It could be time to start working on your catio plans. Outdoors access
with lower risk is good for pet cats’ quality of life.
By Zazie Todd, PhD
When cats are given outdoors access that is restricted, like a catio or a yardwith a secure fence they can’t escape from, it’s good for their welfareaccording to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Whether or not cats should have outdoors access is a topic with a strongcultural component. In the UK, many cats are given outdoors access for part ofthe day, whereas in some countries it is more common to keep cats as indoors-only pets. Could restricted outdoors access be the best of both worlds, givingcats the option to explore outside whilst protecting them from road trafficaccidents and predators?
Researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, investigated people’s perceptionof the welfare of their cats after they installed an enclosure that gave catsaccess to a safe but contained outdoor space.
Dr. Luciana Santos de Assis, first author of the paper, says,
“The most important point is related to having a practical alternative for‘unsupervised access to outdoors’ and ‘living strictly indoors’ that keeps ahigh quality of life for pet cats and protects the environment.”
“Interestingly, even cats that used to have unsupervised access outside oftheir homes seemed to show signs of improved welfare with a controlled outdoorenvironment, which indicates that it’s not just about them being able to dothings outside but also feeling safe outdoors that is important.”
The study looked at three different types of enclosures made by Protectapet,who partly funded the study but were not involved in the research. Catios, orcat-patios, attach to the house and are fully enclosed with a roof as well assides. Cat enclosures are a fenced area that is often open at the top, butwith brackets on top of the fence to prevent cats from being able to jump out.And fence barriers fix to an existing fence or wall to prevent cats fromleaving a yard or garden.
446 cat guardians, most of whom lived in an urban area, completed thequestionnaire which included an assessment of the cats’ welfare.
34% of the cats were indoors-only before the enclosure was installed, and afurther 14% had only an hour of outdoors access a day. After the installation,all of the cats had some outdoors access, with 68% spending 3-7 hours a dayoutdoors in the enclosure.
The results showed that questions about cat welfare tended to group into fourfactors representing health, positivity (such as how the cat behaves with theowner and in the home), maintenance behaviours (such as grooming and eating),and fearfulness. On average, all of these factors improved after theinstallation.
The cats were said to show fewer signs of stress after the installation,including less anxiousness, being less likely to disturb the owner at night,less house-soiling, and fewer episodes of unexplained mood and irritability.
Cats who had previously been allowed outside on their own had better healthafter the installation, according to their owners, which suggests theybenefitted from the security the system gave them. Cats who were indoors-onlyor only had supervised access did not show this benefit in the same way. Ofcourse it’s possible that people who think their cat loves to roam freelywould not get such a system, so it’s not possible to generalize to all catsfrom this result.
Before installing the system, people had concerns about their cat havingoutdoors access such as the cat getting injured or dying on the road, and thecat getting lost, stolen or fighting with other cats. Not surprisingly, theseconcerns dropped very significantly after the installation.
People’s perceptions of how often other people’s cats visited showed a markeddecrease, with an average of one visiting cat per month after installation.The decrease was most apparent when the system took up a lot of space (e.g.the entire garden).
This reduction in visiting cats could be one reason why cats who previouslyhad unrestricted outdoor access seemed to do better once the enclosure wasinstalled. In urban areas there are often many neighbouring cats, and we knowthat cats will often ‘timeshare’ and try to avoid seeing other cats becauseit’s stressful. So not having those visiting cats may have helped the catsfeel more secure.
The study relied on people’s memory of how their cat’s behaviour had changedafter the installation, so it would be nice to see some longitudinal researchas a follow-up that got ratings both before and after installation. But sincemany people are interested in catios and other similar set-ups, there will bea lot of interest in these results.
Dr. Santos de Assis says,
“Owners do not need to choose between strictly indoors or unsupervised accessto outside to make their cats happy and safe. They can keep a high standardlevel of welfare with outdoor access and with a much reduced risk, as well asprotecting the wildlife.”
The length of time cats spent in their new enclosure shows that they liked tospend time there, and the questionnaire results show a number of benefits tocats’ welfare. Although more research is needed, this study suggests that catsare very happy with some kind of restricted access to the outdoors.
While cat patios and enclosures may not be within everyone’s reach, cats seemto appreciate them. And if your cat is indoors-only, remember there are plentyof things you can do to set your home up right for them. (See: The fivepillars of a healthy environment for cats).
Image: Photo: Ellie Burgin/Pexels
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