A Secure Outdoor Enclosure is Good for Cats, Study Says

It could be time to start working on your catio plans. Outdoors access with lower risk is good for pet cats’ quality of life.

Cats like catios, study shows. Black and white cat pictured amongst green plants
Photo: Ellie Burgin/Pexels

By Zazie Todd, PhD

When cats are given outdoors access that is restricted, like a catio or a yard with a secure fence they can't escape from, it’s good for their welfare according to a study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Whether or not cats should have outdoors access is a topic with a strong cultural component. In the UK, many cats are given outdoors access for part of the day, whereas in some countries it is more common to keep cats as indoors-only pets. Could restricted outdoors access be the best of both worlds, giving cats the option to explore outside whilst protecting them from road traffic accidents and predators? 

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Researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, investigated people’s perception of the welfare of their cats after they installed an enclosure that gave cats access to a safe but contained outdoor space.

Dr. Luciana Santos de Assis, first author of the paper, says, 

“The most important point is related to having a practical alternative for ‘unsupervised access to outdoors’ and ‘living strictly indoors’ that keeps a high quality of life for pet cats and protects the environment.” 

“Interestingly, even cats that used to have unsupervised access outside of their homes seemed to show signs of improved welfare with a controlled outdoor environment, which indicates that it’s not just about them being able to do things outside but also feeling safe outdoors that is important.” 

The study looked at three different types of enclosures made by Protectapet, who partly funded the study but were not involved in the research. Catios, or cat-patios, attach to the house and are fully enclosed with a roof as well as sides. Cat enclosures are a fenced area that is often open at the top, but with brackets on top of the fence to prevent cats from being able to jump out. And fence barriers fix to an existing fence or wall to prevent cats from leaving a yard or garden.

446 cat guardians, most of whom lived in an urban area, completed the questionnaire which included an assessment of the cats’ welfare.

34% of the cats were indoors-only before the enclosure was installed, and a further 14% had only an hour of outdoors access a day. After the installation, all of the cats had some outdoors access, with 68% spending 3-7 hours a day outdoors in the enclosure. 

The results showed that questions about cat welfare tended to group into four factors representing health, positivity (such as how the cat behaves with the owner and in the home), maintenance behaviours (such as grooming and eating), and fearfulness.  On average, all of these factors improved after the installation. 

The cats were said to show fewer signs of stress after the installation, including less anxiousness, being less likely to disturb the owner at night, less house-soiling, and fewer episodes of unexplained mood and irritability. 

Cats who had previously been allowed outside on their own had better health after the installation, according to their owners, which suggests they benefitted from the security the system gave them. Cats who were indoors-only or only had supervised access did not show this benefit in the same way. Of course it’s possible that people who think their cat loves to roam freely would not get such a system, so it’s not possible to generalize to all cats from this result.

Before installing the system, people had concerns about their cat having outdoors access such as the cat getting injured or dying on the road, and the cat getting lost, stolen or fighting with other cats. Not surprisingly, these concerns dropped very significantly after the installation. 

People’s perceptions of how often other people’s cats visited showed a marked decrease, with an average of one visiting cat per month after installation. The decrease was most apparent when the system took up a lot of space (e.g. the entire garden). 

This reduction in visiting cats could be one reason why cats who previously had unrestricted outdoor access seemed to do better once the enclosure was installed. In urban areas there are often many neighbouring cats, and we know that cats will often 'timeshare' and try to avoid seeing other cats because it's stressful. So not having those visiting cats may have helped the cats feel more secure.

The study relied on people’s memory of how their cat’s behaviour had changed after the installation, so it would be nice to see some longitudinal research as a follow-up that got ratings both before and after installation. But since many people are interested in catios and other similar set-ups, there will be a lot of interest in these results.

Dr. Santos de Assis says, 

“Owners do not need to choose between strictly indoors or unsupervised access to outside to make their cats happy and safe. They can keep a high standard level of welfare with outdoor access and with a much reduced risk, as well as protecting the wildlife.”

The length of time cats spent in their new enclosure shows that they liked to spend time there, and the questionnaire results show a number of benefits to cats’ welfare. Although more research is needed, this study suggests that cats are very happy with some kind of restricted access to the outdoors. 

While cat patios and enclosures may not be within everyone’s reach, cats seem to appreciate them. And if your cat is indoors-only, remember there are plenty of things you can do to set your home up right for them. (See: The five pillars of a healthy environment for cats).

You can follow the authors of the study on Twitter (Luciana Santos de Assis, Daniel Mills) and the paper is open access. 


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, which is a finalist in two DWAA awards. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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Reference

Santos de Assis, L. and Mills, D. (2021) Introducing a controlled outdoor environment impacts positively in cat welfare and owner concerns: The use of a new feline welfare assessment too. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 11 Jan 2021, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.599284 

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Comments

  1. My catio is about 2/3 of the way done. I hope to finish it this spring. I’m converting my back deck for their use. During the day they’ll have access through a cat door. But I plan for everyone to come in for dinner and stay in over night.

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