Research On The Merits Of Catios
Remember your friendly neighborhood cat, Tom? He, like so many other companion cats, was allowed to roam freely in the past, with guardians continuously arguing for their right to perform many natural outdoor behaviors key to good welfare. However, besides the joys of freedom and exploration, free-roaming cats have increased exposure to several threats to their own wellbeing such as infectious diseases, fighting, abduction, and the risk of accidents with road traffic. According to statistics from the U.K., death from road traffic accidents is ranked as the sixth most prevalent cause of death in cats of all ages and the second for cats under 5 years old. This is, of course, not to mention the effect felines have on local ecosystems via predation. Up to 4 billion birds and 22 billion mammals are killed annually by cats in the U.S. alone. Taking both the pros and cons into account, it is only natural that “cat wars” have ensued between ecologists and cat guardians on whether cats should be given the right to roam.
It’s important to note that being kept exclusively indoors also poses risks to cat welfare via environmental contamination from home furnishings and dust, and negative effects on their mental wellbeing, ranging from frustration to unwanted behavioral challenges leading to stress and compromised health, especially in multi-cat homes. In this study, researchers set out to investigate what impact commercial physical containment systems (such as cat safe fences and “catios”) have on the wellbeing of both cats and their guardians. Data were collected from 446 questionnaires issued to people who had recently purchased and installed such systems.
In terms of demographics, over half of the cats were mixed breed. Most were neutered, vaccinated in the last year, microchipped, and did not have any significant health problems. They came predominantly from shelters or were purchased from breeders, each comprising a third of the total, with the final third being a mix of other sources. Before installing the containment system, slightly more than half of the cats did not have any level of unsupervised access to the outside, while more than half of the guardians also claimed to have had a cat injured on the road. For 82% of those cats, the injuries had been fatal. Most caretakers agreed that cats have a better quality of life when having access to the outdoors, whilst few suggested that the government should implement curfews for cats or that wandering cats were a nuisance.
The results showed that, on average, cats were spending much more time outside after the installation of the containment system, whereas the perceived frequency of other cat visits had decreased significantly. The safety provided by the containment system was the leading reason why caretakers chose to invest in setting it up. Despite the emphasis given to the importance of natural behaviors, guardians saw freedom to hunt as less important to cats. A quarter reported they were concerned about their cats killing wildlife. Generally, this group of guardians tended to choose installing catios – defined as containment systems fully enclosed by fencing.
Overall, containment systems led to positive changes in both guardian and cat quality of life. The researchers highlight that the time spent outside after installation had a big effect on positivity and, to a lesser extent, maintenance behaviors, too. Interestingly, containment systems were reported to have little effect on hunting, with about 15% of guardians reporting an increase and a similar proportion – a decrease. The researchers suggest that guardians might be more exposed to seeing instances of predation as it is restricted to their garden, which might explain some of the apparent increase. A third of the cats who had suffered from bites and scratches previously, reported a reduction after installation. In general, cats with prior unsupervised access were more likely to show benefits in terms of their health scores.
The authors noted that past research shows that cats living in urban environments are at an increased risk of health issues. The authors propose that this might also be related to stress experienced due to the high densities of unfamiliar cats in urban neighborhoods, proposing that being out per se might not be necessarily good for a cat, and that a lot depends on the actual environment. The suggestion was further reinforced by the fact that cats spending less time outside were associated with lower fearfulness scores. On the other hand, the time spent outside in containment settings did not show such an effect, suggesting that the security provided by the system could alleviate the fears in cats who were previously spending less time outside.
Some limitations of this study include the inability to evaluate some factors that might influence the outcomes — such as the socio-economic profile of the guardians, whether it was their first companion, the current age of cats when adopted. Furthermore, the cat sample was rather homogeneous, there was no control group, and the study relied on guardian recollections of past events. Therefore, results need to be treated with some caution — but still show important first insights into what benefits cat containment systems may hold.
Although seen in a negative light by some, many animal advocates are surely considering how an overall net gain could be achieved by well-designed outdoor containment systems. This novel study shows some promising results. Furthermore, the feline welfare assessment tool developed by the authors as a part of this study could potentially be used in detailed future research. We now have more and more robust data on the negative health consequences experienced by free-roaming cats and their predation of local wildlife. Controlled outside environments with physical barriers could be one practical solution proposed to many cat households.