Letting the Cat Out of the Box

Periodically practitioners encounter situations where concepts which seem so terribly right when viewed purely from a medical perspective may break down completely when we take their effects on the animal’s behavior, its relationship with the owner, and that person’s relationship with us into account. For example, some people champion a blanket policy which states that all cats should be confined to their owners’ homes. When asked why they favor this approach, supporters of this policy point to statistics which indicate that house cats live much longer than free-roaming animals. The reason for this, we are told, is because confined cats don’t succumb to problems associated strictly with the outdoors, such as being hit by vehicles, attacked by free-roaming domestic or wild animals, or abused by perverted humans.

No one can argue with the logic of this rationale. However, it unfortunately completely ignores the behavioral needs of many cats and the nature of some owner-feline relationships. Admittedly, except for under the most bizarre circumstances, the probability of a cat being struck by a vehicle or attacked by a free-roaming animal while confined indoors is practically nil. On the other hand, cats bored out of their minds in sterile environments or those made frantic by stimulus emitted by outdoor animals can pull down draperies and shelving and knock over plants and other objects and injure themselves. While few house cats risk deliberate poisoning, they may explore or seek shelter in cabinets that contain toxic substances which they eat or accidentally ingest while grooming themselves. Confined incompatible cats in multiple cat households may fight more frequently and viciously than outdoor cats with access to more space.

In all of these situations, cat and owner must face two troubling issues: any physical problems the cat suffers secondary to its behavior, and any negative effects that behavior and its consequences have on the relationship between owner and animal. Furthermore, when Suzie Bardwell discovers her curio shelf on the floor with her collection of antique porcelain dolls smashed to bits and bloody paw prints from her cat, Buddy, all over her powder blue rug, she might not think very kind thoughts about the veterinarian who insisted she would make Buddy a house cat “if she really loved him,”either. And while confining a cat will protect it from abuse by free-roaming human strangers, it does nothing to protect the cat from abuse within the household. Ms Bardwell might become so frustrated and angry at her pet’s destruction that she picks him up and hurls him at the wall. Worse and unlike cats outdoors, there is no place where Buddy can escape from her rage in the tiny apartment.

But even though the word “abuse” usually conjures up images of people physically harming an animal, we must not forget that humans may subject animals to mental abuse, too. Sadly, we often overlook this because our training and education focuses almost exclusively on physical issues. However, confinement in a human-contrived, artificial environment that doesn’t meet an animal’s behavioral as well as physical needs also serves as a form of abuse. While true for any animal, this may be particularly true for the cat because its relatively brief period of domestication conceivably has not given it the behavioral elasticity necessary to adapt to human idiosyncrasies.

Even more troubling, when some confined animals succumb to medical problems recognized to involve behavioral/stress components in humans (such as irritable bowel disease and lower urinary tract problems), we may view these as strictly medical issues and completely ignore the admittedly often unwitting mental abuse of the animal that precipitated them. Owners who can’t afford the sometimes costly work-ups and chronic treatments or who deplore the negative effects the cat’s physical problems have on their relationship may opt to give the animal access to the outdoors rather than give it up or euthanize it. Not surprisingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that at least some of these animals experience an improvement in their physical health when this occurs. While good news for the cat and owner, this may undermine the relationship between the owner and veterinarian: “Why did Dr. Felis put us through all that mental anguish and expense treating the cat when just letting her out would have solved the problem?” they grumble.

Does this mean that we should become champions of free-roaming cats? Probably not. In addition to the harm that may befall free-roaming cats, they can do a fair amount of harm themselves. Among other feline-related problems, their feces in gardens and children’s sand boxes pose a public health threat; their predatory behavior may contribute to the loss of wild species in certain areas.

On the other hand, advocating the confinement of cats without fully discussing the importance of providing an enriched and secure environment probably creates as many problems for those animals as they would encounter outdoors. Spraying house cats who wind up in shelters don’t make it into studies on the life span of strict house cats. Nor do those cats which get dumped in some secluded roadside rest stop because their owners can’t tolerate the cats’ destructive behaviors any more.

We don’t want to throw away the box that recommends confining cats, but we shouldn’t let it limit our thinking, either. Every time we make any recommendation theoretically designed to enhance animal health, we must also address exactly what this will mean to this particular animal’s behavior and its relationship with this particular owner. Cats used to living outdoors may require gradual exposure to more and more time indoors. Very active animals might need elaborate activity centers within the household or even large secure enclosures outdoors to relieve the stress associated with confinement. By discussing how any recommendation may affect the full spectrum of animal and owner needs and how owners may fulfill these, we can ensure that any changes will only strengthen the client’s relationship with us as well as promote animal physical and mental health and well-being.