Cat researcher Sarah Hartwell's take on "The Indoor Outdoor Debate" was quite an eye-opener for me. In particular, I found the following very surprising:
In Britain an estimated 88%-92% of cats have access to outdoors. The percentage of indoor-only cats corresponds to the percentage of pedigree cats in the pet population. Some are restricted to securely fenced gardens or are supervised by the owner, but most have free access to the outside world, often via their own cat flap. Cat shelters quiz owners about their lifestyle and many require that the cat has access to a garden. Shelters do not, however, refuse to home cats as indoor-only pets if this is right for the individual cat concerned and for the owner. In America the situation is almost the reverse of that in Britain with most shelters refusing to home cats unless the cat is to be kept strictly indoors (except for specialist rescues dealing with feral cats; these seek locations where the risks are acceptable for the non-tame cats concerned).
Apparently, until very recently, I've been looking at the question of in-versus-out for cats from a very, well, American frame of mind. My default perspective for years has been that "ideally" cats ought to be kept indoors, with exceptions being made only for feral cats, working cats (e.g., barn or factory mousers), or cats whose humans come from generations prior to my own when letting felines roam was just "the thing to do" (and who haven't caught up with the times, so to speak). And in keeping with this perspective, before I adopted my current pride of four, I assumed they would all be indoor-only.
My reasoning was mostly based on safety, as articles here, here, and here indicate many of the deadly dangers to outdoor cats, all of which are preventable if cats are kept indoors.*
However, recently I have reconsidered my position, and currently don't see the question of "should cats go outdoors or not?" as even really being one that makes sense outside the context of each individual feline's situation.
Of course there are some cats that should live solely indoors due to (for instance) health issues, e.g., those who are FIV-positive, or who belong to breeds whose physical characteristics render them vulnerable to the elements (e.g., hairless Sphynx cats being at risk of severe sunburn), or who have not yet been spayed or neutered.
And of course there are situations where it is simply physically infeasible or egregiously dangerous to let cats outdoors, such as when one lives at the top of a high-rise apartment complex, or at the edge of coyote-infested woods.**
In my (and the resident felines') case, neither of the above situations applies to us. All four cats here are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, FIV and FeLV negative, treated monthly with topical flea-preventative medication, and fully clawed (I am firmly against declawing cats, by the way, regardless of whether they're going to go outdoors or not). We live in a fairly average (for the area) suburban house, on a not-too-busy street (where perhaps one or two automobiles per hour go by throughout most of the day).
Given these factors, my present take on the situation is that yes, dangers exist outdoors that the cats would not be exposed to indoors -- but there are no "absolutes" that I can see demanding that I either keep them in all the time or let them out as a matter of obligation.
In other words, I do not believe that either keeping cats indoors or letting them outside is categorically "irresponsible" or "cruel". Rather, I think one really must take care to consider the particular cats, the particular environment, and so on, when determining what "access privileges" the resident kitties will have in a given home situation.
So, all that said, currently only one of my cats (Nikki) has any sort of unsupervised access to the outdoors.
If you will recall, I adopted Nikki from my parents in January 2010, when they moved out of state. And I might be a bit sketchy on the details, but as far as I know, my parents had kept Nikki indoors until she was about five years old. At some point they harness-trained her (which she took to very well), and after that she was outdoors some of the time.
Then, a dog joined their household for the first time, and it turned out that Nikki was, shall we say, not a dog person. An Epic Battle for Territory ensued (of the sort involving such lovely phenomena as middening), and Nikki ended up becoming a nearly full-time outdoor cat for about a year (prior to moving in with me, Matt, and the Formerly Feral Trio).
In any case, I kept Nikki indoors full-time for the first month or so of her being here, then started her out on leashed (and fully supervised) walks around the yard. She settled in very well (certainly better than one might have expected, given a highly territorial eight-year-old Siamese!). We had no "marking incidents" whatsoever; apparently Nikki prefers dealing with three rowdy kittens to one rowdy Dachshund, and I am sure having multiple litter boxes (an absolute essential in a multi-cat household) helped in this regard.
However, Nikki very clearly knew that the outdoors was there, and she told me repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms (lots of yowling at scratching at the door) that she wanted to be there. I also just generally get the distinct sense from her that she cannot abide being patronized (neither can I!), and when she was asking emphatically to go out she seemed to be saying something like "Come ON now! I'm an ADULT!" Which she is. And I am doing my best to respect her as an adult (and no, this is not "anthropomorphism" -- anyone who has spent any time around adult cats vs. kittens will likely see differences in "bearing" if they bother paying attention. Grownup cats know they're grownups, and they expect you to acknowledge this.).
So, after about another month, I let her out off the leash. She did not run away. She did not bolt into the street. What she did was almost immediately jump into my arms (out on the back patio) and purr.
"You're welcome,", I said. And I knew I'd made the right decision, or at least the right decision by Nikki.
Ever since then, she's had the liberty to come in and out as she pleases -- so long as (a) at least one human is home to act in the capacity of doorperson, and (b) it isn't dark outside.
Mostly she stays in her own back yard, with occasional forays into the next door neighbor's yard (on one side -- the people on the other side have a large dog, meaning Nikki is well inclined to steer clear!). She crossed the street a few times when she first started going out, but seems to have stopped doing that lately, following a series of negotiations with Allie (whose humans live directly across from us), another highly territorial ladycat.
"You stay on your side, and I'll stay on my side!"
And when I've been out with Nikki, I've noticed her general reaction to cars in motion is to move away from them, which indicates her overall sense of danger to be a fair sight better than my own (unlike her, I've actually been hit by a car!).
Hence, I am not exceedingly worried about Nikki going out these days, and she seems to be much happier with the situation now that she has garden access. Overall she probably spends maybe two or three hours outside a day, sometimes more on weekends (she likes to watch me and Matt do yard-work!), and less when it's raining or otherwise nasty out. It's a situation that largely works well for everyone here, human and feline alike.
Leash Training The Younglings
As for the youngster-kitties, so far only Coraline (surprise!) has shown any real interest in going outside. Brodie and Shadow will not even try to leave the house if the door is wide open right in front of them (though I don't push my luck in that regard, as I am sure if something startled them they might run in the direction of an open door).
Cora, on the other hand, has been very very interested in the door (and what lies beyond) for several months now. A while back (and I've alluded briefly to this before) I made what turned out to be a fiasco of an attempt at taking her out without first letting her get accustomed to the feel of the harness and leash -- essentially she got frightened and tried to bolt and squirm out of the harness, and I only barely got her back inside before she could accomplish this.
So I waited a few weeks for the shock of that experience (probably more to me than to her!) to dissipate, and then started her off wearing the harness in the house for a few minutes, then up to an hour (or thereabouts) daily. At first she did what I call the "weasel walk" (a low-to-the-ground crouch) and seemed a bit on the twitchy side, but within about a week she was running around, climbing the shelves, and scrapping with her brothers just as usual with the harness on.
At that point -- when I could see she wasn't scared or bothered by the feeling of the harness, and could move about confidently with it on -- I tried taking her outdoors again, and things went much better! The first time, she just sat on the mat outside the back sliding door for a few minutes, then turned around and indicated she wanted to go back inside, so of course I opened the door and let her in. Since then, she's gone on leashed jaunts all around the back yard, part of the front yard, and down the sidewalk a bit.
And she has really seemed to enjoy it -- seriously, she is generally (what looks to me like) a happy, active, confident cat, but outside it's like everything gets amplified several notches. I really have to get a video of this soon -- she does this ultra-confident little tail-swagger when she's outside walking around, and just gets this alert, almost cocky look on her face. And she sniffs at everything, watches everything, listens to everything, in this way that is just so...obviously, immersively feline. It is such a delight to see, and hence our recent walks have been tremendously fun for both Cora and me. She very clearly knows the difference between "inside" and "outside" and I am glad that she is taking so well to the harness, etc.
Eventually I do plan to try and get the boys used to the harness (and walking on the leash outside) as well, even though right now they seem to actively prefer the indoors.
Shadow has already worn the harness (indoors, of course) a few times and he definitely had a "WTF" reaction to it at first, but is getting better each time. He is very playful (meaning, if you wave a toy around he will come running from anywhere in the house to pounce on it) so I've been putting the harness on him and then getting out the interactive toys he likes, so he will be more inclined to move about and in doing so discover that while the harness might feel weird, it doesn't actually impede his movement.
Brodie, on the other hand, has yet to undergo any real harness-acclimation. This is mostly because, while he's very lovey (to the point of lying on his back on my lap whilst purring and drooling like a leaky faucet), he isn't so much for being approached. He has to be the one to approach you (or rather, me). Which is utterly and perfectly fine, and I am glad he has the self-respect to know his own mind in that regard. But it definitely makes it difficult to, you know, catch him and stick a harness on him. Maybe if I get the harness in advance, sit down, and then wait for him to come sit on me, I can get it onto him to start the acclimation. I shall have to brain-storm on that, though.
Revising My Reasoning
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and it has occurred to me that even if I vowed to keep all the younger cats inside, the chance always remains that they could get out. And if that happens, I figure it's better for them to be familiar with their immediate outdoor surroundings, and with the feel and look of the world-outside-the-house in general, than have it come at them as this big, terrifying mass of information overload. That way they are more liable to, say, wait patiently by the door or even try to get back in the door than bolt off in fright and disappear into the bushes (or worse, run into the street in a moment of panic).
And...while, again, I do NOT think it is "cruel" to keep a cat indoors for his/her entire life if the circumstances demand it (there are ways to create highly enriching, fun-for-cats indoor environments, after all, and there are some cats for whom the outdoors would simply be a terrible idea, i.e., those with compromised immune systems), I like the idea of being able to (while looking out for their safety) show my kitties that there's more to the world than the inside of one house.
That way, if (Bast forbid) we ever had to evacuate during some sort of natural disaster, etc., the cats would not be quite so panicked at the prospect of leaving the house, and would take the likely ensuing chaos in better stride.
So...it feels sort of weird to say this, but in some ways I now feel that providing some outdoor access to the felines-in-residence here is actually better for them, safety-wise, than keeping them inside all the time. Which I know deviates somewhat from the American Conventional Wisdom of Keep All Cats Indoors All The Time For Their Own Good, but makes sense to me given what I've learned recently, and what I've observed about my particular cats.
Moreover, at some point I would really like to modify the back yard fence (which is a full-surround wooden affair, between 5 and 8 feet high, depending on the side you're looking at) with cat fence material. That way the cats could go out, have the additional territory (and sights, sounds, and smells) of the back yard to enjoy, but would not be able to access the street. Really I think that would be the best of all possible situations, but it will need to wait until I do some more planning and determine things like material cost and design, etc., customized to suit our yard.
I don't know yet if I will end up giving any of the younger cats off-leash or unsupervised garden access (like Nikki has). With Nikki at least I had the knowledge of her prior history as a mainly-outdoor cat, as well as her lack of a tendency to play in traffic -- with the younger cats, I simply have no idea what they'd do given access to a street, and I really don't fancy finding out via "trial and error". I suspect that they would most likely be fine, given the relative cat-friendliness of the neighborhood, but I can't say the same for my nerves! So for the time being, I am likely to stick to supervised outings for the younglings. And with any luck someday I will manage to configure a safer garden area for them to go out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine in.
* It is worth noting that of course there are dangers indoors as well! Curious kittens may chew electrical cords, ingest string or other foreign objects, etc. Cleaning fluids and such must be carefully stowed away. When I first adopted the younger cats you can believe I had to do a lot of kitten-proofing in the house!
** Though in either of those cases, it may still be possible to take a cat outdoors, on a leash or in a "sightseeing" carrier such as a Pet Pocket.