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Is It Legal to Let Your Cat Outside to Roam? State Laws, Facts & FAQ

Rachel Giordano

By Rachel Giordano

cat looking outside the window

It’s not unusual to see a free-roaming cat, especially since roughly 46.5 million households have a feline companion in the United States alone 1. Some cats are strictly indoor cats, but sometimes, cat owners will let their felines outdoors to roam, which warrants the question: Is it legal to let your cat outside to roam? Unfortunately, the answer is not clear-cut unless you reside in California, Maine, or Rhode Island. If you’ve ever been compelled to learn the ins and outs of any laws in place regarding this issue, keep reading to learn more as we attempt to dive into this question that has complex and vague answers. First up, we’ll explain the difference between feral cats and stray cats so as to not confuse any laws regarding house cats and the legalities of them roaming outdoors.

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What’s the Difference Between a Feral Cat and a Stray Cat?

A feral cat, or a free-roaming cat, is considered a feline that’s unsocialized and weary of people. They will often run off if you attempt to approach them. These cats live on the streets and fend for themselves. In California, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) defines feral cats as cats with no owner identification and display extreme fear and resistance towards humans, which explains feral cats perfectly. However, some housecats may react the same way but with one exception: they tend to be better groomed and cleaner than feral cats.

Feral cats are different from stray cats and are often confused as the same. The difference is stray cats are not as afraid of people and have been socialized at some point in their lives. Sadly, the cat could have gotten lost or, even worse, dumped by an individual. Stray cats can become pets again over time if someone takes them in, whereas feral cats are likely to never live indoors and have loving owners.

a feral cat lying under a car
Photo Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

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What Laws Do California, Maine, and Rhode Island Have Regarding Free-Roaming Cats?

Since these U.S. states are the only ones with clear-cut laws regarding this issue, let’s begin here.

California Outdoor Cat Laws

In California, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies states that any house cat found within the limits of fish and game refuge will be considered a nongame mammal unless the cat is in the presence of its owner. In other words, if the owner is not present, the cat will be impounded or even put down.

stray cat walking outdoor
Photo Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

Maine Outdoor Cat Laws

In Maine, a new bill was recently passed that implements fines for those who let their cat roam outdoors. The fines can range from $50 to $500 for cat owners who let their cats roam on other people’s property. This bill adds cats to the state’s animal trespass law, which previously excluded cats. The reason for the harsh legislation is to prevent cats from killing the bird population in the state, whether feral or house cats.

Rhode Island Cat Laws

The last state with clear-cut laws is Rhode Island. The Ocean State says that any cat can roam freely outdoors as long as the cat has a collar and has been spayed or neutered, which proves to be the more lenient of the three states with outdoor cat laws.

cat siblings outdoor
Photo Credit: Jumpstory

How Do I Find Out the Laws in My State? 

A good place to start is your veterinarian, who may be able to tell you exactly what the laws say in your state. Other excellent resources are your local animal control or city hall.

If you’re a cat owner with a cat itching to hang outdoors, you need to learn the specific laws (if any) regarding whether you can legally let your cat roam freely outdoors, as they are all different. Take Florida, for example. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a policy that states they will not act against cat owners for letting their cats outdoors to roam even though they recommend against it, nor do they patrol the streets in search of roaming cats.

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What Are the Dangers of Letting Your Cat Roam Free Outdoors?

Even though most states do not have specific laws banning cats from roaming outdoors, you still need to be aware of the potential dangers of letting your feline companion roam freely outside. For starters, your cat could get hit by a car or be exposed to harmful pesticides. There’s also the danger of being attacked by another animal, resulting in injury or even death, especially if bitten by a rabid animal. This makes keeping up with vaccinations and flea and tick medications paramount.

Your cat could become lost, never to return home, or someone could take your cat and keep your feline pal as their own. If your cat is not declawed, they could climb up a tree and not be able to get back down.

If your cat is not spayed or neutered, your cat may contribute to the ongoing problem regarding the feral cat problem in the U.S. If you decide to let your cat roam, have your cat fixed to help control this issue.

ragdoll cat with blue eyes standing outdoors in nature
Photo Credit: Aaron Zimmermann, Shutterstock

Are There Benefits of Letting My Cat Outdoors?

Even though there are many dangers of letting your cat outdoors, there are some benefits. Cats tend to be lazy indoors if they don’t have enough enrichment to keep them active. An outdoor cat will get exercise while roaming, which is good for keeping your cat from obesity. Being outdoors is excellent for your cat’s mental stimulation because they can exercise their hunting instincts with live prey rather than attacking the family dog; however, this is a threat to wild birds. 

How to Keep Your Cat Outdoors Safely

Some people feel it’s cruel to keep a cat indoors. However, since their domestication, there’s no reason cats cannot be happy living indoors, especially if their human parents provide enough physical and mental stimulation. After all, indoor cats tend to live healthier and longer lives living indoors.

That said, just because you have a cat doesn’t mean your cat can’t be outside safely. If you’re a DIYer, you can build an outdoor cat run so that your cat can enjoy the great outdoors without the worry of being injured or killed. You can find plans that are cheap and easy to make, and your cat will love it. You can also leash train your cat so you can take walks together in a safe and controlled manner.

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Final Thoughts

Generally speaking, there are no federal or state laws that ban letting cats outdoors unless, of course, you live in California, Maine, or Rhode Island. However, it’s best to keep your cat indoors because cats are a great danger to wildlife, particularly birds. If you want to let your cat outdoors for some fresh air, you can train your cat to walk on a leash and accompany them on their adventures for safety. If you do decide to let your cat outside to roam without a leash, ensure your cat has a collar with their name and your phone number on it.

You can also consider building your cat’s own outdoor enclosure so they can roam outside safely, observe the outside world, and enjoy the fresh air.


Featured Image Credit: maigrey42, Pixabay

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