The Moral Dilemma of Cat Ownership


With over 48 million households in America owning cats, cat ownership is incredibly common in the U.S. today (AVMA). Yet the ethics of cat ownership remains a complex debate. On one hand, cats can provide delightful companionship and joy to their owners. But some argue that cat ownership can have negative impacts, like contributing to environmental damage from predation or amplifying the burden on animal shelters.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the key ethical considerations around owning a cat. We’ll examine the benefits of companionship, weigh environmental concerns, look at health considerations for both cats and owners, break down the costs of care, discuss the time commitment involved, compare adoption to shopping for cats, consider indoor vs. outdoor lifestyles, and explore alternatives to ownership.

Companionship Benefits

Cats can provide valuable companionship and emotional benefits to their owners. Studies have shown that pets can help reduce stress, anxiety, and loneliness. According to research from the NIH, an estimated 68% of U.S. households have pets, in part for these therapeutic benefits [1]. Pets have been found to reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure, while also increasing oxytocin, the “love hormone” [2].

Cats can be especially comforting companions for certain demographics like seniors, singles living alone, and those with mental health struggles. The soothing purr of a cat has been shown to lower anxiety and help people relax. Cats provide a source of touch and affection. And caring for a pet gives people a sense of purpose. For all these reasons, cats make excellent companions and can deliver proven mental and physical health benefits.

Environmental Impact

Outdoor and feral cats present an ethical dilemma when it comes to their impact on wildlife and the environment. Cats are natural predators and have strong hunting instincts that can lead them to prey on birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

According to a study from Loss et al. published in Nature Communications, free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought. The study estimates that free-ranging domestic cats in the U.S. kill between 1.3-4 billion birds and 6.3-22.3 billion mammals annually.

Another study from Tan et al. published in Biological Conservation suggests that uncontrolled outdoor access for cats can negatively impact wildlife populations, with dozens of species potentially at risk. They estimate a single cat could kill 110-328 birds/mammals annually if not controlled.

This significant predation on birds and small mammals by outdoor cats raises ethical questions about potential risks to ecosystems and biodiversity. Cat owners who allow outdoor access should consider options to limit hunting, and communities may need to manage feral cat populations humanely.

Health Considerations

Cats require regular veterinary care throughout their lives to maintain good health and maximize lifespan. Kittens need a series of vaccinations to protect against dangerous diseases like panleukopenia, calicivirus, herpesvirus, and rabies. Annual veterinary exams allow for early detection and treatment of medical issues before they become severe. Preventative care like dental cleanings can also add years to a cat’s life by minimizing dental disease.

Chronic health problems are common in cats and must be properly managed to avoid suffering and premature death. According to the ASPCA, the most common feline illnesses include dental disease, obesity, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, and cancer. With attentive veterinary care and early intervention, many cats can live with these chronic conditions for years. However, neglecting a cat’s health needs often results in a significantly shortened lifespan.

Well cared for indoor cats generally live 12-18 years on average, with many reaching their late teens or early 20s. The oldest reliably recorded cat, Creme Puff, lived to the amazing age of 38 years and 3 days. Her longevity can be attributed to a combination of good genes, attentive veterinary care, and a safe indoor lifestyle. While not all cats will live so long, providing ample love, nutrition, enrichment, and medical care can help them live a long and healthy life.

Cost of Care

One of the main considerations of cat ownership is the ongoing cost of care. Cats require quality food, litter, annual vet visits, vaccinations, preventative medicines, and may have unexpected medical bills. The ASPCA estimates the average monthly cost of cat ownership to be $46 – $284.[1] This covers expenses like:

  • Food – $15 – $40 per month
  • Litter – $15 – $30 per month
  • Vet bills – $25 per month (average)

Cats are susceptible to medical conditions like urinary tract infections, dental disease, arthritis, cancer and more. On average, pet owners report spending $800 – $1,200 per year on medical bills for their cat.[2] These potential expenses should be budgeted for. With pet insurance, owners can offset some of these surprise costs.

Overall, estimates show cat ownership costs around $220 per month or $2,500 per year on average. While food and litter are relatively fixed, medical bills can vary greatly. Prospective cat owners should carefully consider if they can accommodate not just the base monthly costs, but also budget for unexpected vet expenses.



Time Commitment

Owning a cat requires a regular time commitment for daily care and maintenance. According to TheCatSite, caring for a cat takes 10-20 minutes per day for routine tasks like feeding, cleaning the litter box, and medication administration (source). In addition to these basics, most cat owners spend time playing with, grooming, and generally interacting with their cats. The amount of interactive time varies based on the cat’s personality and needs, with some more demanding breeds like Siamese requiring greater attention.

Long-haired cat breeds can require extensive daily grooming to prevent matting and skin irritation, sometimes upwards of 30-60 minutes per day according to NorthRoad Veterinary Clinic (source). For travel or other absences, most cat owners need boarding, pet sitters or someone to check in on their cat 1-2 times per day. The time commitment involved should be carefully considered before getting a cat.

Adoption vs Shopping

There is an important debate around adopting cats from shelters versus shopping for specific cat breeds. Millions of cats are euthanized in shelters each year, so adopting can give a cat in need a second chance. However, some people have preferences for certain breeds or kittens, leading them to seek out breeders or pet stores. There are ethical considerations around some breeding practices though.

According to the ASPCA, approximately 3.2 million cats enter shelters in the United States each year. Sadly, 860,000 of those cats are euthanized, simply because there are not enough people adopting them. When people choose to adopt, they are literally saving a life. There are millions of lovable cats of all ages, breeds, and personalities looking for homes in shelters. Adoption gives them a second chance.

However, some people have strong preferences for certain cat breeds based on temperament, activity level, or appearance. There is also a desire for kittens, which are abundant from breeders and pet stores but scarcer in shelters. To obtain particular breeds or kittens, many seek breeders or pet stores. There are ethical concerns around breeding practices though. Some “kitten mills” engage in intensive breeding with poor conditions just to profit off desirable kittens. Reputable preservation breeders focus on health and good lineage. There is debate around whether buying from breeders reduces adoptions. Overall the preference for shopping versus adoption involves ethical trade-offs.

Indoor vs Outdoor

There is an ongoing debate about whether it’s better for a cat’s wellbeing and lifespan to live indoors or have outdoor access. Both indoor and outdoor lifestyles come with their own sets of pros and cons.

Outdoor cats face more dangers, with one study finding their average lifespan is 2-5 years. Outdoor cats are at higher risk of injuries from fights with other cats, getting hit by cars, or becoming prey for larger animals. However, they gain more freedom and can engage in natural behaviors like hunting.

Indoor cats live significantly longer on average, with a lifespan of 10-15 years or more, by avoiding many outdoor hazards. However, living solely inside requires more effort from owners to provide enrichment through toys, cat trees, regular playtime, and preventing boredom. With proper care though, indoor cats can lead safe, mentally stimulating, and long lives.[1]

[1] “Solving The Indoor Vs. Outdoor Cats Debate,” The Dodo, May 17, 2022.

Alternatives to Owning

There are many ways to get involved with cats without fully committing to pet ownership. Some alternatives to consider include:

Fostering cats temporarily by providing a temporary home is a great option according to Alternatives to Having Your Own Pet – Four Paws. Fostering helps animals in need while allowing you to enjoy their company without a long-term commitment.

Volunteering at local shelters and rescue organizations is another way to be around cats without owning one yourself. Many shelters have opportunities to socialize cats, clean enclosures, feed animals, and more according to Alternatives to Having Your Own Pet – Four Paws. Volunteering enables you to provide care and comfort to shelter animals.

You can also support Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs in your community. TNR humanely reduces feral cat populations through spay/neuter surgeries. Donating to TNR nonprofits or assisting with trapping allows you to make a difference without owning a cat yourself.


There are ethical considerations on both sides of owning a cat. Cats require proper care, supervision, and commitment to provide a good quality of life. However, cats also offer companionship and joy to their owners. With responsible ownership practices, the negative impacts of cats can be mitigated.

To own a cat ethically, provide proper veterinary care, keep them stimulated indoors, supervise time outdoors, and commit to the cat for its full lifespan. Adopt from shelters rather than shopping from breeders or pet stores. Make sure any outdoor access is safe for the cat and local wildlife.

Consider volunteering at a shelter or fostering cats if you want cat companionship without full ownership. You can also help stray and feral cats in your area by working with trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs. Join efforts to support cat legislation and education on responsible ownership.

With compassion and responsibility, cat guardianship can be rewarding for both felines and humans. Carefully weigh the pros and cons, and make an informed decision on welcoming a cat into your home.

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