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Study explores reasons behind owners’ decisions to let cats outdoors

Study explores reasons behind owners’ decisions to let cats outdoors

Cats adopted from shelters may be more likely to stay in the comforts of their own homes than cats acquired as strays, according to a study published recently in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

A recently published study found that cats who lived with canine siblings were more likely to venture outside, but apparently these animals haven’t heard the news yet.
But cats who share their home turf with canine housemates may be significantly more likely to venture into the great outdoors than those in dog-free abodes, wrote Elizabeth Clancy, Antony Moore, and Elizabeth Bertone in “Evaluation of cat and owner characteristics and their relationships to outdoor access of owned cats” (Vol. 222,No. 11, June 1, 2003).

The researchers piggybacked their analysis on the Feline Health Study, a project that collected baseline health and lifestyle data to determine potential risk factors for diseases in owned cats. Using information gathered from owners of about 184 cats in 168 households, the researchers discovered that those cats acquired more recently were more often kept indoors than those acquired in previous years—a finding not related to age or health. While the result may indicate that outdoor access increases with duration of ownership, it may also be evidence of “increased awareness among cat owners of inherent welfare issues,” wrote the researchers.

“Some of this increased awareness may be attributed to the educational efforts of humane organizations and veterinarians, as well as changes in society that accompany the transition from rural to urban or suburban lifestyles,” they added.

Overall, few owners in the studied population allowed cats to remain outdoors at night, and many limited outside access during the day. The findings may not be representative of cat owners in general, however, since the study included only those who were committed enough to keep their cats for the long haul and to bring them to the hospital for medical treatment. “[I]t is possible that our results, particularly as they pertain to those cats acquired in earlier years, are representative largely of successful cat-owner relationships ...” the researchers explained.

For example, while it’s possible to see the greater tendency to keep shelter-adopted cats indoors as a hopeful sign that people are paying closer attention to adoption counselors, the finding could also be attributable to self-selection on the part of both shelters and owners. “[P]ersons who adopt cats from shelters may be better informed,” the researchers wrote, “or shelter placement policies may preferentially favor persons who will keep cats indoors.”

But variables the researchers had assumed would affect the decision to open the doors for cats—including age, health, vaccination status, and declawing status—did not seem to play a role after all. Researchers surmise that perhaps owners believe that outdoor access “is an important part of quality of life for their cats” and are possibly unaware of the potential health and safety risks, particularly for cats who are ill, on medications, unvaccinated for feline leukemia, or declawed.

As the study’s authors note, many shelters are already involved in outreach programs that have potential impact beyond their four walls, but new strategies may need to focus specifically on cat owners who acquired their animals as strays. “Humane societies that are considering educational programs and policies regarding outdoor access for owned cats should fully evaluate cat owner practices in their community and design policies that will address specific concerns,” the study’s authors wrote.

Because so many people bristle at the suggestion to keep their cats indoors at all times, the researchers propose a different tactic. Rather than labeling cat owners as irresponsible if they let their cats outside, they say, shelters should introduce a “consumer choice” approach that helps people realize how they can gradually modify their cats’ environments: “An incremental reduction in time that cats spend outdoors, rather than a prohibitive approach, may be highly effective; this proposal may appeal intuitively to owners who wish to allow cats outdoor access while keeping the cat supervised and safe.”


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