Living on the Edge

I once read that the average lifespan of a cat who goes outdoors is around three years. I was horrified! I often see cats in my practice that are 15-17 years old, sometimes older. In light of a feline’s potential lifespan, three years is a real crime. Now, like many other statistics that horrify us, this one can’t be easily verified. How can you quantify the number of pet cats that die in a given year, or simply vanish? Is someone keeping track of that? This must be just an educated guess. I’ve seen a lot of terrible things happen to cats, though. It’s not too hard for me to believe that violence, exposure, and infectious disease might crush their expected lifespan down into the single digits.

Cats roam when they are out, running into dogs and wild animals, even if their home is “in town”. I’ve seen many, many cats injured by other animals, even other cats. Sparring is a pretty normal part of their social structure, but it can be quite violent. Aside from the injuries sustained, infectious diseases like rabies, feline leukemia, and FIV spread pretty handily through bite wounds. As it happens, those are all incurable diseases. Cats that roam are often skillful killers of rodents and birds, which is a great way to spread internal parasites. Infestations with worms and such are usually not fatal, but you don’t want that sort of thing brought back into your home.

Other animals aren’t the only threat to a wandering feline. Cats are fast and crafty, but not enough to be safe from automobile traffic. Chilly weather sometimes lures them up into the engine compartment of a car or truck. It’s cozy up there until someone turns the ignition key. In cases where they actually survive the whirling machinery, hot surfaces, and fumes, the animal may emerge, disoriented, from a newly parked car in unfamiliar territory. It could be miles and miles away from home. Even slow-moving human inventions like garage doors maim cats by closing down on them as they attempt a last-second escape, yielding broken limbs, spinal damage, or tail pulls (a very serious injury). Actually, any kind of door or gate can be harmful if you’re accidentally locked in without access to food and water.

Pets that spend time outdoors are unsupervised. There is little to report to the vet when you are questioned about what poison he may have ingested, what type of animal jumped him, or even how long ago this occurred. Many cats that go out won’t get a chance to see a vet until their health problems are quite advanced, because no one was able to observe subtle changes in their routine. This second-hand knowledge is extremely important to your veterinarian, since cats rarely tell the entire story when questioned about their activities.

Some owners are tempted to let their cat explore outdoors, but it is habit-forming. And the negative effect it has on their longevity is real. If you have a choice about this, letting your cat out just isn’t worth the risk.

Dr. M.S. Regan