Keep Outdoor Cats Safe and Healthy

Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on April 19, 2019
photo of outside cat

Nancy Huggins’s kitty, Norman, is a cat about town. Even though he runs the house, he likes to take a jaunt outside from time to time, just to make sure his territory is safe. “He protects the kingdom very well,” Huggins laughs.

For 11 years, Norman, a 20-pound tabby, has been going in and out of his home without a care.  But Huggins is sometimes concerned that he may get into trouble.

“I hate it when he's out after dark,” she admits.

About 70% of the estimated 95.6 million pet cats in the U.S. live indoors only. But millions of kitties are still allowed outside, where they face more dangers.

“Predators, cars, diseases, poisons, and the bully cat who already possesses the territory your sweet kitty has just been let into are only a few of the reasons that indoor cats live significantly longer on average than cats that venture outside,” says Chris Miller, DVM, veterinarian and co-owner of Atlas District Veterinary Hospital in Washington, DC.

“Assessing the risk of an outdoor lifestyle is always important before sending a cat outside for any amount of time.”

Many vets say owners should limit outdoor time as much as possible, or just choose to keep the cat inside. Another option, says Ariel Mosenco, DVM, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, is to let your pet out only in a confined, fenced area while you’re watching.

Still, “There are benefits for cats when they go outside like increased exercise, social activity, and decreased boredom,” Miller says. But it’s up to you to make sure they have the most protection possible.

Get the chip. Most humane societies recommend microchipping your pet. It’s an excellent way to identify them if they are located after wandering off. When you get one, make sure you keep your contact information up-to-date on the chip. A collar for your cat with a tag that has your phone number is also a good idea.

Don’t declaw. Veterinarians say you should never let a cat outside that doesn’t have claws. “They cannot defend themselves from dogs and other cats, and they cannot climb on trees to escape a threat, making the outdoors even riskier,” Mosenco says.

Get vaccines. Let your vet know if your cat goes outdoors so they can make sure they have the proper shots. “Outdoor cats will need additional vaccinations like the feline leukemia vaccine and possibly others depending on what part of the country you live in,” Miller says.

Spay or neuter your pet. Cats who aren’t fixed are more likely to roam away from home, Mosenco says. That raises the chances they’ll get hit by a car or get into a catfight. So after around 5 months of age or before, make sure your kitty is spayed or neutered.

Always keep food and water handy. Huggins says she makes sure Norman’s water dish is outside in the summer. And she also adds more calories to his diet during the winter months. “Especially because the cats expend more calories in the wintertime than they do in the summertime,” Huggins says.

Have a litter box indoors. It’s important to have one ready so your cat has options when they want to be inside.

Watch out for toxins. Scraps from trash cans, pesticides, and other poisons are a danger to your cat. There are even more risks in the winter months.

“Antifreeze and even the salt that people spread on the front of their houses to prevent slipping from ice is something that can damage the paws,” Miller says. Ingesting antifreeze is deadly for cats. 

Provide shelter. As the weather gets colder, keep in mind the chilly temperatures and snow and ice can affect a cat’s health.

“They can still get frostbite and hypothermia, just like people can,” Miller says. He also recommends you make sure your cat isn’t climbing into the hood of your car to stay cozy during the winter months or cool in the summer. 

The best bet is to bring cats inside when the temperatures drop. But if you can’t, set up a small wooden enclosure or heavy box to keep your cat warm. In extreme weather conditions, many times, cats can figure it out for themselves. Norman does.

“In the very cold months, he doesn’t even want to go out,” Huggins says.

Show Sources


Nancy Huggins, Laurel, MD.

Humane Society of the United States: “Outdoor Cats: Frequently Asked Questions.”

ASPCA: “Your Cat – Indoors or Out.”

Chris Miller; DVM, co-owner, Atlas District Veterinary Hospital, Washington DC.

Ariel Mosenco DVM, DACVIM, associate professor of internal medicine, University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School of Medicine.

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