There is a widespread belief that for their own safety and for the protection of wildlife, cats should be permanently kept indoors. Against this view, I argue that cat guardians have a duty to provide their feline companions with outdoor access. The argument is based on a sophisticated hedonistic account of animal well-being that acknowledges that the performance of species-normal ethological behavior is especially pleasurable. Territorial behavior, which requires outdoor access, is a feline-normal ethological behavior, so when a cat is permanently confined to the indoors, her ability to flourish is impaired. Since cat guardians have a duty not to impair the well-being of their cats, the impairment of cat flourishing via confinement signifies a moral failing. Although some cats assume significant risks and sometimes kill wild animals when roaming outdoors, these important considerations do not imply that all cats should be deprived of the opportunity to access the outdoors. Indeed, they do not, by themselves, imply that any cat should be permanently kept indoors.
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By “flourishing,” I mean “well-being,” and by “well-being,” I mean something akin to a “happy life.” While there are competing approaches to well-being, such as the desire-satisfaction approach and objective-list approach, I assume that the hedonist approach is the correct approach when it comes to the well-being of non-rational animals. However, there is a deeper issue regarding theories of the “good life” (or theories of “eudaimonia,” which some argue is different than “well-being”), especially as it pertains to humans. In this paper, I simply provide basic conceptual tools for thinking about what it means for felines to have good, happy lives.
Studies show that cats are more likely to be vulnerable to larger predators and involved in traffic accidents at night (Rochlitz 2003).
Ideally, guardians will be home when felines venture outdoors, in part, so that they can reward their cats with treats upon their return to the indoors, which encourages them to remain nearby (Bradshaw and Ellis 2016). While this is preferable, it certainly is not required.
Thank you to Mylan Engel for encouraging me to emphasize this point.
There can also be unfelt frustration of preferences. For instance, suppose person X strongly desires to live in the real world, and person X believes that he does, but he’s actually in an experience machine. Although he doesn’t suffer, the thwarting of his preference still seems to thwart his opportunities for well-being. But even if the well-being of persons can be impaired by unfelt preference frustration, this is not the case for non-persons. Since the well-being theory I advance is for just (non-person) animals, it is not vulnerable to the experience machine objection. Thank you to David DeGrazia for suggesting this line of thought.
This arguably is an oversimplified view of hunting insofar as hunting involves an intricate process of tracking, waiting, and watching prey.
Feline “redirected aggression” often occurs when indoor cats are aroused, frustrated, or excited when they observe outdoor-roaming cats. Because indoor cats cannot interact with the outdoor cats they observe, they may redirect their aggression toward other objects (including other cats or humans) that are near them.
Vetinfo (2018) claims that house-based cats who spend some time outdoors live, on average, two or three years less than cats who live exclusively indoors, but it’s not clear how they came to this estimation.
And the fact that cats with outdoor access normally repeatedly request to access the outdoors indicates that they are not just “scratching an itch” to explore new territory.
To remain consistent with the language of ethologists, I use the terms “behavioral and ethological needs,” although, as an anonymous reviewer from Acta Analytica suggests, perhaps more accurate terminology would be “emotional/psychological needs.”
The distinction between consummatory and appetitive activities comes from Dixon et al. (2014).
Here, I use some of the language in Bramble’s (2016, 100) discussion about human well-being to motivate my argument. Bramble himself does not discuss feline well-being.
And “wildlife,” as a broad category, includes insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and birds.
I am not aware of any studies that conclude that vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for cats. Although one widely cited study indicates that cats fed certain vegan diets had normal serum cobalamin concentrations (B12) and that 14 of 17 cats had whole-blood taurine concentrations within the reference range (Wakefield et al. 2006), this does not, by itself, indicate that vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for felines. One cannot jump from the claim that some vegan diets have adequate levels of B12 and taurine for cats to the claim that vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for felines. After all, vegetarian protein sources are often poor sources of other specific essential vitamins (vitamin D, vitamin A, niacin), fatty acids (arachidonic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and eicosapentaenoic acid), and minerals (calcium and potassium) (Kayo Kanakubo et al. 2015).
For instance, in 2005, it was estimated that humans are responsible for between 500 million to over 1 billion bird deaths annually in the USA (Erickson et al. 2005).
It’s also worth noting that, in many environments, cats are keystone species because they control rat and mice populations. Consequently, cats actually protect bird populations, insofar as rats and mice often feed on bird eggs. This, then, is another reason why we ought not to eradicate cats from the landscape (Courchamp et al. 1999).
Studies report that collar-worn deterrents decrease feline predation as much as 54% (Hall et al. 2015). Also, see Ruxton et al. (2002); Woods et al. (2003); Hall et al. (2015); Calver et al. (2013); and Willson et al. (2015) for the efficacy of feline predation collars. Moreover, research shows that when cats are kept indoors at night, they bring home fewer mammals, as most small mammal activity is nocturnal (Woods et al. 2003; Getz 2009).
However, not all cats return their kills to households, and one study reports that almost 50% of kills are left at the site of capture (Loyd et al. 2013). If this is true, feline guardians should try to locate these kills by using “kitty cams.” If this is too demanding, then we simply cannot offset some feline-caused harm. Yet this does not imply that we ought to permanently confine cats any more than our inability to offset human-caused harm implies that we should permanently confine humans to the indoors.
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Thanks to David Boonin, David DeGrazia, Mylan Engel, Iskra Fileva, Chris Heathwood, Michael Huemer, Ramona Ilea, Erica Nieblas, Alastair Norcross, and Geoff Sayre-McCord for their thoughtful feedback on a previous draft of this article. And a special thank you toSamantha Wakil who helped ensure that my cats had outdoor access while I wrote this paper.
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Abbate, C. A Defense of Free-Roaming Cats from a Hedonist Account of Feline Well-being. Acta Anal 35, 439–461 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-019-00408-x