The Great Backyard Jungle Cat

The Great Backyard Jungle Cat

The life of the domestic housecat has changed significantly over the years. Many cats are living longer, healthier lives as indoor only cats. On average an indoor-only cat lives about 10 years longer than a cat that is outdoors. This is largely due to the risk factors that cats that are allowed to roam outside unattended are exposed to that indoor cats are not. I have seen many cats casually strolling the street and have treated many that have subsequently been hit by a car.  Additionally, many cats that spend significant time roaming outdoors are also exposed to other cats. This can result in injuries from cat fights. Cat bites often result in puncture wounds that, if untreated, are very prone to abscessing. These bites can also spread diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV), between cats. There is currently a vaccine for FeLV, which I personally recommend for all indoor/outdoor or outdoor only cats, but there is not a commonly recommended vaccine for FIV. The ASPCA has more information about both of these diseases in their list of common cat diseases.  Another issue with the free roaming cat is that cats can get into toxins when they are unsupervised and it is difficult for an owner to know if their cat is vomiting, urinating, having diarrhea, etc if the cat is away for significant periods of the day. This can mean that illnesses crop up unnoticed until a cat is so sick that they are lethargic, obviously in pain, or otherwise significantly impaired. The delay in start of treatment can significantly impact prognosis.

Since living indoors eliminates the risk of being hit by a car, reduces the risk of fleas, prevents cat-to-cat contact and the transmission of many viral diseases, why would anyone want their cat outside at all? The answer is environmental enrichment. Using Wikipedia’s definition, environmental enrichment “is the stimulation of the brain by its physical and social surroundings. Brains in richer, more stimulating environments have higher rates of synaptogenesis and more complex dendrite arbors, leading to increased brain activity.” Good environmental enrichment can cut down on behavior problems, including inappropriate elimination (urinating or defecating in the house) that is not due to a medical issues, fighting between cat housemates, and boredom behaviors.

One way to compromise and give your cat the best of both worlds (the health benefits and safety of indoor life coupled with increased environmental enrichment), is supervised and contained outdoor time. In order to keep your cat secure and safe during his/her outdoor exposure, it is important to keep several things in mind – such as how active your cat is and how likely he/she is to try to roam further than you intended. For example, I have an old 18 year old cat, Frisko, who is arthritic and really doesn’t run anymore unless his sky is falling. He does very well in my fenced in backyard with the couple wholes in the fence blocked. If he does get out, he strolls along at turtle speed and is very easy to catch and bring back. As a result, at this point in his life, he is given free roam of the backyard provided he allows me to apply a flea preventative each month (this is important, as fleas are annoying creatures that are very irritating and hard to get rid of).

Frisko in his backyard jungle (under a zucchni leaf).

On the other side of the coin, when Frisko was younger, he was only allowed in the yard with a harness and leash on. I have seen young cats dart through small holes in fences and keep running. Luckily for Frisko, he was also able to spend most of his younger years at my parent’s house and allowed use of the screened in porch during the spring, summer, and fall.

A note on harnesses: It is important to have a well fitting harness and still supervise a cat while out wearing his harness. Cats are very flexible creatures and could have taught Houdini a thing or two. Leaving a cat on a tie out in a harness may result in returning to simply find the harness without the cat.

But back to screened in porches. Screened in porches can be a wonderful place for a cat to spend time and gain good environmental enrichment. If your house does not have a screened in porch, consider building a catio.  Yes that is a patio for cats. I have seen some really neat designs. Seriously, just google catios for some inspiration. If you are not much of a DIY person, there are a plethora of already made catios available for purchase.

Whether your cat is chilling in a catio or out for a stroll in his harness and leash, make sure your cat is up to date on vaccines and has appropriate protection against fleas (+/- ticks). You don’t want any new diseases or parasites hitching a ride back inside the house.

Overall, many cats enjoy a little time in the outdoor world, same as dogs. Since most cats aren’t reliably trained to listen to voice commands and come when called, it is important to make sure that housecats are safe and secured when outside. If you don’t have a secure way to let your housecat enjoy the outdoors, never fear. There are many ways to increase environmental enrichment while keeping your cat safe indoors, such as increasing three dimensional space, opening windows to allow cats to hear and smell the outdoors, and playing with interactive toys.

For those of my readers interested in additional ideas for outdoor enrichment, this following link provides a lot of good ideas and tips regarding outdoor time with your cat (plus some articles about really cool adventure cats): Adventure Cats

What clever ways have you come up with for providing your own cat outdoor enrichment time while reducing outdoor risks? Comment below.

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