Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: What are the Main Differences?


Go back 50 years or so, and most cats spent their days roaming the great outdoors. It wasn’t something people really questioned – if you had a cat, you let it out, period. Then things changed. Today, most cat owners prefer to keep their cats indoors exclusively. If you meet a cat walking up the street, it’s more likely to be a stray than a domesticated cat enjoying its daily constitutional. But why the change? Are there benefits to keeping a cat indoors? Do outdoor cats enjoy happier lives? Find out as we explore the main difference between indoor vs outdoor cats.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Health

The average life span of an indoor cat is around 14 years old. The average life span of a cat that’s allowed to roam free is 4 years old. Any way you look at it, that’s a big difference, and it’s a difference that highlights the additional stresses that outdoor living places on a cat’s health. In the US alone, there are around 60 million feral and stray cats, many of which carry serious, even deadly diseases that can be easily transmitted to your cat if they come into contact with them. As notes, outdoor cats are more readily exposed to diseases like feline leukemia (FeLV), feline AIDS (FIV), FIP (feline infectious peritonitis), feline distemper (panleukopenia), and upper respiratory infections (or URI) than indoor cats. The problems don’t end there. Outdoor cats are more likely to pick up parasites like fleas, ticks, ear mites, intestinal worms, and ringworm. While these aren’t deadly, they can still cause some very unpleasant symptoms, including skin infections, vomiting, diarrhea, and scratching. As some parasites don’t care whose blood they feast on, there’s also a risk they infect the entire family. And then, of course, there are bites. If a cat gets into a fight with another cat, the bite can easily become infected and cause an abscess to form. When that happens, they’ll need antibiotics or, in some cases, even surgery. Indoor cats, by contrast, face a much-reduced chance of developing an infectious disease, getting into a fight, or giving a ride to any nasty creepy-crawlies.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Environmental Impact

The outdoors isn’t just a threat to your cat; they’re a threat to it. Cats may be domesticated, but they’re still killers at heart. It doesn’t matter if they get three square meals and all the snacks they could ever want – if they see something smaller than them, their prey drive is going to kick in and before you know it, there’s going to be a pile of tiny, bloody bodies on your doorstep. Free-roaming cats are estimated to kill hundreds of millions of birds each year. The worst part? Birds constitute just 20 percent of all the wildlife cats are responsible for killing. Indoor cats, on the other hand, might give your goldfish the occasional fright, but are unlikely to destroy anything other than your furniture.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Safety Risks

As American Humane notes, in addition to the health risks cats face from members of their own kind, they also face a score of other hazards from outdoor living. These include things like:

Toxic poisoning

Cats who venture outside are at greater risk of consuming toxic chemicals like antifreeze or rodent poisons, which can be lethal in even tiny doses.


Cats don’t instinctively know to look both ways before they cross the road. You can try and drum road safety into them as much as you like, but it’s not going to do a thing to protect them from a speeding car or a trundling bus.


Cats might think they’re the biggest, baddest thing on four legs, but there’s a lot of loose dogs and other creatures who’d beg to disagree. If your cat turns from the hunter to the hunted, they can sustain injures that can, in some cases, prove life-threatening.


Some people are just cruel. It’s awful and it shouldn’t be the case, but there’s always going to be kids that like tormenting anything smaller than them and there’s always going to be adults that think shooting animals with BB guns is the height of entertainment.


Cats think nothing of climbing to the top of a tree. Getting down from it, on the other hand, is a whole other ballgame. If the tree’s in your garden, you’ll at least be able to help them down. If it’s a tree they’ve discovered on their travels, they’re going to be there until a good samaritan decides to help out.


No matter how thick their coat, it’s not going to protect your cat from sub-zero temperatures. Outdoor cats in cold climates can easily fall victim to frostbite and even hypothermia if they aren’t able to find shelter.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Happiness

Some people claim that indoor cats aren’t as happy as outdoor cats. Cats need the freedom to explore, to exercise their basic instincts, to climb and hunt and feel the wind in their hair… or so they say, The truth is, cats don’t miss what they’ve never had. They don’t pine for the great outdoors, and as long as they’re provided with enough games, activities, and distractions to keep them busy, they’ll be just as happy inside as outside…. and a whole lot safer to boot. For obvious reasons, indoor cats don’t need to worry about cars. Other animals aren’t a risk. They don’t have to worry about the temperatures plummeting, getting shot with an arrow, getting sick from antifreeze, or getting stuck up a tree. In comparison to their outdoor counterparts, they live safe, sheltered lives. If, however, you’re adamant about giving your cat access to the outdoors, there are certain ways that you can make it safer. Some of the suggestions MVS Animal Clinic makes include:

  • Make sure your cat has received all their vaccinations before setting foot outside.
  • Unplanned pregnancies are a massive animal welfare concern – if you haven’t had them fixed already, do it before you even think of letting them out.
  • Don’t let your cats out if they’re going to struggle to get back in when they want. Either only let them out when you’re at home or use a cat flap.
  • Clear your yard and garden of any chemicals and toxic plants.
  • If their wanderlust sets in, they’ll be much easier to find if they’ve been microchipped.
  • Letting your cat out during peak traffic times is asking for trouble. Figure out when the roads are quietest and only let them out at those times.

Cats might not be as easy to leash train as dogs, but it is doable and will help cut the risk of many outdoor hazards.

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