differ between individuals. Additionally, for some, distress, such as with this pandemic, may manifest itself in mental, social, or physical health. Stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol) impair the immune response. Thus, distress can result in disease.

Certainly by keeping cats indoors, we are preventing them from being hit by a car, getting into altercations with unfamiliar cats and other animals, being killed by wildlife, and killing wildlife. They aren’t likely to get lost or be stolen or become pregnant when protected indoors. The risk of exposure to certain infectious diseases (FIV, FeLV, rabies), parasites (ticks), zoonotic diseases (toxoplasmosis, salmonellosis), and toxins (antifreeze) is reduced but not completely eliminated. Household hazards abound: stovetop burns, exposure to cleaning chemicals or medications, trauma from falls or falling objects. Additionally, certain illnesses are more prevalent in cats who are restricted from going outside. These include lower urinary tract diseases (urolithiasis, idiopathic cystitis), hyperthyroidism, dermatologic conditions (atopy and acral lick dermatitis), obesity, diabetes, and even resorptive lesions. Boredom and inactivity may result not only in overeating but also in obsessive behaviours and problem behaviours (spraying and scratching). We don’t even have data that supports a greater longevity of indoor cats compared to owned cats who have outdoor access.


Aristotle used the term “telos” to refer to the “full potential or inherent purpose of each thing, the ultimate reason for each thing being the way it is, whether created that way by human beings or nature.” Thus, cats need certain opportunities (physical, mental, and social) to manifest their “catness.” If these needs are not met, then a chronic state of distress may ensue.


Species-typical behaviours include play, investigation, observation, hunting, feeding, drinking, grooming, scratching, travelling, scent marking, eliminating, resting, and sleeping. A study observed five queens on a farm in England for 360 hours. During 24 hours, these cats slept 40 per cent of the time (9.6 hours), rested for 22 per cent (5.3 hours), groomed for 15 per cent (3.6 hours), hunted for 14 per cent (3.4 hours), fed for 2 per cent (30 minutes), travelled or moved unrelated to hunting 3 per cent (48 minutes), and performed other activities for 1 per cent (15 minutes). Cats are crepuscular, that is, their night activity is bimodal, with peaks occurring around dusk and dawn.

We know environment is critical. Merely by making changes in the housing structure at the BCSPCA, Gourkow showed a decrease in the prevalence and incidence of upper respiratory tract infection without changing intake, vaccination, or disinfection protocols. A reduction in reoccurrence and severity of idiopathic cystitis occurs with multimodal environmental modification, and even outdoor access to prey was associated with a lower risk for lower urinary tract signs.


The AAFP/ISFM Feline Environmental Needs Guidelines describe five pillars/key concepts to provide for the physical, mental, and social needs so that “cats can be cats.”

  1. A safe place

This allows the cat to rest, relax, and sleep without fear. Because cats also need to observe to avoid and evade danger, they need a raised vantage spot. Not having the ability to hide can contribute to stress and illness. Cats shouldn’t feel trapped by another cat, a dog, a person, or an appliance that makes noise unexpectedly, so having more than one entrance/exit is helpful. Regardless of mobility, cats need to be able to access this and other resources easily.

  1. Multiple and separated key environmental resources

A cat’s territory is defined by availability of resources: food, water, and areas for toileting (litter trays), scratching, playing, observing, resting, and sleeping. They defend their territory to maintain access to resources. Cats are socially gregarious, but appear to prefer sole access to a given resource. Cats keep at least one to three metres of distance between themselves to avoid conflict. Using vertical space for perches, resting spots, walkways, scratching, and even feeding can help achieve these distances. Situating resources in such a way that cats need not see each other may reduce the stress from real or perceived fear of ambush. Cats who belong to the same social group (are bonded) may share resources; however, physical distance between different resources is still needed (for example, don’t place food beside water).

Even cats who don’t like each other will often make do with a situation, especially when it involves an essential resource, such as food. However, when it comes to litter boxes, they may be less tolerant. Cats use 1.5 to 2 times their body length when toileting, so large boxes placed in safe, separate rooms are preferred. The depth and type of litter are crucial as well as its cleanliness.

  1. Opportunities for playing and hunting

Hunting is crucial for feeding but also for physical and mental stimulation. Cats aren’t “killing machines”—they are only successful every 10 to 15 times, thus their drive to hunt is permanently turned on. With a full bowl and nothing to do, weight gain, poor fitness, and boredom occur. Pseudo-predatory play is important, so indoor feeding puzzles and hunting devices are preferable to bowl feeding. With multiple cats, the three-metre personal space should be maintained, or provide different play sessions. Visual stimulation such as a bird feeder, fish tank, or window perch, is important, as is tactile stimulation (rolling on a textured mat with a catnip toy).

  1. A healthy olfactory environment

A cat’s olfactory sense may be their most important sense. Not only do they perceive odours as we do, they also perceive sensiochemicals/pheromones. These are used for marking, making their home territory safe. Our homes may have aromas that are overwhelming or even confusing, encouraging them put more effort into marking. Especially for an indoor cat, smells brought in from outside and new items may disrupt the safe olfactory milieu. Respecting a cat’s sense of smell means being aware of these disturbances and leaving their “tags” where they’ve put them. When a cat is marking with urine, encourage them to mark with their claws (visual) and pad scent glands on a scratching surface or with their cheeks on a corner; a pheromone plugin may help.

  1. Social predictability

Cats are not antisocial. They flourish with predictable, consistent interactions with humans and others. Unlike dogs, cats have a very short socialization period that occurs between two and seven weeks of age. Thus, their ability to adapt outside that period depends on their other early life experiences and genetics. In general, cats prefer many brief periods of low-intensity interactions with people. And they like to be in charge of when and where these interactions occur. People and other housemates may barge into a cat’s space unwelcomed. Feline manners prescribe head and cheek petting only unless otherwise requested. Fixed eye contact (staring) is very rude and is threatening to cats. Some cats prefer being stroked or groomed, while others prefer their interactions to be oriented around play.


Can all cats adjust to living indoors? Clearly not. What can we offer them? How can we reduce the outdoor risks yet provide the outdoor lifestyle? Creating secure yet stimulating enclosures protects the cat and, to some degree, small wildlife. For apartments that are off the ground floor, window boxes are a possibility. When there is access to the ground, catios of various degrees of elaborateness can be bought or built—everything from the catios that were designed by the BCSPCA in 2019 to getting creative with the top of a fence to a prefab chicken coop.


Simply confining cats, while well-intentioned, may not be best for the welfare of all cats. When the environmental and social needs of cats are met, and adequate space and resources are provided, many cats will eventually adapt to indoor housing, especially if they have been exposed to this lifestyle from an early age; however, cats used to having outdoor access may find it difficult to make the adjustment as adults. There is no one-size solution.

Written by Margie Scherk, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (Feline)


The resources for this article are made available on the Chapter’s website at