Ask your vet or local animal welfare charity whether your cat should be allowed free access to the outdoors, and the answer will differ widely - especially based on where in the world you happen to live. In England, over 90% of domestic cats have free access to the outdoors (Rochlitz, I. 2003) and feline charities tend to take an agnostic view about the inside/outside debate:
Whereas in the USA it's the total opposite - around 75% of domestic cats are kept indoor-only (Vetstreet Survey, 2014) and welfare organisations strongly recommend an indoor-only lifestyle for the safety of cats and other wildlife:
Ultimately, it's a matter of personal choice for owners, and I completely respect the choices of those who fall on both sides of the divide.
But for those - like me - whose cats do have access to the outdoors, I've long wondered about an additional dilemma. What should you do at night? Especially at this time of year, as the nights draw in and it gets darker earlier, is it safer to call your cats in at night (which will also mean getting some litter trays if you haven't got them already)? Or is it better to let your nocturnal kitties exercise their energies in the great outdoors, rather than in your bedroom or living room?
There are a lot of articles out there giving pretty general advice about the dangers of letting your cats outdoors. But is letting your cats out at night actually more dangerous than outdoor access in the day?
Are cats at higher risk of being run over at night?
Lets get straight to the big risk - road traffic accidents. It's a sad fact that in the UK road accidents are the fourth most common cause of death in cats (after old age, cancer and renal failure - Rochlitz, I. et al 2001), with a cat experiencing a collision with a car every two and a half minutes on UK roads (Petplan, 2006).
But do those risks increase at night?
It seems as though they do. In a study conducted in Cambridgeshire, UK, researchers found that the number of road accidents involving cats went up between 6pm and 6am (Rochlitz, I. 2003). The authors also point out that at night, it may take longer for an injured cat to be discovered, and they may be slower to receive veterinary care as there could be a delay until the veterinary surgeon on call is summoned, or until an emergency night clinic can be found. If you do decide to let your cat out at night, it would be sensible to research your vet's out-of-hours service in advance, and have the appropriate numbers stored in your phone.
Interestingly, some people have suggested that black cats are more at risk of road accidents because they aren't seen as easily by drivers. If this were true, you would imagine that nighttime would be a particularly dangerous time for black cats. However, this study didn't find any conclusive evidence to support that theory - the rates of accidents in black or mostly black cats weren't significantly higher than in the general cat population.
Are cats at higher risk of getting lost or going missing at night?
If your cat is an outdoor cat anyway, with an established outdoor territory and street-smarts, is there any reason that they would be at higher risk of getting lost at night? Unlike dogs, cats with outdoor access are territorial and won't spontaneously run away from home, so something specific will need to happen for them to go missing. The main reasons are...
Being displaced outside their normal territory: This can happen if they have a run-in with another animal (e.g. a dog or a fox, or even a hostile human) that spooks them and causes them to run outside of their familiar territory. This is a scary experience for a cat, and it may take them some time to pluck up the courage to try and navigate their way home again. The chances of this happening could be slightly higher if the animals in question are also nocturnal (e.g. foxes, or drunk and disorderly humans!) but otherwise there is no strong reason why these risks would increase after nightfall.
Becoming trapped: Cats can easily get trapped in sheds, unattended vehicles and stuck up trees. Given that in many of these scenarios it is a question of visibility - i.e. a human doesn't notice the cat is there and accidentally shuts them in - you might expect the risks to increase at night. However, a cat's activity level will also increase at night, so they are less likely to curl up and fall into a silent slumber where they will go unnoticed. Delivery van traffic will also die down at night, so the chances of your cat climbing into a food delivery or DHL truck should be reduced. Unfortunately, there isn't hard and fast data to suggest which way the situation swings, so I'm afraid you'll just have to make a judgement call on this one.
- Being hurt or stolen: Thankfully malicious acts against cats are very rare, however, criminal acts like these are more likely to take place under cover of darkness. In the UK there is currently an 'epidemic' of seemingly malicious attacks against cats perpetrated by an individual that has been termed 'the Croydon Cat Killer'. This is a very unusual scenario, but all of the attacks appear to be taking place at night - and as a result many local cat sanctuaries are recommending that owners keep their cats inside at night as a precaution (SNARL). You'll need to take a view based on where you are - and also your cat's perceived worth and therefore risk of theft if they are pedigree - but do be reassured that these sort of attacks and thefts are rare.
Do cats hunt more at night?
There is currently a big debate raging about outdoor cats and their possible impact on native bird and mammal populations due to hunting. As cat owners most of us will be animal lovers in general and want to minimise our pet's impact on native wildlife - so is it better to keep our nocturnal hunters in at night?
Well, yes and no. A 2003 study by the Mammal Society in Britain found that the number of mammals brought home by cats was lower when they were kept in at night, but it made no difference for the number of birds, and the number of amphibians (e.g. frogs) that cats caught went up! (Woods, M. et al 2003).
What's particularly interesting is that in the wake of this research, the UK's bird charity, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has pointed out that just because cats are catching birds, it doesn't necessarily prove that they're having a detrimental impact on those bird populations:
"Despite the large numbers of birds killed, there is no scientific evidence that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK-wide...is likely that most of the birds killed by cats would have died anyway from other causes before the next breeding season, so cats are unlikely to have a major impact."
If you're particularly concerned about the bird wildlife in your garden, they do offer a few extra tips to help keep them safe:
- Keep cats indoors when birds are most vulnerable: at least an hour before sunset and an hour before sunrise, especially from March to July (Breeding season) and in December and January (when they need to spend most of the daylight hours feeding)
- Keep cats in after bad weather, such as rain or a cold spell, to allow birds to feed safely.
The above is quite specific to UK wildlife, so the situation might be different in other areas of the world. If you're concerned, I recommend a quick phonecall to your national bird conservation organisation or charity, who will be able to advise based on the bird wildlife in your particular area.
What do you do with your outdoor cats at night? Have your cats ever got into trouble whilst outdoors after dark? I'd love to hear your experiences. Just leave a comment below or join the conversation over on Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore).