Keeping a pet cat indoors is cruel – and owners should be told so

The Sphynx cat – the hairless kind that looks like it has just been exhumed from an Egyptian tomb – was the seventh-most popular breed in Britain last year. I discovered this starting fact in a news story about a Sphynx that has been rescued from abusive cat breeders, after giving birth to around £140,000-worth of kittens.

Lacking a warm coat, Sphynx cats are not well-suited to the British climate. Most are therefore kept indoors. Not long ago, that would have been considered shocking in itself. Indoor cats were a gruesome American phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that – on top of being obsessed with safety – regarded pets as commodities rather than true companions.

Alas, all bad American ideas eventually take root over here. The proportion of cats kept indoors in the UK rose from 5 per cent in 2011 to 26.1 per cent in 2019. I dread to think how many kittens were added to this great incarceration during lockdown. Although British vets and animal charities still recommend allowing cats outside, they do so increasingly timidly, afraid of enraging the growing constituency of indoor-cat owners.

But it ought to be said plainly. Keeping a cat indoors is cruel. It can just about be forgiven if your cat is deaf or ill or – having never previously been allowed outside – has developed impossibly delicate nerves, like the heroine of a Victorian novel. But only just.

The morality of keeping a pet is questionable at the best of times. The benefits for humans are obvious: company, love (yes, even from cats) and the pleasurable bafflement that comes from living with a creature of a different species.

But what’s in it for them? Born (or worse, bred) into the role of domestic attendant, most pets – and certainly all cats – are still animated by wild instincts. When these instincts are thwarted, they get depressed and anxious.

It’s not a luxury: it’s a need. They need to hunt and run and climb. They need to prowl through the undergrowth, head down, bottom swaying in the air, before pouncing on a speck of dappled shade. They need to roll in dust and sunshine; shimmy backwards, tail up, to spray a favored shrub; leap into the air and clap their paws over a fly. Don’t kid yourself that you can keep these animals entertained with a velvet climbing tree and a feather on a stick.

If you can’t, or won’t, supply a cat with outdoor access, don’t get a cat. Pet ownership is not a human right. It is both an indulgence and a responsibility: one that requires us to put the animal’s peace of mind before our own.

When I got my cats – a pair of exceedingly handsome blue-eyed brothers – several friends insisted I should keep them inside. They’re much too beautiful to go outside, I was told. They’ll get stolen, or lured away by covetous neighbours. And besides, what about cars, and dogs, and cat fights? Didn’t I want to keep my pets safe?

The answer was no, not really. Not at the cost of their freedom.

Ronnie and Reggie have all sorts of adventures I can’t control. Ronnie, who is growing mysteriously fat, often returns home smelling of another woman’s perfume. Once I glanced through the window of our local pub and saw Reggie sitting on a bar stool, holding forth.

You can never really own a cat, and shouldn’t try. You can only open the door for them, and hope they come back.

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