Outdoor Cat Care: How To Care For The Rural Cat

outdoor cat care - black and white cat standing on a barnyard fence with shed in the background

Many cats live long and comfortable lives exclusively indoors. Other cats live indoors but are allowed to spend time exploring outside.

And then there are cats that live entirely outside but are not strays or feral cats. They have an owner, and a home, they just prefer the great outdoors.

These cats are often “working cats”,  with jobs like pest control and rodent management. However, they still require proper care and attention from their owners.

Outdoor cat care involves more than just letting cats free to roam, hunt, and take care of themselves.  Read on if you want to learn more about how to best take care of your own outdoor cat.

Outdoor Cat Care Essentials

Benefits of Outdoor Cats

As a cat owner and a veterinarian, I firmly believe that the safest place for a cat is indoors. That said, I grew up on a farm and currently live in a rural setting, so I also understand and appreciate the value of a good farm cat.

Outdoor cats are excellent hunters, effectively controlling rodent populations. Their natural ability to catch mice, rats, and other small rodents helps safeguard crops and stored feed from damage or contamination.

In addition, using cats to control the rodent population helps with disease control. Rodents can carry diseases and parasites that pose a threat to humans and livestock, and anything that reduces their numbers is a good thing. Natural predation also helps reduce the need for chemical rodenticides and is a safer and environmentally friendly option for wildlife, pets, and humans on the farm.

But outdoor cats are not wild animals. They are domesticated animals, with owners who have the responsibility to provide a certain level of care for them. This responsibility is written in law in many regions, and includes the obligation to provide shelter,  food, water, and health care for animals under their care.

What Outdoor Cats Need

Shelter

If your farm/acreage cat is an indoor-outdoor cat, chances are that it will seek the shelter and comfort of your home when the weather is bad. But what do cats that live outdoors all the time do for shelter?

If they are lucky, they might find shelter in a barn, garage or other outbuilding. But not all cats have access to these structures. In areas where there are no warm and safe outbuildings available for cats, outdoor cats may be left exposed to the harsh elements.

A safe and comfortable outdoor shelter is an essential need of outdoor cats. A proper shelter provides refuge from bad weather, predators, and offers a safe and cozy spot for them to rest. 

Here are some options and tips for providing an outdoor cat shelter that is up to par:

Shelter Options:

  • Insulated Cat Houses: Available at pet stores or online, these pre-made units are designed specifically for outdoor cats. They typically have waterproof exteriors and are lined with materials that provide warmth in cold weather and help keep it cool in warm weather.
  • DIY Shelters: You can create an effective cat shelter using sturdy plastic bins, wood, or even repurposed items like coolers. The key is to make sure the shelter is elevated from the ground, has a single entrance, is insulated, and is stable and secure (not in danger of tipping over or blowing away).
  • Barns and Outbuildings: For those on a farm, a barn or shed can serve as an excellent shelter, provided there’s a safe corner that’s protected from the elements, large animals, and machinery. Make sure to provide a straw bed to help keep them warm.

Insulating and Maintaining the Shelter:

  • Insulation Materials: Straw is an ideal insulating material for outdoor cat shelters—it doesn’t hold moisture and provides plenty of warmth. Blankets should be avoided, since they absorb moisture and do not dry out very easily, which reduces the shelter’s warmth. The walls, ceiling and floor should be insulated to reduce heat loss in the winter and to keep it cool during the summer.
  • Entrance: The entrance should have a cat flap or covering to keep out the wind and rain. A smaller entrance reduces the loss of heat and keeps out larger critters who might try to use it for their own shelter.
  • Elevation: Raise the shelter off the ground to prevent moisture seepage and to provide an added layer of insulation from the cold ground.
  • Regular Checks: Regularly check the shelter for signs of wear and tear, make sure the straw is clean and dry, and replace insulating materials as necessary.
  • Seasonal Adjustments: In warmer months, make sure the shelter is shaded and has adequate ventilation. During winter, beef up the insulation, check for drafts, and clear any snow or debris that might block the entrance.
outdoor cat care  - orange cat playing with a mouse outdoors beside a wooden board fence

Food and Water Requirements

Some people may think that outdoor cats don’t need to be fed, since they catch their own food.  Outdoor cats may hunt, but it’s not a good idea to make them rely solely on their hunting skills for nutrition. 

First, there’s no guarantee that a cat can always catch enough prey to consistently meet its nutritional needs . The availability of prey can vary due to weather, season, and environmental changes. 

Second, a cat’s ability to hunt decreases if it becomes even slightly injured or  sick. Without a reliable source of food available to them, their chances of survival are greatly reduced.

A common concern is that feeding an outdoor cat will make them poor mousers. However, hunting behavior is not solely driven by hunger. Cats also hunt  because they have an instinctual drive to do so (even when not hungry). It can also be a source of play and entertainment for them. 

Even well-fed cats retain their hunting instincts. Providing them with food does not eliminate this natural behavior. In fact, a well-fed cat may be more effective in hunting since it is healthier and has more energy.

All this extends to water as well. A cat can only live a few days without water,  and outdoor cats may not have access to a reliable water source. So make sure to provide them fresh, clean water daily.

Try to leave the cat’s food and water in an area where only they can access, to avoid attracting vermin and other unwanted critters. For example, creating a feeding station on a raised platform or shelf that your cat can easily jump to can help keep the food and water bowls out of the reach of non-climbing animals.

Healthcare

Regular Veterinary Check-Ups and Vaccinations

Outdoor cats are survivors, right? Wrong! They may be wily and smart, but they are also extremely likely to encounter diseases, illnesses, and injuries that put their lives at risk. In fact, an outdoor cat’s life expectancy is only 2-4 years, compared to an indoor cat that can expect to live 10-15 years. 

Since they are exposed to more risks, such as fights with other animals, predators, and potential accidents, outdoor cats should receive regular check-ups from a veterinarian, just like indoor cats – and maybe even more frequently. 

Vaccinations are extremely important for these cats. Outdoor cats are much more likely to come into contact with feral and stray cats that may be carrying infectious diseases like rabies, feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), among others. 

Rabies is a deadly disease that can also infect and kill humans. Once an animal or person develops clinical signs of rabies, there is no cure and death is inevitable. Vaccinating your outdoor cat  for rabies not only protects your cat, but also contributes to the safety of every animal and person it comes in contact with.

Parasite Prevention and Control

Fleas, ticks, worms – oh my! Outdoor cats are at a high risk of parasite infestations, including mites, fleas, ticks, and worms.  They will get worms from the rodents they eat as well as from their environment, and they can also pick up fleas, mites, and ticks from the environment and from other animals they come into contact with. 

These parasites affect the cat’s health and welfare. Severe infestations can even result in their death. Deworming cats and giving them flea and tick treatments not only protects their health, but it also helps protect human family members from potential zoonotic diseases.  

Talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your outdoor cat.  Some treatments may need to be given more frequently for outdoor cats compared to indoor cats.

Spaying and Neutering

Spaying and neutering outdoor cats come with several benefits. These procedures not only help control the cat population but also have health benefits for the cats themselves. 

Spayed females are at a lower risk for certain types of cancers and infections, while neutered male cats often show reduced aggression and are less likely to roam or fight. This can be particularly important for outdoor cats, as it may reduce their risk of injury or disease from encounters with other animals.

However, the cost of these surgeries can be a concern, especially for a cat that might have a shorter lifespan due to outdoor dangers. Having a male cat might be more financially feasible, as neutering is generally less expensive than spaying a female cat. It’s a practical consideration, balancing the benefits of the procedure against its cost.

On a personal note, I’ve observed that many farms around me do not spay or neuter their cats. This often stems from the harsh reality of rural life, where the cat population is naturally regulated by the environment they live in.

Many kittens that are born and live outdoors don’t survive to adulthood, and adult cats often fall prey to larger predators like hawks, owls, coyotes, and foxes. In this context, the issue of overpopulation might not seem as pressing, and the decision not to spay or neuter might be influenced by the survival challenges these cats already face. 

It’s a tough situation involving a  complex relationship between animal welfare, financial considerations, and environmental factors in rural settings. 

outdoor cat care - grey tabby cat sitting on a rustic stump against a green grassy background

Other Outdoor Cat Care Considerations

Adequate shelter, food, water, and health care are essential requirements for outdoor cats. Beyond that, there are a few other things that you need to think about. 

Identification

Does your outdoor cat need identification? Just because it lives outdoors doesn’t mean that you don’t care about it. A collar with an ID tag with your contact details can help return your cat to you if it becomes lost. However, ensure the collar is a breakaway type to prevent the cat from getting caught on objects.

Microchipping is a more permanent form of identification. A microchip is a tiny chip implanted under the cat’s skin, typically in the shoulder area. This chip contains a unique number that can be read by a scanner, helping to reunite lost cats with their owners.

​You can even go a step further and attach a GPS tracker to your cat’s collar. This can help you locate them if they go missing. 

Grooming

Grooming needs of outdoor cats are often overlooked, as they may seem more self-reliant when it comes to cleaning themselves. However, grooming can still be beneficial.

Long-haired cats, in particular, are prone to matting, which can become painful and even lead to skin issues. Regular brushing is the best way to prevent these mats, reduces shedding, and maintains a healthy coat. A heavily matted cat might even need to be shaved.

Grooming also provides an excellent opportunity for bonding with your cat, provided they enjoy it.

Litter Box

Generally speaking, outdoor cats can find their own bathroom solutions. But unfortunately, since they prefer loose material that is easy to dig in, this often ends up being your garden, flower beds, or the kid’s sandbox. Providing them with a litter box that is regularly cleaned may help in this regard.

outdoor cat care  - grey and white cat laying in a straw bale stack looking sleepy

Conclusion

Outdoor cats are not wild animals that just happen to live around people. They are domesticated animals with the same needs and vulnerabilities as their indoor counterparts. 

Owners of outdoor cats have a responsibility to provide them with shelter, food, water and veterinary care. Adequate shelter, food and water, proper vaccinations and parasite prevention, and spaying/neutering are all important aspects of outdoor cat care. 

While outdoor life can be dangerous for cats, they can thrive with proper care and attention. So, if you have an outdoor cat or are considering adopting one, make sure to care for them just as much as you would for your indoor pets. 

Sources

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins DVM PhD.

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.