Not so long ago, most cats were let out each evening to roam as they pleased while their owners slept peacefully. Nowadays it's becoming less common. With around one in four cats killed on the road, should all our feline friends be locked in at night? Sophie Mackenzie examines the issue for Petplan.
If you are a cat owner, you will be familiar with the feeling of being jerked from sleep in the small hours by needle-sharp claws kneading your body. Often followed by persistent yowling, a furry body draping itself over your head, or a sandpapery tongue rasping your nose... your kitty has decided it's morning.
Our feline friends don't keep such antisocial hours out of sheer contrariness, although it may feel that way at four o'clock in the morning. Cats are crepuscular: they are most active during the twilight hours of dusk and dawn, which is feeding time for the small rodents and birds on which they prey.
So it can seem like a wise idea to let your cat out at night, or even shut him or her out. It is a cat's natural instinct to hunt for food, after all. "Cats benefit from access to the great outdoors. They can explore new things in a changing environment, fulfill their natural instincts and get exercise," says Claire Bessant, chief executive of the charity International Cat Care (formerly the Feline Advisory Bureau).
And of course, many cat owners also prefer to offer 24/7 outside access to avoid the hassle of changing litter trays!
However, Claire advises that being allowed to wander freely at night isn't safe for cats. Most road traffic accidents in which cats are hurt or killed happen at night, due to cats being dazzled by oncoming car headlights. A reflective collar might go some way towards protecting your puss, but keeping him or her inside is safer still.
Wild animals like foxes are also out and about at night, and although it's unusual for a fox to injure a domestic cat, it has been known to happen. Your cat is also more likely to meet feral and stray cats at night, possibly getting into fights or picking up diseases or parasites. And you're more likely to encounter angry neighbours if your cat gets into the habit of using the nearby gardens as late-night toilets!
So what's the solution? Assess the situation: if you live in a terraced house with limited access to the world beyond your own garden, or you have an unadventurous cat that shows little interest in expanding his or her territory, it is probably relatively safe to allow your puss outside at night.
Similarly, if you live in a very rural area far from busy roads and keeping rats and mice down is an important part of your cat's job description, you may choose to let the pre-dawn hunting continue unimpeded.
However, most urban cats will live longer, healthier, safer lives if their access to the outside world is restricted to daylight hours. "If you can train your cat to come when he is called - perhaps by feeding him - you'll be able to let him out first thing and make sure he back in by dusk each day," says Claire.
You may also consider insuring your cat. After all, if your cat is a night or day wanderer, it might be more likely to need assistance from a vet, as owner Caroline Baker found out.
In the first month after she bought her roaming ginger tom Jack, he had an accident and dislocated his leg. The vet’s bill would’ve cost £3000, but thankfully Jack was covered by four weeks of free insurance from Petplan. (The company offers this to many new owners who opt to have their dog or cat microchipped.)
Caroline hadn't made up her mind whether to insure Jack before the accident, but now has lifetime cover with Petplan. She says: "This gives us peace of mind for the future. Jack disappears all day, and since his operation we've had another trip to the vet. I'm sure it won't be the last trip we make!"
Pet insurance may not sound like essential cover. But new research shows the UK’s millions of pet owners are more likely to claim on this insurance than any other type of policy. And with vets' fees rising sharply – the average single pet insurance claim now costs £650 – it's not hard to see why more pet owners on the whole are choosing to insure their pets.
What do you think? Is your cat given to sneaky stop-outs, or is he or she quite happy to curl up indoors at night? Do you believe in letting cats be cats, or do you follow a safety-first policy? Tell us in the comments below.