Outdoors is not so great for cats

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Many cat owners believe it is important to allow their pets the freedom to roam outside the home, and it is true that cats are creatures with sharp senses that delight in the sight, sounds, smells and tastes of the outdoors. However, allowing cats to roam outside can be inherently dangerous.

Cats allowed outdoors face the dangers of traffic, poisons, unfriendly neighbors and native wildlife such as coyotes, wolves and eagles that may prey on them. Other domestic animals like dogs can harm cats and conflict with other outdoor cats over territory or mates is a frequent source of injuries. Outdoor cats also are highly susceptible to numerous fatal diseases.

However, cats need to exercise both their bodies and their minds. One way to allow cats the pleasure of the outdoors without all the risks is to offer them safe experiences outside by providing them a secure enclosure off the house or in the yard. Outdoor pens can range from simple screened-in sun porches that allow cats to enjoy a sunny day from the safety of your home, or can be complex fenced-in runs ordered commercially.

Regardless of which design is chosen, the primary requirements for any enclosure are that it be sturdy and escape-proof. The enclosures can be furnished with old tree stumps and logs, tree branches, non-toxic plants and other natural items for scratching and perching.

Be sure anything put in the enclosure is stable and that it won't injure a cat or breach the enclosure walls by falling or tipping over. Also, rearrange the decor from time to time to keep the cats stimulated.

For those who want to enrich their cats' lives with the outdoors but can't find the time or money to build an enclosure, cats can be taught to accept a harness and leash for a supervised walk, just like dogs.

This can take some time and owners shouldn't be surprised if a cat bounces around at the end of the leash at first. Remember to take things slowly, allow the cat to calm down and be sure to praise it for being good once it is calm.

On the first few walks it is common for a cat to just want to lie in the grass or sniff the breeze, but as the cat gets more used to the idea it will gradually begin to explore and "true" walks can begin. Try to go for walks in quiet areas away from cars, people and other pets. On the first walks, keep things brief, positive and try to end the experience on a good note.

Another alternative to allowing cats to roam outdoors is to keep them indoors altogether, but to create a stimulating environment for your cat in the home.

Interacting and playing with cats can easily satisfy their stalking instincts and keeps cats stimulated and healthy with exercise. This can also lead to a deeper, more satisfying relationship between cat and owner. Try scheduling a tiring play session in the evening, since most cats are more active nocturnally by nature.

Owners also can provide numerous climbing posts, perches and cat towers, from floor to ceiling, at different levels so cats can climb and view their world from various vantages. Try to provide a perch near a window overlooking a bird feeder where cats can spend hours watching the action.

Commercially purchased toys can keep cats active and in shape. Also, don't underestimate a cat's curiosity with common household items such as cardboard boxes, empty paper bags and laundry baskets. Small crinkly objects such as pieces of paper can be fun for a cat to chase and attack as they would prey. Some cats can even be taught to fetch. Sprinkling catnip and other household spices around the house in various locations can keep cats on the move and entertained.

It may take up to a few weeks before a cat adjusts to life indoors. During this time an owner may have to endure a little crying and pacing, but they shouldn't be tempted to give in and let cats outdoors to roam. For most owners, the few weeks of sad meows are a fair trade-off for the peace of mind they will gain from knowing that their cat's life is healthier and safer indoors.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at clar ion@alaska.net.



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