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Letting the Cat Out

Thanks to the creation of cat litter in the mid-1940's, more and more cats are becoming indoor-only pets. As such, they are leading longer lives. The average indoor cat lives to be 15 years old, and many of us are acquainted with felines who are more than 20 years old. In contrast, outdoor cats usually live only a few years.

Our homes are a safer, healthier environment than the street. No ticks and fleas, unless the family dog brings them in! No tangling with rabid raccoons, aromatic skunks or hungry coyotes. No one-on-ones with moving vehicles. No doubt about it — indoors is safer!

Yet when we choose to make our cats indoors-only companions, we take on a responsibility to provide the same kind of stimulation that nature provides. Scratching and climbing posts stand in for trees. Interactive toys offer an outlet for predatory behavior otherwise used for hunting birds, bugs and field mice. A rotating array of cat playthings can provide excitement and unpredictability as well as exercise.

Many cat lovers still prefer to share the great outdoors with their feline friends, despite the increased risks. If you are planning to "let the cat out," you must try to minimize the potential for harm.

While vaccinations are important to indoor cats, they are critical to the health of cats allowed outside. The soil of one's garden or yard can harbor diseases spread by stray, unvaccinated cats for months. In addition, rabies, which is transmitted primarily through altercations with wild mammals such as foxes, raccoons and bats, can be found in much of the world.

The safest ways to allow your cat to enjoy some time outdoors are to walk him on a harness and provide him with a screened-in enclosure or fenced-in yard topped with cat-proof netting.

Harness training, like many things, is easiest taught during kittenhood. However, some older cats can acclimate to it. Choose a figure 8- or H-type harness and make sure it fits well. (If you can barel y get your finger between the cat and the harness, the fit is fine.) Put the harness on for a few minutes at a time at first. Right before mealtime is good because the cat will associate it with something positive. Repeat several times a day. When the cat begins to ignore the harness, let him drag a leash around for a few more short sessions. You must be present to make sure it doesn't catch on anything. The next step is to pick up the leash and follow the cat around the house. The idea is for the cat to get used to a person following him around without feeling tightness on the leash. That comes in the next step.

When your cat is comfortable taking light direction from the leash, you are ready to proceed to a quiet area outdoors. Remember to keep sessions short, frequent and upbeat. Little food rewards often come in handy. If you are leaving your property for walks, keep your eyes pealed for any off-leash dogs, in-line skaters or bicyclists that could put your feline in danger or just give him a scare.

Outdoor enclosures come in all shapes and sizes since they are usually homemade creations. Chicken wire and wire hardware cloth are preferable to ordinary window screening because they are more durable. The best-loved enclosures usually feature climbing and resting furniture inside.

It is safest to use an outdoor enclosure and traditional fencing with cat-proof netting on top of it when you are home and either outdoors with your cat or checking on him frequently. Pet theft only takes a few moments. It doesn't matter whether it's by pesky neighborhood kids or an organized group rounding up animals to sell to laboratories. The resulting heartache is the same. A microchip, tattoo or identification tag just might be the very thing to reunite you with your feline when precautions fail.