The Outdoor Cat: Know the Risks and Learn the Tips to Help Bring Kitty Home

Keeping an outdoor cat safe is impossible! That being said, many people believe that it is cruel to keep cats confined to the indoors. They feel that cats should be allowed to roam the great outdoors at will - that it is in their nature to roam. Indeed, many cats live happily into old age being allowed to go out as they please.

However, since there is no way to keep them safe, we don't allow any of our cats to roam freely outdoors. Most of the cats in our sanctuary are here because, for one reason or another, they were roaming freely outdoors and found themselves in trouble. Because of the risks outdoor cats face, we do not allow our cats to roam free.

In a large, multiple cat household though, keeping them all confined to the indoors can lead to trouble. Because they have less room, disagreements over territory can occur more often.

While taking a cat for a walk outside using a harness (not a collar - a cat can slip out of a collar so a harness is necessary for walking a cat on a leash) and leash is one method for getting your cat fresh air and sunshine, taking 15 or 20 cats for a walk is impossible! Also, to teach a cat to walk with a harness and leash, it is best to start when they are a young kitten. Does that mean that if you acquire an older cat, he will never get to go outside again in order to stay safe?

We feel that fresh air and sunshine are not only healthy, but good for our cats. But letting them roam the neighborhood is not a good thing. We solved the problem of access to the great outdoors by letting them enjoy the outside in our 'Kitty Paddock'. While they still face some risks inherent in being outside, at least they are protected from the biggest enemies an outdoor cat encounters - cars, dogs, and mean people!

Cars are the biggest enemy of an outdoor cat. Just ask any vet! A little 7 or 8 pound cat, no matter how fast, is no match for a 1000 pounds of speeding metal. We always feel heartbroken seeing a dead cat in the road, knowing the death could have been avoided if only the cat could have been kept indoors or in an enclosure.

Dogs, and in some areas, coyotes, are another major threat to outdoor cat safety. Stray dogs, wild dogs, pet dogs on the loose, and coyotes forced into the suburbs to look for food, all view the cat as an enjoyable plaything to chase or a tasty meal. We have only witnessed a dog actually catch a cat once (she got away without a scratch!) but we have witnessed many chases over the years that ended in a close call. And, we can't help but wonder how many of the cats that have gone missing, ended up as a tasty meal for a hungry dog or coyote! (We shudder at the thought!)

But, the vote is unanimous at out cat sanctuary, that the absolute worst threat to outdoor cat safety is mean people! Cars can be viewed as a sad accident. Dogs and coyotes, part of nature. But there is no excuse for mean people! It is hard for us to believe that there are people who torture or kill innocent cats like they are some kind of vermin. But it does happen, sickening as it is.

Wally and Herbie

In addition to cars, dogs and mean people, an outdoor cat also risks injury and disease from other cats, rodent bites, and even bug bites and stings.

And chemical poisoning from bug and weed killers, even oil or antifreeze dripped in a driveway can easily sicken or even kill a cat.

Trash from open garbage cans can be harmful as well. Even the salt used to melt snow can burn a cat's sensitive paw pads and her mouth when she grooms her feet!

And, even though you may be careful about your own yard, you can't control what your neighbors do. Your outdoor cat's risks increases dramatically once he leaves your yard.

So, if you are going to let your cats freely roam the neighborhood, there are a few things you should do to try to keep them safe. At the very least, you may get to find out that something happened to them and not have to wonder when they don't come home.

An outdoor cat should always wear a collar and ID tag. There are many colors and styles available but be sure it is a breakaway cat collar. Breakaway cat collars are designed to 'break apart' if the cat gets hung up on a fence or tree so he doesn't hang himself and choke to death. A good one is Personalized Coastal Breakaway Cat Collars by Whisker City® You can put your phone number and other information right on the collar so you don't need a tag.

It is also beneficial to have an outdoor cat micro-chipped as well in case the collar comes off. The chip can be read by a special hand-help scanner identifying you as the owner of the cat. Not all shelters and veterinary offices have them though so be sure to check locally to see which ones do.

At the very least, keep an up-to-date 'lost cat' photo so you can quickly and easily post fliers if your outdoor cat goes missing. You don't want to be frantically looking for an up-to-date photo, or worse, not have a photo, when one of your cats is lost! Make sure the picture clearly shows your cat and be sure to include identifying information such as special markings, eye color, etc.

We keep a photo with each cat's vital statistics in a folder on our computer. It is updated annually. Even though our cats don't roam the neighborhood, should one of them get out and become lost, we have everything we need right at our fingertips. All we have to do is print it out!

If you don't want to keep your cats confined to the indoors, but don't want to let them roam free, make them an outdoor enclosure! This will provide your multiple cat household with more room for them to play, fresh air and sunshine, while keeping them safer than if they freely roam the neighborhood.

There are sill risks however. Bug bites and stings, gophers, lizards, and depending where you live, snakes! - just to name a few. Pesticides and other lawn care products are risky too!

Because we live in 'farm country', the spring and summer months can easily turn into a bug nightmare! And a few cats have been stung and/or bitten by bugs so we have to use pesticides - but we do take a few safety precautions to protect our cats.

We use a bug killer that is considered safe for people and pets after it dries. We spray in the morning on a day that will be sunny and warm to be sure it dries thoroughly.

Before spraying, we block the cat door and put up a sign so no one accidentally opens the screen door to the 'kitty paddock' and lets a determined cat out. We do a head count - twice - just to be sure everyone is inside. And, as much as they hate it, we keep them from using the outdoor cat enclosure for a full day.

We only have to do this a couple of times a year and so far, none of our cats, even the kittens, have become ill in any way from spraying the yard in this manner. We feel the risk from using a pesticide is less than the risk of having and elderly cat or young kitten become severely sick or injured by a vicious spider bite!

Rodents are another issue. While we do have a small gopher problem, there is no type of rodent poison that we feel is safe for our cats. Not only will the poisons kill the rodent, it can also kill a cat that plays with or eats the poisoned rodent! A risk we are not willing to take. We have tried the ultra-sonic gopher deterrents without result so we just don't bother with them.

For the most part, the gophers and other rodents seem to figure out very quickly that the 'kitty paddock' is a dangerous place for them and move on so they are only considered a minor issue for us.

But, just to be on the safe side, we make sure all of the cats are vaccinated, including rabies, and treated for fleas and ticks before being allowed into the outdoor cat enclosure.

The cats are also dewormed every 4 months just in case! Profendericon is great for deworming as it treats the usual worms and tapeworms - and it's applied topically so no fighting with the cats to get pills down them!

We don't use actual fertilizer but we do use a weed and feed lawn product in the spring to help keep the grass green as long as possible. We follow the same safety precautions as when we use the pesticide and have had no problems. It gets very hot here in the summer so it is hard to keep the grass green but at least we can keep the weeds to a minimum. And our cats can and do eat the grass without any ill results.

As with the pesticide, we spray in the early morning hours on a day that will be sunny and warm. And we don't let the cats use the outdoor enclosure until the evening.

Another safety precaution we do applies to our light colored cats. Some cats, especially those with very pink noses and light eye color, are susceptible to sunburn which can lead to skin cancer. Sensitive areas include the nose, ears, and any areas with minimal hair.

Some of our cats, like kids, don't know when to come in out of the sun. So, for the ones with cute little pink noses (like Herbie pictured above), we apply sunscreen! Cats with dark colored noses have enough pigment to protect them from sunburn so they don't need the sunscreen. We use UVet Sunscreen lotion SPF40 which is specially designed for pets and safe to use on cats.

Many of the sunscreen products for pets are only safe for horses and dogs so be sure to read the labels before you buy one for your outdoor cat. The UVet Sunscreen also comes in a spray form but, as cats are often afraid of sprays (they sound like a hiss) and it is hard not to get the spray in their eyes, we find a dab of the cream on the nose to be the easiest to use.

Don't use sunscreen made for people, even the ones made for babies. These are not supposed to be ingested and, since cats lick, they can become sick from ingesting these types of products.

If you are going to let your cat be an outdoor cat, take a few precautions to help him get home again. But in a multiple cat household, let you cats be an outdoor cat in their own private outdoor cat enclosure. With a few safety precautions, you cats can be happy, healthy, and safe, outdoor cats!
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