BACKGROUND: Anopheles arabiensis is stereotypical of diverse vectors that mediate residual malaria transmission globally, because it can feed outdoors upon humans or cattle, or enter but then rapidly exit houses without fatal exposure to insecticidal nets or sprays. METHODS: Life histories of a well-characterized An. arabiensis population were simulated with a simple but process-explicit deterministic model and relevance to other vectors examined through sensitivity analysis. RESULTS: Where most humans use bed nets, two thirds of An. arabiensis blood feeds and half of malaria transmission events were estimated to occur outdoors. However, it was also estimated that most successful feeds and almost all (>98 %) transmission events are preceded by unsuccessful attempts to attack humans indoors. The estimated proportion of vector blood meals ultimately obtained from humans indoors is dramatically attenuated by availability of alternative hosts, or partial ability to attack humans outdoors. However, the estimated proportion of mosquitoes old enough to transmit malaria, and which have previously entered a house at least once, is far less sensitive to both variables. For vectors with similarly modest preference for cattle over humans and similar ability to evade fatal indoor insecticide exposure once indoors, >80 % of predicted feeding events by mosquitoes old enough to transmit malaria are preceded by at least one house entry event, so long as >/=40 % of attempts to attack humans occur indoors and humans outnumber cattle >/=4-fold. CONCLUSIONS: While the exact numerical results predicted by such a simple deterministic model should be considered only approximate and illustrative, the derived conclusions are remarkably insensitive to substantive deviations from the input parameter values measured for this particular An. arabiensis population. This life-history analysis, therefore, identifies a clear, broadly-important opportunity for more effective suppression of residual malaria transmission by An. arabiensis in Africa and other important vectors of residual transmission across the tropics. Improved control of predominantly outdoor residual transmission by An. arabiensis, and other modestly zoophagic vectors like Anopheles darlingi, which frequently enter but then rapidly exit from houses, may be readily achieved by improving existing technology for killing mosquitoes indoors.