Common dangers for outdoor cats

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Common dangers for outdoor cats - cat walking along a fence top

Outdoor cats are more likely to be exposed to various dangers than indoor cats are. If you are a cat owner and have an outdoor cat, you may be wondering:

  • What are the risks of disease for my outdoor cat?
  • What risks are there from other animals for my cat?
  • Can my cat get sick from outside plants?
  • Should I give my cat flea, tick, and heartworm prevention?
  • How do cats get internal parasites?
  • Besides disease, what other risks are there in an outdoor environment?

Many cats enjoy spending time outside and exploring their yard or neighborhood. Although some outdoor exploration time is enriching for pet cats, it also introduces more exposure to outdoor risks, such as disease, predators, and moving vehicles.

What common infectious diseases can my cat catch while outdoors?

Infectious diseases are a major concern for cats who are frequently outdoors. Depending on the disease, it can be transmitted through direct interaction with an infected animal, contact with infected feces or urine, or airborne particles. “Free-roaming cats often fight and engage in other behaviors that encourage transmission of infectious diseases,” warns Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian.

A graphic of the quote above

Fortunately, many of the diseases cats come into contact with in outdoor environments are routinely vaccinated against. The best strategy to help your cat avoid contracting a contagious disease is to stay up to date on your pet’s vaccinations. Follow your vet’s recommendations for the best vaccine schedule to fit your individual cat’s lifestyle and level of risk.

Feline upper respiratory tract infections

Feline respiratory tract infections are typically airborne, spread by contagious droplet particles transmitted from one cat to another. Indoor cats can still catch feline respiratory diseases, but outdoor cats are more at risk due to greater exposure. Common viruses associated with feline upper respiratory infections include the feline herpesvirus and calicivirus. These are included in the FVRCP vaccine, or distemper combination. The FVRCP vaccine also includes protection against feline distemper, or panleukopenia. This disease is potentially life-threatening, causing vomiting and diarrhea in addition to upper respiratory symptoms.

Other feline diseases

Feline leukemia virus is a common infectious disease in cats and the most common cause of feline cancer. The life-threatening disease is highly contagious, almost always fatal, and spreads through direct contact with other infected cats. All cats, regardless of the amount of outdoor access they have, should receive at least the initial series of two vaccinations for feline leukemia virus, and high-risk cats should receive ongoing boosters.

Rabies is a concern for cats who spend time outdoors. Rabies is most commonly spread by infected wildlife but can be spread by other free-roaming cats as well. The disease has a nearly 100% fatality rate and vaccination is legally required in many areas. Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning if your cat is infected, it can spread the deadly disease to you and other humans.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) are two additional infectious diseases that outdoor cats  are more likely to be exposed to. FIV is most commonly transmitted via bite wounds, and FIP occurs as a result of a mutation in a harmless, common coronavirus. Both illnesses are fatal, and vaccines for them are of limited usefulness and not routinely recommended.

There are no vaccines for most infectious diseases affecting cats. Heartworm disease and some diseases spread by ticks can be deadly, and fleas are a source of internal parasites as well as many infectious diseases. Fortunately, these conditions can be prevented with regular flea, tick, and heartworm prevention.

What are the potential dangers from other animals for my cat?

There are many risks associated with other outdoor animals your cat may interact with. Dogs that play outside often increase the risk of injury to outdoor cats. The risk of predation from other wild animals, such as coyotes and large birds of prey, increases for cats outdoors. Wildlife also spread diseases and parasites, such as rabies, fleas, and ticks.

What outdoor plants are toxic to cats?

Ornamental flowers, especially lilies, can be highly toxic to your feline friend. Ingesting the flowers or simply grooming pollen off of their fur can cause vomiting, lethargy, and kidney failure. Sago palms, castor bean plants, and some wild weeds and flowers are also toxic when ingested. These wild plants can vary from place to place. The ASPCA has a full list of toxic plants, from minor irritants to deadly, so you can identify the hazardous plants in your area.

Should my cat be on flea and tick prevention?

Flea prevention is recommended in general for all cats. Variation in seasonal insect activity, geographic location, and lifestyle all affect when and how flea prevention is needed on an individual level. Tick prevention is primarily necessary for cats who are exposed to ticks by going outdoors or living in an area with a high tick population. Talk to your vet about what type of prevention is best for your cat, as parasite prevention programs are tailored to fit the needs of individual pets. Many flea and tick preventives can also protect your cat against mange, ear mites, and heartworms. To check for the presence of fleas, look for small black spots or moving fleas at the base of your cat’s tail, the back of their rear legs, on their belly, and around your cat’s neck and collar.

What about internal parasites in my cat?

Being outdoors can increase a cat’s exposure to intestinal parasites such as roundworms and hookworms. Infectious eggs and larvae from these worms are found in the soil and droppings of other animals. The ingestion of fleas and small animals can transmit tapeworms to cats. Heartworms spread by mosquitoes can be deadly, and indoor cats are still at risk of heartworm infection as well. Veterinarian-recommended preventives can defend against many of these intestinal parasites.

Is it too hot or cold for my cat outside?

The general rule of thumb is this: if it’s uncomfortable for you to be outside, it is likely too hot or cold for your cat as well. Individual cats vary in their tolerance for heat or cold. Hypothermia in cats due to cold weather is rare, as they are skilled at finding warm shelter. Sometimes, this shelter can be in dangerous locations, such as under the hood of a car. Fan belts are a common cause of injury to outdoor cats for this reason. Cats that are outdoors during the winter months can also develop burns on their paws and skin from ice salt. Some of these salts also contain antifreeze which is highly toxic and can be ingested by cats through regular grooming.

Hyperthermia or heatstroke is also rare in cats, as they don’t tend to exercise in the heat with the same intensity or duration that dogs do. Cats tend to seek shady places to stay cool. In general, a cat is most at risk of overheating if it is trapped somewhere it cannot escape, such as in a car or garage.

What are other outdoor dangers for cats?

Free-roaming outdoor cats are more at risk of being hit by cars than indoor cats. Any injuries caused by a vehicle are likely to be severe due to a cat’s small size. Pesticides, herbicides, slug bait, snail bait, and rat poison are all toxic and can be enticing to cats if they are formulated to act as bait. Cats may also experience secondary toxicity if they consume rodents who have eaten poison. Cocoa mulch, manure, and compost can contain parasites and toxins as well.

Outdoor time can be as fun for cats as it is for dogs. However, due to the high risk of cats becoming sick or injured from outdoor hazards, supervised playtime, screened catios or porches, and leashed walks are safer ways for your cat to enjoy the outdoors than free roaming without supervision. Indoor cats or cats who have supervised playtime typically have longer lifespans. If you have questions about your cat’s safety outdoors, you can speak with an online vet on Vetster.

FAQ - Common dangers for outdoor cats

What are some common diseases an outdoor cat is more likely to be exposed to?

Outdoor cats are more likely to be exposed to infectious diseases. Some common viral diseases of cats are feline leukemia virus, panleukopenia, calicivirus, and feline herpesvirus. Outdoor environments also increase exposure to fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, putting outdoor cats at risk of internal parasites and tick-borne illnesses.

What are common risks for cats outdoors?

Risk of disease and predation are much higher for outdoor cats compared to indoor cats. In addition, getting hit by cars or getting in fights with other cats are a concern for cats outside.

How do cats get intestinal parasites?

Cats catch intestinal parasites from interaction with infected soil or feces and from ingesting fleas. Roundworms and hookworms are spread in the soil and infected animal droppings. Tapeworms are spread when fleas and small animals are ingested.

Do wild animals hunt outdoor cats?

The risks of predation by wild animals vary based on what animals live in your area. Coyotes, birds of prey, alligators, mountain lions, and other predatory animals are all risks for outdoor cats.