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How to (Responsibly) Let Your Cat Outside

Giving your house cat a taste of freedom doesn’t have to imperil local birds or other wildlife. Here’s what experts suggest.

The Washington Post

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cat on leash in outdoor setting

Since adopting him in November 2022, I have loved sharing a home with my indoor cat, Mouse. I love how the bell on his collar announces his presence in a room, and how his cartoonish ears twitch as he watches the birds outside.

But, admittedly, I started to envy dog owners. When I’d go to the park, I would look around at the pit bulls and retrievers and various doodles, and think “Mouse would love this.” So, last May, when the D.C. weather was still comfortable, I started taking him to the park in our neighborhood, coaxing him with treats into his harness and carrier for the five-minute walk, then letting him explore on-leash once we arrived. He loved it.

Public opinion has largely turned against allowing cats free range of the outdoors — it’s dangerous for them and for the birds and other small wildlife they encounter. But as Mouse and I learned, it is possible to give your house cat at least a sliver of freedom while avoiding environmental destruction.

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The author with her cat, Mouse. (Colleen Grablick)

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Mouse enjoying the park from the safety of his carrier. (Colleen Grablick)

Does your cat want to go outside?

When dealing with cats, it’s important to present them with a choice to engage in an activity, rather than forcing them into a situation that might actually terrify them.

“It’s very individual,” says James Serpell, a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Some cats, they’ll be perfectly happy just hanging out within the confines of the home. Other cats have a greater desire to wander and explore and investigate stuff, and those cats may indeed experience some sort of frustration at not being able to go out, especially if they have a window where they can see what’s going on out there.”

Consider the temperament and age of your cat. Younger cats and kittens with a stronger drive to explore will have an easier time adjusting to a new experience than an older cat who has comfortably resided indoors. For example, when I first decided to take Mouse to the park, he was a rambunctious kitten with a clear interest in the front door, always poking his head out when he had the chance. While he’s calmed down now as a 1-year-old, he’s still fairly brave when it comes to strangers, sounds and new objects.

If your cat is particularly enamored with a window, Serpell suggests first introducing them to the space directly outside of it, on a leash and harness. While humans see a glass pane as a separator, cats perceive the world immediately beyond the window as part of their territory. Allowing them to explore that space can stimulate them both mentally and physically.

Start slow

Before heading into the great outdoors, make sure your cat is up to date on vaccinations and flea-and-tick preventatives. And you’ll also want to familiarize them with the leash and harness, and any other equipment that they will have to wear for your field trip.

David Grimm and his wife decided years ago to take their two young cats outdoors. According to Grimm, an editor at Science and the author of “ Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,” it was an “obvious” call, as one of them — Jasper — was constantly trying to escape. They placed both cats in small harnesses while still inside the house so they could adjust to the feeling; at first, they’d stiffen and fall over as if frozen, but after a week, they warmed up. Grimm started in small doses, taking the animals out for a few minutes of sniffing sticks and trees before they’d inch back toward the door.

“If they’ve never been outside, they’re not going to know what to do. It can be very stressful,” he says. “They’re not going to know what the leash is, they’re not going to know what the harness is. There was a lot of, sort of, preplanning on our part to make sure it was as safe for them as possible, and as stress-free as possible.”

Eventually, Grimm worked up to spending an hour or more outside with his cats, walking around their Baltimore neighborhood. Jasper became so enamored with the routine that he’d ask to go out multiple times a day, and get visibly excited when he saw the harness coming his way. But just as you should watch for signs that your cat is having fun, you should also pay attention to signs of distress. Dilated eyes, slinking their backs into a U-shape, hovering close to the ground, or panting can indicate that an activity is not for them.

Mouse, an excellent communicator, gave me some of these cues this February, on one of D.C.’s balmy, “ fake spring” afternoons. During our trips to the park last year, he would sniff around the trees, cast a few prolonged stares at birds, then either curl up in his carrier or fall asleep next to me while I read. Nothing could’ve been lovelier. But now that Mouse was an adult, our first trip of the year didn’t seem to be doing much for him. With kids crying, skateboards rattling by and dogs bounding across the field, he plopped himself firmly in the carrier with no interest in exploring. After a few pets from a passerby, he gave me the same desperate look you’d give your date at a lame party, his eyes pleading: “Can we please get out of here?” And so we left.

As Grimm says, “We’re doing this for them, not for us.”

Close supervision is key

No matter how loudly your cat meows at your front door, or how longingly he stares at you, don’t lose sight of the fact that cats can wreak havoc on wildlife when they’re allowed to roam free.

Even if they’re being fed the finest Blue Buffalo kibble inside, they’ll kill birds, rats and mice as a form of play, satisfying their hunting instinct. Their supplemental diet also gives them a predatory advantage over wild prey, who don’t have a doting human refilling their bowls daily.

“The only way to definitively eliminate the impact of outdoor cats on wildlife is to keep them contained,” says Mike Cove, who studies the effects of free-ranging cats on biodiversity as research curator of mammalogy at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “Keeping them on a leash, things like a catio, and even if you have a fenced-in backyard and you’re sitting out on the porch and keeping a watchful eye — I don’t even have an issue with that.”

Close supervision is safer for your pet, too, of course. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, free-roaming owned cats may have a shorter life expectancy compared to their indoor counterparts, as they face the risk of disease, getting hit by a car or wandering too far from home. Like Cove, the AVMA recommends putting your cat in a catio or on a leash for outdoor time.

What if your cat already roams free?

If your cat is already accustomed to an indoor-outdoor lifestyle, it may be difficult to take away that freedom. There are gadgets on the market that aim to diminish their hunting ability — outrageously colored collars (which make your cat look like a clown, crossing guard or Christmas tree skirt) allegedly make cats more visible to birds, and some owners theorize that bell collars will reduce sneak attacks on wildlife. You can also add an AirTag or tracker to your pet, so you at least know where they’re going. But none of these options are infallible.

And getting your cat to agree to some of them could be a struggle. “The issue is a lot of these bird-safe collars are cumbersome to the cat; it’s like hanging a mouse pad as a bib off of your cat’s collar,” says Cove.

His bottom-line recommendation is to limit your cat’s outside time to supervised hangs only. If you want to transition your free-roaming cat to a life of supervision, you can try getting them used to a leash, or offering more enrichment indoors with toys and chasing.

Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist at the University of Colorado who studies human-animal relationships and companion pet science, says she’ll never have a cat again, solely due to the moral dilemma of the indoor-outdoor debate.

“When I did have a cat, I let her go outside and I didn’t feel good about it; she definitely killed stuff — a lot of stuff,” Pierce says. “I think letting her outside ultimately was what she wanted, but she didn’t live long. … [Cats] are not toys, they’re animals who have behavioral needs that are hard to meet inside.”

I’m not quite ready to give up on taking Mouse — still full of boundless energy — back to the park. Next time, I’ll choose a more secluded, less chaotic spot, safely removed from shrieking children. Maybe we’ll end up just sticking to our enclosed patio at home. It’s ultimately up to him.

Colleen Grablick is a writer in D.C. who covers news and the occasional curiosity.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published April 9, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

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