Stray cat --> Outdoor pet?
June 3, 2016 6:40 PM   Subscribe

So, yay - I've been chosen! But I can't have a cat, not really - my entire family is allergic to cats, and I have two pets now (a dog and a bird) who would NOT be okay with a cat in the house. My question is really about whether it is kind to try and keep a stray cat as an outdoor-only pet.

This cat was hanging around for a few weeks, so I started feeding it, as one might do. It's a small cat and very meow-y and definitely a stray (I've done the whole ask neighbors/post online/lost and found signs thing), and while it started out being very skittish and hissy, over the past week or so it's decided that it tolerates me, wants me to pet it (just a little bit!), and can more often than not be found on or around the front porch.

My plan regardless is to do the trap-neuter-release deal, which at the clinic here comes with vaccinations and an ear tip. They'll also check for a microchip, just in case. I don't love the idea of just dropping the cat off at the shelter, and would rather try and find it a home on my own if it needs to be an indoor cat.

I really just like the idea of having a friendly cat that I loosely own, who lives outside and lets me pet it sometimes - but everything I've encountered in my internet reading and talking with cat people says it's a Bad Idea. Is that true? Am I dooming this cat to a sad existence if I try to make it my pet but deny it access to my house? I have some soft feelings for this cat and want it to be happy!

FWIW I live in an urban area, and the most common wildlife situation here is an occasional possum or raccoon.
posted by rocketing to Pets & Animals (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's not going to live long, will probably take out some birds before it goes, and is likely to get sick with worms or fleas or whatever (not just vanish.) Also, you can expect to begin receiving gifts of dead mice and aforementioned birds on your front stoop. They also sometimes bring snakes and lizards, though only if you have snakes or lizards nearby.

On the other hand, outdoor cats basically can't be turned into indoor cats - this cat's ways are probably already set. And generally, cats do a decent job at finding happiness wherever they are.
posted by SMPA at 6:52 PM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

What is your weather like? Will you provide it shelter in the winter? What if it gets injured, will you take responsibility for its care then?

I honestly don't think it's the worst idea--I've done this a few times with varying degrees of success. But I would consider the above questions to measure just how committed you want to be. If you don't want to be that committed, consider 'fostering' while you search for a home for him or her.
posted by greta simone at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2016

Oh, and raccoons are vicious. I regret Googling to provide you evidence and refuse to share what I found.
posted by SMPA at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2016

outdoor cats basically can't be turned into indoor cats

Not true, not always. Plus this cat could have lived indoors earlier in its life.
posted by amtho at 7:02 PM on June 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

Shelter and vet, yes - I'm in the PNW and our winters are mild. Thanks for the responses so far, I really appreciate it.
posted by rocketing at 7:04 PM on June 3, 2016

On the other hand, outdoor cats basically can't be turned into indoor cats - this cat's ways are probably already set.

Not true. Not in my experience. I've done this with three cats over the course of a lifetime, and they all settled down fine as indoor-only cats.

To the OP, if it is the cat's only option, I don't think it is unkind. If you do have friends who might want to foster the kitty, I believe it is both kinder and better for the environment.
posted by frumiousb at 7:14 PM on June 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Please don't do this. Others will speak better to the cat's welfare than I can, but from the perspective of the fellow human beings in your neighborhood, it's really inconsiderate to want the superficial fun "hey, he loves me and I get to feed him!" parts of cat ownership while leaving all the difficult parts-- feces, urine, cat hair in random places, decimated local wildlife populations (and there are a surprising number of wild birds even in cities), spreading of disease, procreation and bolstering of the broader feral cat population-- to be involuntarily sustained by your neighbors.

I've lived in a situation or two where someone down the block thought it was so cute that this kitty would come to them for food and be "their" special friend... but then it was my garden that ended up smelling like a latrine, my back porch with dead and dying animals on it, me who had to deal with combing the kids' sandbox for poo before I let them play in it. Opting to have a pet should mean committing to care for that animal in full, in a way that doesn't inconvenience others. Please consider trapping this kitty and delivering her to a local shelter instead.
posted by Bardolph at 7:23 PM on June 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

I grew up with outdoor cats for the same reasons--cats wandered up to the house, we're all allergic, voila, we have outdoor cats. I also come from a rural place where people get less upset about outside pets. Our cats all had shelter (garage with a cat door) and regular vet visits. Maybe it was just luck, but they all had long lives too, died of old age or disease. One got hit by a car (so the vet supposed) and broke his tailbone, but he recovered. If you can find someone who wants an inside cat, that's better, but I don't think the life of an outside cat is so bad, as long as you take proper care of it, including providing it with shelter, vet care, and love.
posted by Mavri at 7:25 PM on June 3, 2016

Awww, hi cat!

My older cat is a former stray from an urban area, and he was not particularly healthy while living on the street. During the five or six months I knew him as a homeless kitty, he had a gross-looking abscess on one leg, some kind of skin crud that temporarily made all the fur on his ears fall out, and a huge bite from losing a fight with another cat. When we adopted him, we had to treat him for feline infectious anemia, and later we discovered that he had feline herpes in one eye, which is not bad but occasionally requires us to apply ointment to his eye for a week or so. All of these were things he'd picked up outside.

You might be thinking, well, any cat who's let outside could be exposed to all that. It's true. The kicker, though: have you ever tried to get a stray cat to the vet? It's like trying to catch water. Setting a trap won't work when you have a scheduled appointment or a medical emergency. We only managed to get Bonus Cat to the vet (and subsequently into our home) when he was limping from his bite, and probably the anemia was slowing him down too. We tried before, for one of his other icky ailments, and he was impossible to capture. At least with indoor cats you can corner them somewhere.

Loosely keeping a stray cat as a semi-pet is probably better than leaving them on the street, but it's still not as good as giving them an indoor shelter and regular vet checkups. If you can find friends who are willing to adopt or foster the cat, it would be best. (And many strays can become indoor cats; if they're coming up to humans, it's a good sign).
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:26 PM on June 3, 2016

Other people have more complete advice, but I wanted to add:

My local humane society has a Barn Cat Program for cats that sound like this one. From the program information:

"Barn Cats" and "Back Yard Buddies" are feral, un-socialized, or free-roaming cats (also called "Community Cats") who cannot be placed in a home environment. Placing them as outdoor cats in barns, sheds, garages or other outdoor structures is a humane, practical alternative to euthanasia.

Barn Cats and Back Yard Buddies discourage rodents, provide companionship for horses and other farm animals, and can live out their lives in relative security and comfort.

If you can provide shelter, and a regular supply of food and water, a Barn Cat or Back Yard Buddy may be ideal for you. These cats are FREE of charge (a municipal pet license may be required) and are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, micro-chipped, and treated for parasites.

Perhaps you could look for a similar program locally to see if this cat might find a happy fit there.
posted by ABCApplePie at 7:34 PM on June 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

I think a lot depends on the area you live in. I grew up in a rural area and lots of people acquired cats in the manner you describe - they showed up, possibly dumped, hung around until they got a name, then kept showing up for regular feedings and pettings and occasional vet care. Often for several years, without ever becoming "indoor" cats - though they might be allowed inside now and then, particularly during bad weather. Generally they slept in sheds or garages.
posted by bunderful at 7:47 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I grew up with outdoor cats, which used to be considered very acceptable (1960s). Most of them lived long lives, and they didn't bring us gifts of dead animals (though some might). We had them spayed and neutered, and they did have access to the garage in the winter. Many of my parents' generation would have no more had a dog or cat in the house than a cow or sheep. But times have changed, and lots of people consider outdoor cats unacceptable now (and one of our stray cats was, we think, moved to California by the other family who felt like they owned him). Personally, I have only an indoor cat now, but I don't think of an outdoor cat as a Terrible Thing Oh No You Cat Hater. Some people will think that though - so if you tell people you're doing this, you might get some very emotional responses. You might be able to give the cat a better life than it would otherwise have, and if you take it to a shelter, it might be euthanized, so if you decide to go that route, I'd look for a no-kill shelter.
posted by FencingGal at 7:50 PM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

nthing that the best option would be to try and rehome this cat as a barn cat in a more rural area where the living environment would provide some protection from threats like raccoons but also less likelihood of it messing up the local ecosystem.
posted by holgate at 8:46 PM on June 3, 2016

I am one of those people who thinks that cats should be indoors-only and disapprove of people choosing to have outdoor cats, but I also recognize that sometimes, indoors-only isn't on the table at all--such as in situations like yours.

I third trying to rehome this cat; even if it's still outdoors, cats in urban areas get hit by cars a lot. Imagine how you would feel if you leave to go to work one morning and see it smashed on the side of the road.

No place is safe for an outdoor cat, but you can mitigate the risks by looking for safer environments. Perhaps there is a program like the barn cat one mentioned upthread in your area.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:07 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

outdoor cats basically can't be turned into indoor cats

Not in my experience. Our current cat was promoted from outdoor cat shop stray to indoor cat pet and she wants ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the outdoors now. I've tried taking her outside and sitting with her and all she does is beg to be let back in.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:35 PM on June 3, 2016

Please consider trapping this kitty and delivering her to a local shelter instead.

Local circumstances may vary, but, in many places, this is effectively asking OP to kill the cat.
posted by praemunire at 10:39 PM on June 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

Local circumstances may vary, but, in many places, this is effectively asking OP to kill the cat.
Rehoming with friends or no-kill shelter, then. If you love the kitty enough to want to save it, then presumably you'll love it enough to be cool with doing a bit of legwork/ travelling a bit outside your home area one day if one isn't locally available.

I'm just arguing for the unethicalness of the lukewarm middle ground where the person loves the cat enough to toss a can of food its way every now again and lean in for scritches, but not enough to take responsible action to protect the community environment from the cat (including toxoplasmosis risk for pregnant neighbors and feline leukemia risk for the neighbor's beloved home-kept cat who happens to stray out in the backyard one day) and the cat from the community.

You wouldn't think was fine for someone to keep their alligator in Central Park lake because they love it so much and otherwise it might die, or plant their invasive kudzu in the National Park because they've got no place to keep it but think it's really pretty. If the cat's a pet, then be a good, responsible pet owner responsibly. If it's a wild animal, then continuing to feed it is pretty damaging to the environment.
posted by Bardolph at 3:55 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Barn Cats was mentioned above, but in most urban areas you will find that there are groups dedicated to dealing with street cats. Their M.O.s differ; some may help you get veterinary help for it and assess its living situation to see if it's safe. Others may help capture and rehome it, or capture and bring it to a shelter if they feel that it's safe. As noted above, in a city that is not no-kill, shelters may simply put the animal down. I would trust a program that's devoted to helping feral cats to not deliver it to a shelter in that case though. If nothing else, they can offer advice particular to your area.

Basically, I'm offering the usual advice of 'consult with your physician or lawyer', but in this case the experts are probably these feral cat caretakers. Google 'feral cats' plus your city name.

Even if you don't contact them, many of them have guides to taking care of feral cats on their websites.

Washington Feral Cat Project's How You Can Help the Cats
Alley Cat Allies' advice
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:08 AM on June 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I should note that the Alley Cat Allies link provides advice on figuring out if the cat CAN be rehomed or if it should remain outside.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:10 AM on June 4, 2016

My mom had an outdoor cat like this while living in east Texas (she isn't allowed pets where she lives). She had someone build a small shelter for the cat for when the weather was bad (raining or cold). She fed it twice a day (and if she was gone for any amount of time one of the neighbors would feed it) and once the cat got over its initial fear of her would sit in her lap while she brushed it.

She even took the cat to the vet when she was able (not often and quite traumatic).

In my times visiting Mom and her cat they both seemed quite happy and content in their relationship. After the morning feeding the cat would take off into the nearby woods but make my mom follow her (ie, she would walk and then stand impatiently waiting for my mom to catch up). My mom is old and can't make it very far into the woods but as long as she made the effort the cat seemed happy enough and would eventually go off on her own and my mom would return home. My mom feels like the cat was trying to show her where she slept at night. Who knows what was going through that cat's mind.

The cat lived a good long time (for an outdoor cat) but eventually succumbed to disease (there was nothing the vet could do). Would the cat have lived longer indoors? Most likely. But getting an outdoor cat to adapt to inside life is not easy and it would probably always have been an indoor/outdoor cat and thus might have still be susceptible to whatever did her in.

I'm not saying it's a good idea but with the right person, cat, and setting perhaps it is something that can work well. I think it worked well in my mom's situation and the cat seemed happy. The cat was loved and provided for and given flea medication and so on. It's a hard life outside for cats but at least she had a loyal ally.
posted by bfootdav at 9:08 AM on June 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've done the whole ask neighbors/post online/lost and found signs thing

Have you also called the nearby shelters to notify them you've found a cat? That's... what you're supposed to do if you find a lost cat or dog (in addition to checking for a microchip, which I see you're planning to do but which I personally would have done as soon as I discovered the cat).

If not, then you haven't yet done your due diligence for finding this cat's original owners. I can imagine dozens of situations where old school asking neighbors, looking online, and reading signs wouldn't successfully help a family find its pet.

Please do more to help this cat get back to its original home before you decide its yours.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:06 PM on June 4, 2016

At my house we ended up with a fraidy-cat who had kittens in our yard and then it became 5 fraidy-cats. We ended up registering as "feral cat colony managers" (which doesn't really mean anything other than you got them spayed/neutered for free and you're the one whose phone number is on their chip.) We feed them and take them to the vet when they have issues, like one of them needed eyedrops for a while.

Until pretty recently they were all outside-only cats. They seemed happy enough -- they poop in our yard and defend it as their territory from rival cats. So anyway... yeah, if you have cat-friendly space and want to feed them, seems like a good enough arrangement.

(One of the cats self-domesticated and now hangs out inside like a normal housecat, while the others sometimes come inside the house but don't associate with the humans. There are three left out of the five -- one ran away and another got hit by a car.)
posted by Peregrine Pickle at 6:35 PM on June 4, 2016

Since you're really just going to get opinions about what is a "good" or "sad" existence for a cat, I'll weigh in. I think the cat can live a happy life in the scenario you describe, as long as you keep feeding it, and maybe put out some sort of shelter for it when the weather gets cold.
posted by Secretariat at 7:30 PM on June 4, 2016

So we've done a hybrid of this.

There is a "neighborhood" outdoor cat who was adopted as a kitten by a local resident. That cat has pretty much made Team Thistledown HQ his main home in subsequent years.

We do feed him, and we do provide him vet care - he gets checkups, we groom him, and he gets all of his shots. He's neutered, ear clipped, but he does tend to spray things. He's well-socialized, very sweet, and if the wife and I spend time sitting on the porch with a cocktail, he's usually in one of our laps.

He lives primarily outside. When it's very, very cold, we bring him in at night and give him a bed. He stays put and in the morning, asks to go outside. Other evenings he might want to come in, and we allow him in. He hangs out on the couch for a while but eventually asks to go back outside. In the summer, he has plenty of shade (I built him a house) and we keep him watered.

We don't keep him inside full time, mainly because he prefers to be outside, and because we don't actually "own" him. But we have taken responsibility for his care. It seems to be a good balance.
posted by Thistledown at 11:13 AM on June 6, 2016

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