Cats love to explore, to find limits to a territory they can claim, and to be the kings of all they survey. When you keep them inside, well, sometimes they covet what they can't have. Our fur babies love trying to slip out the door to explore where the grass is greener, but that's a problem. There are all kinds of threats lurking outside, from dogs and cars to coyotes and hawks to diseases and parasites.
So, how do you keep your furry child safe outside? Let's talk about it.
The first thing you should do is figure out what kind of "outdoor" cat you want your cat to be.
The first and worst kind is the escapee. This is your fully indoor cat who slips out the door when no one is looking and finds themselves lost in the great outdoors. Sometimes, these cats stick close to home and find their way back in short order; others go on lengthy journeys or even get lost, unfortunately forever. I try not to think about these too much; it's just so sad!
The second kind of outdoor cat is the cat on supervised field trips. This is the ideal way for a kitty to experience the great outdoors; you put them in a harness and watch their every move, keeping them from going too far or getting into too much trouble. A famous example of an extreme kind of "adventure cat" is Sigrid, the internet sensation.
The third kind of outdoor cat is the indoor-outdoor kitty. These are halfway between stray and feral cats and fully indoor domesticated kitties. They like to roam and explore, they get into trouble, and they're a lot more likely to end up with fleas, ticks, or worms, but they also know that they have a warm and safe place to come home to and a steady supply of food, so they don't have to scrounge for scraps or get into trouble while hunting.
There's also a fourth kind of outdoor cat, which is the truly outdoor "barn cat" kind of cat, but that's a whole different beast. These kinds of cats are often half-feral, aloof, independent, and capable of taking care of themselves… more or less. You can still take a few actions to protect them, but they'll be resistant to others. Unfortunately, these kinds of cats often live much shorter lives even when you protect and care for them; the pressures and conditions they face, the threats all around them, and the diseases and injuries all add up. That's why I always say, if you can, bring your cats inside and keep them there.
Ideally, your cat will be the second type. The third type is also acceptable if they're well cared for and you can take actions to keep them safe. The fourth are harder to protect, and the first is a devastating scenario no one wants to face.
In any case, if your cat spends any time outside, there are some steps you can take to try to make things safer for them.
Keep Your Kitty on a Harness and Supervise Outdoor Playtime
The best thing you can do if your cat really, really, really wants to get outside but you want to keep them as safe as possible is to spend time with them outdoors. Most cats can be trained to tolerate or even enjoy being put in a harness and kept on a leash, and with the other end of the leash in your hand, you can make sure they never leave your view, don't get into things they shouldn't, and keep well clear of harm's way.
There are a few downsides to the leash method, though.
Some cats really, really don't like being put in a harness. It can take a lot of training to get them to tolerate it enough to even let you put it on, let alone enjoy the outdoors with it, so be willing to take the time.
You need to be available to supervise their outdoor time. If you're busy, at work all the time, or otherwise not able to enjoy that time with your fur baby, the leash method isn't the best option.
Some of these fuzzy little escape artists can slip the leash and disappear before you know it. Be ready in case they try to give you the slip!
Thankfully, supervising some outdoor playtime helps you see what your fur baby really wants to do outside, and that can help you find more ways to enrich their time spent indoors so they don't feel as much of an urge to escape.
Get Your Cat Chipped
Even if your cat is a fully indoor cat, it's usually a good idea to get them chipped. Microchips, inserted under the skin near the nape of the neck, are a key way to identify a cat if they get lost or wander off and are picked up by someone else.
Contrary to popular belief, though, a microchip doesn't actually have any sort of tracking functionality. It's basically just a digital business card with information about you: your name, address, contact information, and maybe a bit of information about your cat, like if they're FIV+ or their name. It's all critical information that can help anyone who finds your cat then find you and reunite you two.
Note: There are GPS trackers available, which you can put on a cat's collar and will track their position. Things like the Tractive can work pretty well if your fur baby tolerates wearing it.
Even indoor cats should be microchipped, so if they happen to slip out the door when you're bringing in groceries, anyone who finds them can bring them back to you.
Make Sure They're Updated on Shots
One of the most important ways to protect your cat in the event they spend any time outside is to make sure they're updated on their shots and other treatments. The outdoors can be a scary place, but some of the greatest threats aren't even visible; they're fleas, ticks, worms carried by other critters, and even diseases spread by other cats.
Always make sure your cats are up to date on their vaccines, and try to keep them up to date on flea and other antiparasitic treatments. That way, if fleas get on them and try to breed, they'll just die off, ticks won't be able to latch on for long, worms won't be able to breed, and your kitty's immune system will fight off any diseases they're exposed to.
This won't help them stay safe from something like an aggressive neighborhood dog, a local hawk or owl, or a speeding car, of course, but it can help with the more insidious kinds of threats found in everyday life outside.
Give Them a Collar with Tags and a Bell
Just like how a microchip carries with it identification information, so too does a collar.
A collar also serves a few other purposes:
It can carry tags that have more information that is more readily available to a good Samaritan. Instead of needing to take your cat to a vet to check for a chip, they can just read the tag, find where you live, and bring your fur baby back.
It can carry a bell, which can help warn prey animals when the cat is around, which not only helps keep local wildlife safe but also helps prevent your cat from getting in a tussle with a critter that can fight back.
It shows at a glance that the cat is owned and loved and isn't just a stray that can be adopted or otherwise taken in.
Some cats really don't like wearing collars. Unfortunately, if that's the case, it might be better to just avoid letting your cat out at all.
Implement a Kitty Curfew
Even if you let your cat out to do their own wandering, you want to do everything you can to make sure they're back before it gets dark.
Why? Many of the most dangerous threats to a cat come out at night. Cars don't have as much time to react to a cat dashing into their headlights in a split second. Coyotes and other predators tend to be bolder and come out at night to hunt. Owls of sufficient size might also see your fur baby as a meal, though, of course, hawks are around during the day, so that one is kind of a wash.
Either keep your cat inside when the sun goes down or try to train them to come home when it gets dark out. Some people have even had success with training their cats to come when called or include a remote beeper on their collar and train them to come home when it beeps. There are a bunch of ways you can try to train them.
Try to Reduce Nearby Hazards
If your cat is going to be outside, you can do some work to help prepare the area and make it safer for them.
Things you can do include:
Look for plants in your yard that are toxic to your fur baby and get rid of them.
Consider seeding your lawn with a tick repellant to help minimize the chances of the parasites showing up.
Remove hazards like debris piles, holes your cat might not be able to get out of, or sharp and rusty items that can hurt them.
There are some things you won't be able to get rid of, like traffic on your street. Also, be aware that cats often roam at least an acre of land, and there may be hazards outside of your control.
Keep a Supply of Food and Water Available
For indoor/outdoor cats that spend a significant portion of their time outdoors, and for "barn cats" that spend all their time outdoors, you want to provide them with some element of safety and security. The biggest thing you can do is provide food and water for them.
This can be tricky sometimes. In the winter, for example, water can freeze unless you have some way to keep it warm or you continually refresh it. In the summer, it can dry up a lot more quickly than you might imagine, especially if it's in the sunlight. This is why having a shelter can be a great idea.
On top of that, you don't really have a way to protect the food and water from other creatures that might want to use it. Local raccoons, skunks, and other creatures are likely to find and use your resources, and that can breed conflict with your fur baby. Try to monitor what's going on, and take preventative measures if you can.
Furthermore, you want to make sure you have a comfortable spot for your cats to hang out. Warmth in the winter, shade in the summer, an enclosed space for them to hide when they feel threatened; these are all essentials. If you can't bring them inside, bring the inside to them.
Build a Catio Instead
A catio is an enclosed space that is more open to the outdoors. Small catios hang outside of windows and offer a sunny perch for a cat to get some sunlight and fresh air without truly being outside. Larger catios can even be the size of outdoor dog kennels but more carefully enclosed and full of fun things for a cat to do. They can be a great way to bring your fur baby "outside" without them truly being free to roam.
For a little more freedom, if you have a fenced-in yard, you can install a cat-proof fence to help keep them inside. Your fence needs to be adequate, touching the ground with no gaps your cat can squeeze through, but the top-of-fence protection can keep your fur baby in your yard and away from the greatest sources of danger.
So, what do you think? Do you feel more secure in letting your fur baby outside after you take these precautions? For my part, I prefer the harness method. A lot of cats don't really like it, but they can be trained to tolerate it, and keeping them in sight is always better for my peace of mind. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section down below!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more