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When I unlock my side door, I always give a quick glance into the hallway, making sure that the black shadow isn't lurking there, poised to escape.

Fleischmann, who has recently taken up residence at our house along with her owner, my daughter, is an indoor cat with a soul that longs to be out.

But once she gets out, which has happened a couple of times, she is astounded and confused by the big world, not street-smart enough after a lifetime of lap lounging to know what to do.

And though there aren't any coyotes in my neighborhood, cat owners in some Western New York locales, recent news reports tell us, have enough reason to fear that predator to keep their cats inside.

In our previous cat-owning days, Miss Muffet and Pixie were allowed roaming privileges -- otherwise, how would I have kept a cat inside with four children going in and out all day long? Unfortunately, one cat was hit by a car and the other was the loser in a brutal cat fight.

My other daughter, who has worked at a veterinary clinic for six years, opens her doors wide and so far her cat, Bee, has returned unscarred, unmauled, undaunted.

Indoor cats are safer, generally healthier and more up-to-date on their inoculations, she admits. "But yesterday we had two cats come in, and one was 18 and one was 20, and they've been out all their lives. They seem happier if they have something to hunt and can interact with the world. But there are a lot of threats out there."

Dr. Marcia Levine, owner of the Summer Street Cat Clinic, can list all those threats: feline immunodeficiency virus (which acts much like AIDS does in the human population); feline leukemia; toxoplasmosis; injuries from other pets or predators (including the growing coyote population).

"The more cat contact, the greater likelihood of being exposed to illness," she said.

In her opinion, most cats can live indoors quite contentedly.

"Occasionally there are some that are feral in nature, and they need to be outdoors," she said.

If a cat is allowed out, she suggests that it have identification, which can be a tag on a collar or an implanted microchip that can be read by a scanner. Besides that, she said, cats should be properly vaccinated.

If they've been declawed, they should definitely stay inside.

Gina Browning Rummel of the SPCA stands firmly at the door on this question -- and no cats are allowed past her. Day after day, when cats are brought to the SPCA, she sees what happens in their worldly wanderings.

"We've seen cats with frostbite, cats tangled in fan belts, cats who have been in cat fights," she said. "I get passionate about keeping cats indoors, because we see what happens when people innocently let them out and they become victims."

Dr. Levine said she has noticed that once a client has lost a cat to an outdoor catastrophe, there's a better chance he'll keep the new kitten indoors.

I agree, especially knowing the fate that befell my two vagabonds.

So Fleischmann will remain a sill sitter, longingly gazing at the busy squirrels in the backyard. And staying inside, where she can attack her toy mouse to her heart's content.

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