letting indoor cats outside
Questions About Cats

Letting an Indoor Cat Outside for the First Time

The debate on keeping cats indoors and letting them out has raged for years. All cat owners and experts have different views on what’s best. You know your cat better than anybody, though. You will understand when the time is right to let an indoor cat go outdoors.

Head into the back yard with your cat on a leash. This will help you and your cat feel secure. Clear the area of hazards and clear as many hiding places as possible. Allow your cat to grow accustomed to the sights and smells of the outdoors. Start with a short time outside, gradually increasing this. Eventually, your cat will be free to venture outside.

You must learn how to transition a house cat to outdoor status. It’s not as simple as opening the door and leaving the cat to its own devices. Risks must be minimized, and training implemented. With appropriate patience, an indoor cat can flourish outside.

My Indoor Cat Wants to Go Outside

All cats are individuals, with their own desires and preferences. Some felines find the outside world intimidating, preferring to remain inside. Others will find themselves growing unfulfilled by life indoors, becoming increasingly keen to venture outside.

If a cat that has always remained inside wants to go out, try to understand why. This will help you decide as to whether this is a good idea. Not all cats are cut out for life outside. You’ll need to assess risk vs. reward and decide if this is appropriate.

There are many reasons why indoor cats develop a sudden interest in the great outdoors. Here are most common examples.

Curiosity

It’s a big world out there, and your cat knows it. Whenever you come home from work, your cat likely rubs against you. While this is undeniably a sign of affection, it also has another purpose. The cat is ridding you of external scents, replacing them with its own.

Your cat will pick up on these scents, though. They are unfamiliar and unlike anything in the home. Indoor cats only have this single frame of reference. This will pique a feline’s innate curiosity. Where are you going, and what are you doing, to attract such aromas?

Some cats are skittish and prefer to keep the idea of outdoors as an abstract concept. Others will want to experience this new world for themselves. The latter will express interest in going outside. They want to know what lies beyond the four walls of your home.

Whether or not you wish to indulge this curiosity is a personal decision. It’s better to take your cat out and supervise it than risk an unscheduled escape, though. It’s harder to convince cats to come home if they fear they will never roam again.

Territory

Cats are instinctively driven to seek, and claim, territory to call their own. As Anthrozoös explains, this is not limited to the outdoors. Cats will also stake a claim to territory within the home. For some cats, this is not enough.

Some cats – especially intact males – desire the opportunity to claim acres of territory. This, naturally, requires leaving the home and roaming. It’s also fraught with potential risk. Other neighborhood cats, as well as stray or feral felines, will have the same idea.

Make sure your cat has plenty of territory within the home. Ideally this will be a complete room that you rarely enter. Laundry rooms, spare bedrooms and even broom closets are great interior territory for cats.

If this is impossible, ensure your cat has parts of a room to call its own. The cat must feel it can escape somewhere it feels secure and will not be disturbed. This will curb the desire to claim external territory, at least in the short term.

indoor cats vs. outdoor cats

Hunting Instinct

If your cat looks out of the window, it will notice birds congregating outside. In fact, while watching, your cat may start chirping itself. This is the cat embracing its hunting instincts. Most cats will only watch for so long before wanting to get involved.

As explained by Biological Conservation, birds are the most common prey of domesticated cats. Feral or stray cats may be likelier to hunt rodents, due to availability and familiarity. An indoor cat will be surrounded by birds though, separated by just a pane of glass.

This can become a double-edged sword for cat owners. On the one hand, keeping your cat indoors protects the local bird population. If you have a feeding table, you clearly enjoy welcoming feathered visitors. Outdoor cats will frighten birds – or worse.

Be warned, though. A cat with tempered hunting instinct can be difficult to live with. Your cat may start to take out its frustration on you. If you’re going to keep the cat indoors, you’ll need to frequently engage in hunting-replacement play.   

Estrus Cycle

If your female cat is suddenly obsessed with getting out, check if she is in heat. Cats typically enter puberty at around six months of age. If your cat has not been spayed, she will then begin her first estrus cycle. A cat in heat only has one thing on her mind.

The cat is driven by a biological urge to mate. A queen in heat essentially has an itch that she cannot scratch. She will bolt for any open door, crying to be let out at all hours. Other signs that a female cat is in heat include:

  • Attention seeking
  • Mood swings – affection one moment, aggression the next
  • Crouching down and lifting the bottom in the air (presenting)
  • Spraying and marking

These behaviors will continue until the cycle concludes, or your cat mates. Most cats will spend one to two weeks in heat. The cat will then continue to go in and out of heat until spayed. Make your cat as comfortable as possible during this time.

Naturally, intact male cats also experience the same urges. Male cats reach sexual maturity at the same time as females. Tomcats can be more aggressive in their desire to breed, though. It is advisable to neuter a male cat unless you can to breed it.

Sunshine

Cats are natural sun worshippers. The domesticated cat in your home is descended from a desert-dwelling wild animal. This means that cats will often want to get outside and feel sunshine on their skin.

Some cats will settle for a sun rays through a window. Eventually, though, this may become insufficient. The cat wants to experience all the goodness of Vitamin D for itself. This can only be achieved by basking in direct sunlight.

Socialization

If your cat looks out of the window, it will be familiar with the local area. This means that your cat will also know who comes and goes from neighboring homes. This includes both humans and other felines.

If your cat is feeling lonely, it may wish to socialize. Your pet may have seen other animals wandering in the yard, for example. Many cats will instinctively become territorial about this. Others, especially younger cats, will want to befriend their fellow felines.

Some cats are also drawn to human company. All cats have a favorite person. As an owner, you will understandably hope this is you. Cats can choose their preferred human for a range of seemingly arbitrary reasons, though.

It’s possible that a neighbor visited your home, and your cat took a shine to them. The cat will want to go out and greet this person on sight. Equally, local children may wave and talk to your cat through your window. The cat could be keen to interact with them further.

Can You Let an Indoor Cat Outside?

Indoor cats can go outside. You will need to prepare your pet for outdoor living, though. Being outside can come as a culture shock for some indoor cats. They have likely never experienced rain or inclement weather, for example.

There are some circumstances in which an indoor cat should never go outside. If these criteria apply to your pet, keep it indoors.

  • Inability to see or hear
  • Chronic arthritis or other movement issues that reduce mobility or reflexes
  • A nervous disposition that places the cat’s safety at risk
  • Low immunity, whether through illness or old age
  • Cognitive decline
  • Symptoms of anything contagious, i.e. a respiratory infection or ringworm

If your cat is healthy – and mentally sharp – you can consider letting it outside. Before you do so though, be aware of the risks involved. The great outdoors can be a dangerous place for a coddled feline. Be aware of the pros and cons of letting a cat outside.

The most obvious is flight risk. The first time that your cat ventures outside, it will be excited. The cat may grow so overwhelmed with freedom that it flees. As we will discuss shortly, this risk can be tempered with leash training. Other considerations remain, though.

Personal Injury

Within the home, you can manage your cat’s risk of injury. Outside, you will not be able to supervise your cat. This can lead to risk to impact injuries and wounds. Always inspect your cat for any sign of injury upon returning home.

If your cat ends up fighting with a fellow feline, it may be scratched or bitten. These wounds will need to be tended to. Alternatively, your cat may fall from height. Cats love to climb. Your pet may scale a tree or fence, hurting itself when it returns to earth.

Road Traffic Accidents

Veterinary Record surveyed 117 road traffic accidents involving cats over a 12-month period. An interesting statistic revealed that the risk of an RTA decreases by 16% for every year of a cat’s life. Now, we should consider the meaning of this data.

Being older does not automatically make a cat more streetwise. In fact, on paper, senior cats are likelier to be hit by a vehicle. Older cats lack the reflexes and movement of their younger counterparts. They may struggle to evade oncoming traffic.

What this does suggest is that older cats have spent more time outside. As a result, the cats have learned to respect and fear the road. This means that your cat should be introduced to traffic on a leash before wandering outside. This education may save a cat’s life.

Interaction with Other Animals

Naturally, if your cat ventures outside, it will meet other animals. There will always be risks involved in this, for both your cat and other creature. Ensure you are familiar with these.

Infectious Disease and Parasites

Biology Letters confirms that outdoor activities greatly enhance a cat’s risk of parasitic infestation. In addition, you have no idea what infections another animal may be carrying. A cat should never go outside unless fully vaccinated against all possible ailments.

At the very least, it will likely be a legal mandate that your cat is vaccinated against Rabies. You can check the law in your state. You should also protect your cat from diseases. Respiratory infections, for example, can be avoided through inoculation.

In addition, protect your cat from fleas and ticks. Feral and stray cats are often infested with these parasites. Fleas, in particular, will not think twice about attaching to your pet. Once fleas gain a foothold in your home, they can be difficult to eradicate.

Other Cats

Cats can be social, but this often takes time. Two felines will often come into conflict when they first meet. As per the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, two intact males are especially likely to butt heads.

Cats fight for all manner of reasons. These could include disputes over territory, mating privileges, or food and water sources. Cats are not equipped to share. It’s just not in their nature.

Before letting your cat outside, test how it reacts when confronted with fellow felines. Arrange a playdate with neighboring cats, one at a time. Expect plenty of posturing initially, especially hissing and growling.

If this is as far as things go, the cats will eventually learn to tolerate each other. Indifference is as positive as friendship when it comes to inter-feline dynamics. If things get physical, reconsider letting your cat out. One or both animals is likely to get hurt.

Of course, there is also the risk of pregnancy in unspayed female cats. In fact, this is more than a risk. It’s a borderline certainty. If your female has not be spayed, keep her home unless you want kittens.

Different Pets

It is not just cats that you need to consider. There will be other pets in your neighborhood too. An indoor cat may never have interacted with a different species. This can spark to a fear-based response. This, in turn, often leads to aggression.

Dogs are the most immediate and obvious concern. As mesopredators, cats are aware they are not at the top of the food chain. This means that cats fear any animal larger than themselves. A barking dog over a garden fence is unlikely to be ignored.

Worse is a playful dog that bounds up to the cat. The canine may just want to play, but the cat does not know this. For cats, attack is the best form of defense. This can lead to conflict. Injuries to either animal may follow.

Local Wildlife

You also need to factor interactions with local wildlife into your cat’s behavior. We have previous discussed how cats will likely hunt and kill birds. This can be upsetting for other people in your neighborhood, especially avian enthusiasts.

A belled collar is a potential solution to this. By fixing your cat with such an accessory, it can no longer move with pure stealth. When a cat goes to lunge, the bell will ring. This is a warning for birds, giving them time to escape.

Consider what wild animals frequent your neighborhood, too. Cats will likely hunt smaller prey but can also fall foul of wildlife. Raccoons, for example, may be aggressive. You’ll also need to consider venomous breeds of snake or insect if applicable to your territory.

Interaction with Neighbors

Consider the impact that letting your cat outside will have on your neighbors. Cats are not known for respecting boundaries. Expect your cat to become a communal pet, for good or ill. You’ll need to consider how your neighbors will react to this. Things to consider include:

  • There are no litter trays outdoors. Your cat may eliminate on lawns and in plant pots
  • Cats love to dig, and may destroy neighboring yards
  • Your cat may terrorize smaller animals, including pet rabbits or guinea pigs, on a neighbor’s property
  • Cats enter other homes, potentially making a mess or eating another pet’s food

Hopefully, your neighbors will not mind. Cats are lovable and entertaining company. Not everybody feels this way, though. Ensure your neighbors will not react poorly to your cat’s behavior. They may consider it appropriate to dispense unwelcome discipline.

Of course, there is also the risk of the opposite happening. Your neighbors may take a shine to your cat, and vice versa. If your cat is being fed and petted by somebody else, it may end up with a second home. This can become troublesome.

I’m Scared to Let My Cat Outside

If you are afraid to let your cat outside, there is nothing to say you must. Cats can live perfect happy and contented lives indoors. You will just need to ensure that you meet all your cat’s needs.

Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian explains how there are five systems required to provide an enriching home environment for felines. These are explained in the table below:

Physical Resource SystemMake sure your cat has enough space and territory to call its own. This will reduce the desire to claim more territory outside.
Nutritional SystemProvide your cat with a healthy, nutritionally balanced and tasty diet. As far as cats are concerned, home is where the food is.
Elimination SystemEnsure your cat never lacks a clean, easily accessible place to eliminate. Cats cannot abide a dirty litter tray.
Social SystemSpend time with your cat. Talk and interact, ensuring the cat does not spend too much time alone. This prevents loneliness.
Behavioral SystemMeet your cat’s basic, behavioral needs. This means ensuring that feline instincts are not frustrated and unfulfilled.

The latter is particularly critical keeping a cat happy at home. The desire to hunt, for example, must be tempered with play. Equally, allow your cat to dig and scratch approved areas. Failure to do so will see the cat scratching furniture or staircases.

If you eventually decide to let your cat outside, keep your apprehension to yourself. Cats pick up on human fear and anxiety. You will be sending a message to your cat that the outside is scary. This increases the risk of panicked flight.

Keep a smile on your face and offer constant encouragement. This will enhance your cat’s confidence and remind it that your home remains a safe haven.

Will My Cat Come Back if I Let It Outside?

As long as you make it worthwhile, yes. This is easily achieved. Just build a happy home environment that meets your cat’s needs. Current Biology confirms that cats are capable for forming empathetic bonds with owners.

Do not be offended if your cat does not return for a while. Cats do not wear wristwatches or abide by the confines of the clock. Some cats may not even return home for dinner. If the cat is engrossed in a hunt or exploration, this will take priority.

Most cats will return home if it rains. Again, though, do not assume this is the case. A cat’s instinct is to seek immediate shelter. It may prefer to hide in a shed or under a cat until the rain ceases. The cat will then return home when it feels ready.

Letting your cat outside means accepting a new level of independence. Your cat may go wandering overnight, then stroll home like it has never been away. Never scold or punish a cat for this. The cat is just doing what cats do.

my indoor cat wants to go outside

How to Let Your Indoor Cat Outside

Once you’re ready to let your cat out for the first time, you’ll need to make certain preparations. Start by walking your cat around the back yard on a leash. This will make both of you feel more secure. You can later extend leash training to streets outside your home.

Once the cat is comfortable, it’s time to let go. You’ll need to let the cat off the leash and let it roam the back yard free range. This remains just stage two of the process, though. Do not let the cat go unsupervised just yet. You’ll also need to ensure your yard is safe.

Eventually, your cat will be ready to wander alone. This can be a tough and nerve-wracking time for any cat owner. If it is what the cat wants, though, it’s for the best. Your pet will be happier with this freedom. This will only improve your bond.

Leash Training

Taking an indoor cat outside on a leash can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. Cats value free movement and will initially reject the restraint of a leash. Persevere, though. Once your cat overcomes its instinct, it will appreciate the leash.

With the aid of a leash, you can enjoy supervised time outside with your cat. You will be reassured that the cat cannot escape. Equally, the cat will feel secure with you by its side. Together, you can steadily increase your cat’s comfort outdoors.

As discussed previously, leash training can also make your cat more streetwise. Eventually, a cat will want to explore more than the back yard. This opens up the risk of road traffic accidents. Equally, the streets of your neighborhood will contain unique sights and smells.

Walk your cat up and down your area on a leash. This will help your cat adjust to the dangers and elements of the outside world. Stop every once in a while, letting the cat take in its surroundings. This will all be committed to memory and aid future safety.

Preparing Your Yard

Start your cat’s new life outdoors by allowing it to play in the back yard. Before doing so, however, prepare the area accordingly.

Start by removing any potential hazards. This means sharp garden tools, such rakes or shears. Ensure there are no planks of wood or equally dangerous items. Check that no toxic weedkiller or insect repellent has been laid down.

Do not make it easy for your cat to escape the yard. You could create a playpen, but this delays your cat’s eventual freedom. Let your cat explore and build confidence. Just make sure the cat cannot use a platform to vault a fence and escape.

Minimize hiding places in the back yard, too. Cats love to hide from their owners. It amuses them to watch you searching and makes surprise hunting attacks easier. Keep your lawn grass low and trim any hedges and bushes.

Cat Flap Training

Once your cat starts going outside, it will want to do so regularly. This means that you should invest in a cat flap. This will enable your cat to come and go at leisure. Without this, you will need to constantly let your cat in and out.

An electronic cat flap, attached to a microchip on your cat’s collar, is best. This means that your cat alone can use the flap. This prevents neighborhood felines or wild animals accessing your home uninvited.

Some training may be necessary upon first installing a cat flap. Not all cats automatically and instinctively take to these devices. Be patient with your cat, ensuring that it feels comfortable. A cat that is afraid of a cat flap may stay outside for longer than necessary.

Making Home Easily Accessible

Make it easy for your cat to make its way home. When cats first start to venture outside, they may roam further than expected. The cat is caught up in the novelty of this new experience. Do not let the cat get lost.

You can create a metaphorical trail of breadcrumbs for your cat to follow. Felines have an astonishing sense of smell. Scattering used litter or food around your property will help a cat follow its nose home.

You could also affix a collar to your cat with your contact details. This way, if your cat does get lost, you can be notified. An alternative is to microchip your cat. Only a veterinary surgery can read a microchip, though. You will be relying on a kindly stranger making the effort to visit such a location.

When Can a Cat Go Outside Unsupervised?

As with all matters pertaining to letting a cat outside, you must be the judge of this. There is a mental checklist you can prepare, though. It is inadvisable to let an indoor cat outside unless it meets all of these criteria:

  • Spaying or neutering has been conducted and the cat fully recovered
  • All vaccines have been administered or, where necessary, updated
  • Protection from parasites administered
  • Awareness of surroundings, including busy roads
  • Familiarity with the cat flap
  • A collar with your contact details affixed

Once you have met these needs, your cat can – theoretically – roam at will. Do not force the cat to do so if it does not want to. Equally, if you remain uncomfortable with the idea, keep your cat home.

All indoors cats will likely eventually express an interest in going outside. Felines are innately curious and hate to think they are missing out on an adventure. It’s fine to let a cat outside, if you’re both comfortable with it. Just educate yourself about the risks and take steps to minimize them.