Ask the Vet: Should I keep my indoor/outdoor cats inside to save birds?

cat birdhouse

Supervise outdoor pets to keep them and wildlife safe.

We live on 9 acres. I enjoy feeding birds, and we maintain three bird feeders (bet you can see where this is going). We have three cats, all of them starting out as strays sometime after we moved here and I started feeding the birds. They enjoy going outside and hunt mice, moles and birds. I get distressed when see them with prey, particularly when they toy with the creature. The worst are the birds. Even when we rescue them from the cats, they often die. I find myself on edge when any of the cats are outside, listening for a bird cry of distress so I can leap into action.

When we keep the cats inside they cry to be let out. My husband thinks it is cruel not to let them go outside. I maintain that cats have a lower risk of certain diseases and injuries if they stay inside, even if they aren’t happier, I am. I’ve also read ecological articles that urge cat owners to keep them inside due to loss of songbirds. Would you address this issue? I look forward to your thoughts.

At our office, October has become “Catober.” It is a month-long time to bring more awareness to cats and their unique needs and our love of the species. Everywhere I look there are new toys and laser pointers and mice to share and use in the hospital. We are having a ball with our feline friends so your question is quite appropriate. I hope my answer will be diplomatic enough for both you and your husband. It takes a village to raise a cat.

So, as veterinarians, we follow the lead of the American Veterinary Medical Association for positions on animal welfare and pass them onto our clients. In addition to that, there is an additional association called the American Association of Feline Practitioners, or AAFP, that develops feline specific statements that we can use to educate and share with our cat owners specifically. I just realized that there are no dog specific associations, sorry pooches, cats rule.

In 2017, the AAFP released an updated position statement on recommended lifestyle of owned cats. They now currently recommend pet cats be kept indoors at night and allowed an indoor/outdoor lifestyle during the day in order to gain the enrichment that they need. The most important point here is that their outdoor time must be safe and supervised to protect other animals in their environment such as birds and other cats.

That is the starting point for us as a profession. Now, there are lots of benefits and risks with this lifestyle choice. We try to counsel owners to some of these in order to eventually get to the best decision for each cat and their human family members.

There are, believe it or not, risks associated with having an indoor only cat. Many of them include the development of behavior problems. This stems from cats not having the ability to express their normal cat behaviors. They can’t mark their territory, scratch, live with other cats that they are compatible with and hunt enough indoors. Cats get bored with lack of stimulation and develop obesity and all the diseases that come with that. Because of this they are often more stressed and tend to develop cystitis and GI issues.

But, indoor cats are safer. They are not exposed to cars and people who may hurt them. They do not kill small mammals and birds in their area. People notice medical issues quicker with indoor only cats and can address it sooner. Indoor only cats usually do not fight with other cats and are protected from adverse environmental conditions.

The indoor/outdoor cats have obvious risks that as an owner you have to weigh when deciding on lifestyle choice. Where you live has to be a factor in your decision. These cats would definitely be more at risk in an urban/city environment for getting hit by car or hurt by other people. In a more rural setting you have to consider the risk of larger animals such as stray dogs and coyotes that may harm them. Also, outdoor cats have more risk for exposure to parasites and diseases that could be shared with you such as fleas and ticks and some intestinal worms.

As important as the risks for an indoor/outdoor lifestyle are, the benefits for the cat are more important. Indoor/outdoor cats are free to be cats. They develop their own territory and resources there to enrich their lives. They hunt, scratch, eliminate, mark and are able to be alone or with cats they truly enjoy. They are more active and often less obese. It has been shown that indoor/outdoor cats do come to the veterinarian for more preventative care because owners feel the need to do what they can to protect them since they go outside regularly. Indoor only cats typically only come to the veterinarian when something is wrong.

The AAFP does support the indoor/outdoor lifestyle with some restrictions, which are important. We have to protect our cats during outdoor time. They recommend protecting them by bringing them inside at night. Cats do tend to roam and fight at night and cannot be supervised while we are sleeping. Call them in and they will come. They also recommend their outside time be spent supervised. This could include a harness and a leash with a human attached or an enlarged enclosure. Believe it or not, an electric fence is an option to keep them close and protected. It does work for many cats if they are trained properly.

To go back to your question, I am a believer in the AAFP statement as a veterinarian and a cat owner. We have 4. They are on an electric fence collar and use the doggy door during the day and all come in at night. When I look outside and see them being cats, it makes me happy to know I am trying to do everything I can to give them a normal cat lifestyle. Later, when they come in and flop down, tired from their day, and curl up beside us, it just does not get better than that. Happy Catober!

Send questions for Dr. Allison Dascoli to “Ask the Vet,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, WV 25301 or email them to Comments or suggestions can be submitted the same way.

Funerals for Sunday, October 20, 2019

Fink, Janice - 1:30 p.m., United Disciples of Christ Church, South Charleston.

Honaker, Dewey - 2 p.m., Arnett Assembly of God Church, Arnett.

Jenkins, Tina - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Payne, Joseph - 3 p.m., Gateway Christian Church, St. Albans.

Snyder, Janice - 4 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Vance, Kendall - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.