Instead of Killing Homeless Cats, Could We Let Them Live Outside?
Should cats live indoors full-time or is it okay for them to go outside sometimes?
How about staying outside?
The belief that cats should not go outdoors is in the ascendancy among animal advocates. Some shelters require adopters to sign pledges not to let their new cats outside. Proponents of keeping cats indoors full-time argue that the animals live longer, healthier lives indoors, don't kill wild birds, don't get lost, and can be perfectly happy without going outside. The specters of cars striking cats, predators eating them, other cats and dogs fighting with them, fleas and ticks - all are invoked towards the end of keeping cats inside.
Keeping cats inside isn't necessarily easier. Preventative flea medicine isn't necessary, but indoor cats do require two things that all cats deserve, but outdoor cats can provide for themselves: exercise and stimulation. That means more than leaving some toys out for your cat - it means interactive play.
Another camp argues that cats want to spend time outside and it is unnatural and mean to deny them that pleasure.
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Indoor/outdoor cats raise a few different considerations, like microchipping (not a bad idea for indoor cats either, since they may get out) and vaccinating against diseases cats can pick up from each other.
All of these arguments and recommendations assume that there is a human who is responsible for the cat. What about cats who aren't "owned" by any human? Cats who live outside full-time, year-round?
Many people feel that all cats should be associated with human families who care for them. Consider animal shelters - they kill cats just because people don't adopt them. Letting the cats live on their own is not on the table.
Advocates for outdoor cats are trying to change that mindset. Alley Cat Allies (ACA), a national organization opposed to killing outdoor cats, explains on its website that cats have lived outdoors for thousands of years, up to only about 60 years ago. ACA argues that cats can live healthy, fulfilled lives outdoors.
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ACA is realistic about the fact that many people and organizations consider feral cats (cats who are not socialized to be friendly and feel safe with humans) nuisances. People with feral cats in their backyards, universities with colonies on campus, and others often view them as pests that need to be exterminated. ACA spends a lot of its resources promoting Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as an alternative to killing.
TNR programs trap the outdoor cats, neuter or spay them, then return the cats to their outdoor territory. Cats who have been through TNR have their left ears tipped - the tip of the ear is clipped off while the cat is anesthetized so she or he won't be trapped again.
Neutering and spaying cats offers a number of benefits. Female cats make a lot of noise when they are in heat, but spayed cats do not go into heat. Male cats fight each other over territory and spray urine to mark areas as their own, but when they are neutered they are much less likely to fight and spray. Male cats may also fight over fertile females, but not if there are no fertile females. There is some evidence that spaying in particular can prevent some kinds of cancer.
Most obviously, neutering and spaying means no kittens. The fact that ACA works so hard to reduce the population of outdoor cats through TNR is in tension with its position that living outside is a natural, happy arrangement for cats. It promotes TNR as the most effective way to reduce and eventually eliminate colonies of cats who live outside, offering evidence that killing entire colonies of cats creates a vacuum that will soon be filled by a new group of cats.
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In the long run TNR may spell the end of outdoor cat colonies, but that isn't why ACA advocates it. Rather, ACA is pleading for feline lives. In many cases, like the university that wants to get rid of the stray and feral cats on its campus, the alternative to TNR is to "euthanize" the animals because they are "unwanted."
Is a life lived outdoors, with all its attendant risks, better than death?