Decades ago, pet cats lived almost entirely outdoors. Their lives were not much different from those of their earliest feline ancestors. They hunted for much of their own food. Their humans occasionally provided scraps of food from the family table, but most cats were expected to fend for themselves. In fact, cats in those days were often kept not so much as pets, but as useful workers around the ranch, farm, or home.
Cats were expected to control vermin, such as mice, rats, and gophers. This they did, and did well, and not because they wanted to be helpful, but because they had to hunt to survive. Living outdoors, cats associated with other animals, including other cats, according to age-old hierarchical rules. There was generally plenty of space for outdoor cats to spread out, associate with their natural social groups, and avoid others at will.
This outdoor life could be very dangerous. Unprotected from larger predators and other sources of accidental trauma, cats living outdoors often died relatively young. This danger increased as automobile use increased. Nothing in a cat’s evolution could have prepared it to deal with four thousand pounds of metal bearing down upon it at high speed.
As farms, dairies, and ranches gave way to subdivisions in the 1960s and after, many pets died sudden violent deaths on streets and roads. As human and animal population density increased with urbanization, the cat also faced increased dangers from infectious disease. Epidemics of viral, bacterial, and parasitic diseases could decimate outdoor feline populations. Veterinary care for outdoor cats was relatively uncommon. Even spaying and neutering of pet cats was rare, and unwanted kittens appeared at astonishing rates.
These unprotected youngsters were exposed in turn to all of these dangers. The cat living on its own outside the house maintained an independent demeanor, and many owners believed that the cat was not really an affectionate, companionable part of the family. Many people believed the cat had a naturally unfriendly, human-avoiding personality. The cat of the mid-twentieth century would wait for decades to become the adored close member of the family that we know today.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, cultural changes in society had a profound effect on the lifestyle of the pet cat. The living space of the family, including the outdoor space, became smaller or disappeared altogether. The pace of life for most people became much faster. Many households had two or more working adults, instead of one adult who stayed home.
Homes were deserted during the day as all members of the family left for work or school. People found it harder to keep dogs, especially large dogs, as pets, and looked increasingly to the cat as the animal companion of choice. The cat’s small size and relatively self-sufficient nature became attractive to people who wanted an animal companion that could live closely with them without demanding constant attention and care.
In the past two decades, the cat has become the most popular pet in the United States. Today, most pet cats spend the majority or all of their lives indoors, where they are protected from many of the dangers of the outdoor life. Death and injury from accidents are far less common now that cats are protected within the home. Infectious diseases spread less quickly and widely because cats associate less with large numbers of strays and also because felines enjoy much better veterinary care today.
Indoor pet cats are routinely spayed or neutered, and unwanted litters of kittens among this group are now a rarity. All of this improved safety has come at a price, however. Now that indoor cats are dependent upon their human families for food and shelter and living arrangements, new problems have sprung up.
Cats today are plagued with serious medical conditions, often at youthful ages, which seem new and associated with this new lifestyle. Obesity, diabetes mellitus, bladder and kidney problems, hyperthyroidism, and allergies are just a few of the more common of these problems. In addition, indoor felines experience a variety of behavioral problems, such as poor litter-box habits and aggression toward feline house-mates, that perplex and frustrate their owners.
Unfortunately, these problems can become so serious that a much-loved pet cat may die or be put to sleep because of them. This is especially sad because all of these seemingly new problems are the result of man-made influences on the cat through its new indoor lifestyle. All can be reduced or prevented through the understanding of those unnatural influences and how to correct them.