An opinionated feline in Edmonton, Canada who lived with a retired cat behaviourist, Greyce provided behavioral advice to cats in need until her death in July 2014. Because her entries are useful even today, the blog remains posted.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Indoors or Out? A Series Begins

How the Indoors versus Outdoors Controversy Began

For some time I've been praising the concept of outdoor experience and promised to write about it in detail. But this is a controversial subject amongst your human caregivers, so I want to put my praise in context before they get their knickers in a twist. Bottom line: When push comes to shove, I'm on the side of us cats.

Since time immemorial, we cats have lived with and without human companionship - largely as we wished, that is, going in and out of dwellings as we pleased. No one was particularly bothered if we wandered off for a while and some of us wandered off never to return. Of course, it wasn't all so wonderful given that cats have often been the victims of torture but I don't want to deviate from my main argument. Let me get back to my point.

In North America, our in-and-out scenario changed with the advent of urbanization (when more humans started living in cities rather than in rural areas). Humans still wanted us about but were reluctant to keep us in their homes. They didn't like the population explosion of kittens that resulted or the human-perceived need to get rid of them. And they didn't like our toilet habits inside their homes.

Sterilization (which humans who don't care to face the facts refer to as altering) addressed the first concern, for not only does it prevent us from having kittens but it also reduces or eliminates our spraying of human material goods for sexual reasons. Alas, cat overpopulation (meaning far more cats available for adoption than there are willing homes to house them) is still a fact of life.

The second concern was addressed with the advent of cheap litter, which made it possible for us to toilet in an acceptable manner in the human home. Alas our litterbox habits remain the number one problem for humans today - inspite of a variety of litters and litter boxes.

Regardless of the difficulties encountered by humans in attempting to care for us, we are the most popular pet in North America. Yet we remain second-class citizens when it comes to care for we are still the ones less likely to receive veterinary care (compared to dogs) and the list goes on and on. We are still viewed as the pet who can care for him/herself. And while there is truth to this, there is also myth.

There have also been advances in veterinary medicine and household practice that mean we live longer than we used to. A feral cat, for example, is expected to live around three years - long enough to reproduce - before meeting with sickness or an accident resulting in death. A household cat may live to 20+ years, depending on the genetics of the cat and the household circumstances. We have vaccines to prevent us from being prey to dreadful diseases. We have standardized food. And there is a strong effort to keep all of us indoors - for our own good.

The indoor-only camp comes from three streams: First a stream of cat caregivers, especially those who have seen the horrors of the outdoor life, who are concerned about our health and safety. There is no doubt about it, from a physical health standpoint we are better off kept indoors in a caring household. The majority of veterinarians, cat behaviourists, breeders and animal shelters endorse this concept. After all, they are the ones who get to see the seamy side of the outdoor life: the cat shredded by a fan belt after seeking the warmth of a car on a cold winter day, the remains of a cat after a coyote attack, continued batches of feral kittens, the cat flattened by a speeding car. I could go on and on.

The second stream is people who don't particularly like cats or what cats do when they are outside. They object to us pooping in their gardens, scratching against their trees, or catwauling during mating season. A few a concerned about allergies, rabies, or aggression but this is a relatively minor component. And since we live in a society where material property values are considered a very high priority, this lobby has been influential.

Add a third stream: responsible dog caregivers who are tired of keeping their animals tethered when cats run free, and paying for dog licenses whose fees subsidize animal control shelters that handle larger percentages of cats.

All of these parties are meeting in the middle - in the realm of community practice and law. The result: The requirement in many jurisdictions that all cats be kept indoors or at the very least inside the boundaries of the legally owned/used property of their caregivers. For most of us, that means staying indoors at all times.

The Challenge of Staying Indoors

Okay, before this gets to be too hot a topic, I want your to raise you paw if you agree with each of the following:
Do you want to live?
Do you want to be safe?
Do you want to be healthy?
Do you want to have access to care?
These are the argument used for keeping us indoors. There is no doubt about it: We live longer and probably in better physical health in an indoor-only environment. But like every good intention, there are also caveats and unanticipated consequences.

Here are the caveats:
#1 The easiest way to keep a cat indoors all the time is to start when the cat is a kitten and has had NO outdoor experience - on the assumption that what you don't know about you don't want. I started my life as a pampered, indoor-only kitten. But when one of my so-called caregivers dumped me I had to survive on my own for about a month before I insisted on coming to live with Themselves. By then, it was too late. I  demanded to go outside. Even though I was happy to have food in my dish and safe shelter, I still wanted my outdoor forays.

#2. The advocates of the indoor-only lifestyle add that ALL of our needs must be provided for in such an environment. And that means needs related to our natural predatory cycle (which require daily exercise to keep arousal levels in check), and our need for environmental stimulation to counter boredom and intellectual apathy. Alas most of our caregivers don't have a clue about what that really means. "But I give my cat lots of cuddles," they say - when we really need at least a twice daily workout. "Sure," I'd love to retort. "And you probably watch exercise videos on your TV while chowing down on chips. Not the same as a workout buddy!" Others tell me, "I give my cat lots of action. We wrestle!" Great, I think to myself. Reward your cat for interacting like a macho man and then wonder why your girlfriend insists that it's either her or the cat, because she is afraid of being attacked.

In short: It takes a really dedicated and knowledgeable human to provide the requisite amount of stimulation that can ensure you lead an emotionally satisfying life. Not only do many humans not have a clue about what these needs are and how to provide them, but many are loathe to spend the money making them a reality or exercise their own creativity to achieve them on the cheap. And even with good intentions, humans may fall short of the mark.

So what is the result?

We get bored with the same old toys and our purrson cannot understand why. So ask your purrson to imagine being locked up in an apartment 24/7 with only the same magazine to read. There is a reason why even the most hardened criminals fear solitary confinement.

We fall prey to stresses - fur plucking, aggression and the like. Even things that would usually roll off our backs now haunt us. North America which has the highest percentage of confined cats also has the highest incidence of behavioural disorders. Coincidence? I think not!

We go to the food dish and chow down far more than we need to and then get the lecture about going on a diet. So our reward is to feel starved as well as bored.

So if your human happens to be reading this with you, slap a paw on the screen when it comes to this paragraph. Listen up humans! A cat beyond kittenhood needs:
- interactive play (meaning it involves you, human) that is safe for both parties but also done in a way that excites our natural predatory drive AND exercises our intellect. Yes, we have highly developed brains which rot from boredom!
- unobstructed and safe access to varying levels of height.
- environmental stimulation in the form of slight, periodic changes to keep our senses sharp and life interesting.

What's A Cat To Do?

As I see it, the options for us depend on our humans. They are:

Option #1: Stay indoors. Have your caregiver learn enough about cat behaviour to provide a right indoor environment AND commit to regular consistent interactive play periods (regardless of how your human feels about engaging in play after a day at the office) AND to continued upgrading of indoor environmental challenges to help you keep your sense sharp. Resources: Check out the labels - play/predation/toys, environmental stimulation, and cat tree; particularly the entries Only On My Terms, Stimulating Ideas, Guys Just Wanna Have Fun, and A Cat Tree for Every Cat.

Consider this option is any of the following applies to you:
- You have allergies to grasses and plants that may be in your yard.
- You have asthma or other respiratory issues which may be exacerbated by pollen counts or associated allergies; you MIGHT consider an enclosure on a wooden deck (rather grass) as long as your purrson keeps a careful eye on weather and pollen counts (there are websites for each). Cats living in the USA can check for pollen counts and forecasts in their area - a service that doesn't appear to be available elsewhere.
- You live in a neighbourhood which is considered unsafe (for humans or for cats); for example, the absence of a secure, fenced yard WITH the presence of aggressive dogs who roam the yard next door to you.
- You live on or near a very noisy street and find such sounds upsetting.
- You've had a history of life on the streets and are adamant about staying inside for the rest of your life.
- You live in a neighbourhood with a lot of roaming cats and their presence upsets you; later I will describe the kind of enclosure which might suit you, if you want to give it a try.
- You have no outdoor experience and the thought of such novelty frightens you; also consider a gradual introduction to the outdoors using one of the other options listed below.

Details related to the selection of the rest of these options (listed below) will be found in separate blog entries over the next while.
Option #2: Tether you outdoors, periodically.
Option #3: Work with you to have you accept a harness and lead AND commit to regular walks.
Option #4: Build a temporary (if renting) or permanent outdoor cat enclosure, so you can enjoy outdoor access.
Option #5: Surround your outdoor property with a cat fence, so you can enjoy your yard.

But before you direct your human to a particular choice, read my upcoming blog entries on Options 2 to 5. Because they each have pros and cons. Let's face it, even The Rolling Stones know that you can always get what you want.