The Cat’s Out of The Bag: Controlled Outdoor Space is Key to Happiness

4 March 2021

Written by: Tim Marks

As national restrictions have limited our social interactions and kept millions of people at home, many families have seen their households grow with the addition of a new pet.

As national restrictions have limited our social interactions and kept millions of people at home, many families have seen their households grow with the addition of a new pet.

For new cat owners, one of the biggest decisions to make is whether to keep their pet indoors or allow it access to the outside world, with a number of owner and cat-related factors to consider, often relating to the cat’s physical safety and that of neighbouring wildlife.

Now, animal experts from the University of Lincoln, UK, have investigated whether controlled outdoor access has any bearing on the happiness of our feline friends in a new study funded by ProtectaPet®.

More than 400 cats took part in the study, including indoor cats and those with free access to roam outside, allowing researchers Dr Luciana Santos de Assis and Professor Daniel Mills to develop a new feline welfare score to investigate the impact of installing a controlled outside environment using specialist products such as cat fencing to create a contained space.

Dr de Assis, said: “The new feline welfare score was built from a mathematical model of the relationships between 21 individual welfare measures. This showed their wellbeing could be considered to four dimensions: health issues, fearfulness, positivity (related to playfulness and being relaxed around their owner) and maintenance behaviours (eating, drinking, hunting and sleeping).”

Findings showed that indoor cats who had access to a controlled outdoor environment showed improvement with maintenance behaviours which were associated with positive welfare.

Outdoor cats used to unsupervised access to the outside showed lower health issues such as physical injuries and improved scores in the positivity category, with the system in place. Interestingly, this seems to indicate that it’s not just about being able to do things outside, but also feeling safe outdoors that is important.

Professor Mills said: “Many owners feel conflicted about letting their cat out, because they worry about the risks, but feel their cat would appreciate being out. Understandably many owners will keep their cats inside, but our work shows that there is a practical alternative that works, and yes, the cats do benefit from being outside, and even more so when that outside environment is protected.”

Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Advocacy for International Cat Care and a Visiting Fellow of the University of Lincoln, said: “For many cats, access to the outdoors provides opportunity to meet their behavioural needs and as a result, improves their mental wellbeing. However, we recognise that the outdoor environment available to cats is diverse in nature, varying in both enriching features and potential hazards and stressors, so there is no blanket rule for how to keep our cats when it comes to outdoor access.

“This study by colleagues at the University of Lincoln shows that once a barrier was installed to introduce a controlled area outdoors, cats spent significantly more time outside, their wellbeing increased and their owners’ concerns about leaving their cats outside significantly decreased.”

Dr Eve Davies, Communications Director at ProtectaPet®, said: “We expected the welfare of cats who had previously been exclusively indoors to improve, but this research highlights that the welfare of cats who had previously been used to free roaming also improved significantly. This suggests that cats who have unrestricted access to the outdoors may be exposed to stressors such as neighbourhood bullies and the implementation of a controlled territory reduces their stress and enhances their wellbeing.”

The study can be read in full in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.