Reprinted with permission from Yasaar Nakchbendi, Chirpy Cats. Copyright September 23, 2014.
I had always wanted to build an outdoor enclosure, or catio, for as long as I can remember. It was around ten years ago when I only had two cats, when I thought it would be perfect to create a safe outdoor haven for them. I began researching the best ways to merge the two worlds of a cat – indoors and outdoors. How nice would it be for the cats to have access to the outdoors in a safe environment, away from the dangers of cars and cruel people. Growing up as a kid we always had outdoor cats and this was the norm at the time. Today people are more aware of the dangers lurking outside and of the statistics of cats lost to road traffic accidents, not to mention exposure to diseases and poisons. It’s no surprise that indoor cats enjoy a longer lifespan than their outdoor counterparts. But keeping cats indoors comes with its own set of challenges. Behavioral problems may arise from boredom due to a lack of exposure to a changing environment. There are many ways to provide a stimulating environment for your cat and building an outdoor enclosure is just one of them. I really do feel that allowing your cats exposure to a natural but safe setting outdoors will make for a happier cat. I never got to build the catio so for the past ten years I had leashed trained them to go for walks.
But things changed when my husband adopted three more cats!
Leash walking five cats is not an option. These younger cats are energetic and going to need plenty of space to express their play, hunting and climbing skills. We knew we wanted to make something that is not only a playground for the feline kind, but an attractive looking, relaxing, inviting and calming space for the humans of the household too. We wanted a space where human and feline can ‘commune’ and really tap into your cat’s inner tiger, where you can completely engage your inner ailurophile (why don’t we use this word more?) in your cats’ own personalized kitty jungle! This catio was going to be the epitome of ‘cat zen’ in every shape and form. So when my husband announced that he was going to build a catio I was ecstatic yet amused. He knew the word ‘catio’, he’s officially a cat guy!
The 12′ x 8′ x 8′ catio is built adjacent to the house with access via a laundry window. We used pressure treated lumber for the frame and climbing spaces and galvanized steel welded wire was used for the sides (2″x 4″). To fully enclose the catio we attached sections of Peak safety green mesh fencing (Home Depot) to the top of the frame. The foundation is constructed from red patio stone blocks. This works well as we know how our ground dwellers love to roll their backs on stone, either heated by the sun, or cooled down in a shaded spot. You may cover a section of the roof with a tarp polyethylene cover to provide some protection from elements but we decided to keep it open for a more outdoor feeling to allow as much sun through as possible. If the cats need cover from an afternoon shower there is always the option of retreating to one of four kitty condos placed at different levels. More about these ‘condos’ below.
At this point it was important to put on our ‘thinking cats’ – or if you prefer, to think like a cat. Ramps and climbers that don’t lead to exits and escape routes is a bad idea – and the cats will let you know about a bad design just by not using it. Fortunately most of the highways were kitty approved, but we had to make a few modifications to allow for two-way traffic in some cases. For the bush/ground dwellers, we have plenty of shaded areas on the ground. We constructed three-tiered benches or platforms, which house the many cat friendly plants (more on that later), but which also provide plenty of low-lying seating for a catnap. For the more athletic feline (like Sarabi, the Bengal), there are two ‘highways’ on opposite sides, each one having two perpendicular exits which meet a wider two-lane highway in the middle to become a T-junction. These highways are accessible via a stair platform built near the entryway to the catio and from the three-tiered platforms.
Cat Condos are fun
For the cat that likes to get away from it all, the cave dweller, there are four elevated ‘condos’ built against the side of the house. These condos provide shelter from the elements, and for the kitty that just needs some ‘me-time’, it’s the perfect spot for a catnap at anytime of day. The cats play condo ‘musical chairs’, moving from one condo to the next, from the morning until afternoon. My oldest cat, Ninhsy, will only emerge near sunset and hop onto the highway for a little bit of bird watching or to watch me water the plants. He likes this little retreat away from the younger cats who won’t bother him for a wrestle when he’s in one of the condos. In fact, I think it must be a kitty rule – “thou shalt not fight inside the condo”. Either that or the cats adhere to their kitty timeshare schedule!
There’s grass at the end of the tunnel
One end of the catio has a tiny (12″x12″) entry way to a an L-shaped tunnel which leads into another lawn covered space. This tunnel is removable and can be flipped to face the opposite side so that the cats can have access to a different view of the yard and a fresh patch of lawn each week. The entry to the tunnel which attaches to the main catio has a mini door which we can lock shut when we don’t want the cats to have access to the tunnel or when it’s time to switch sides and mow the lawn.
The cat garden
So this is the bare bones of the catio. You may stop here and kitty will be more than happy with only the ramps and highways. But to really recreate that outdoor jungle and tap into your cat’s inner tiger, adding a variety of plants and grasses provides the ultimate cat enriching environment. The Chirpy Cats crew seem happier and livelier than before – perhaps they do feel like the cat that ate the canary, but not quite! Please read more about the cat garden here
The cat fountain
Bearing in mind I wanted to create a cat haven with human appeal too, I wanted to add something that would provide tranquility and again, that sought after ‘zen’ appeal – so a fountain was a must! We know that cats are attracted to running water and while this is not a pet fountain but an outdoor decorative one, I still wanted to ensure their safety if they happened to take a sip. I was a bit apprehensive about getting an ornamental fountain, as I wasn’t sure about toxicity levels, if any, of materials used and general safety for my cats if they happened to drink from it. The pet fountains available on the market are not that great looking and I haven’t found any outdoor options. After much research with no conclusive evidence that these polyresin decorative fountains are not safe, I bought one and thought I’d see whether my cats are actually drinking from it or not. Also, just to be safe, I found a product that keeps the water fresher for longer and is 100% safe for pets and wildlife – if they do use it for a drink.
During the first week, Mr Jack would take a sip now and then, but that was it. The others would play with the water, but not drink it. They still prefer to come inside to drink from their ‘watering hole’ where they have many glass bowls filled with fresh water. Perhaps they can taste a difference? So using this product in the fountain is a precaution, as it keeps algae at bay and keeps the water fresher for longer. Regular weekly cleaning (especially in our humid summers) is a must to ensure there are no ‘gremlins’ taking residence in the fountain. What is actually funny to observe is Scout, our most outdoorsy cat, would, instead, drink the water from the watercress plant after I’ve just soaked it to the brim. Having been found on the streets, she was probably used to drinking from rain puddles and and leaves, who knows?
In addition to the fountain, I furnished the catio with a modest outdoor bistro set for two. I love sitting in here drinking my morning coffee and to relax in the evenings with the cats after a long stressful day. My husband works from home and would often sit in the catio during the day and send me photos of his ‘office’ while I’m at work! The catio has become our hang out at sunset and dusk and it’s quite amusing watching the cats spring into hunting mode. You might be wondering – but what about mosquitoes? Well, catnip and lemongrass are known mosquito repellents and I have one large lemongrass container plant in the corner which gives off an amazing scent at night. Hanging lanterns with citronella tea lights come in handy too.
These placed at various locations in the catio are well appreciated in areas where the cats hunt for evening bugs. It’s a myth that cats see in compete darkness – they need some light, however dim, to make it easier to find their way. We placed solar stake lights in two huge whiskey barrel planters at either end of the catio, as well as a few all along the catio tunnel that leads into the lawn-covered area. I’ve twisted butterfly lights around the mesh walls and added some LED underwater lights for the fountain. All these lighting accents add to the picture of tranquility, not just for the people but for the Chirpy cats too.
A touch of whimsy
Literary Cat will tell a story or two – Scout loves to seat herself comfortably next to Mr Literary Cat, falling asleep for her afternoon nap.
For more photos of the catio please browse through the gallery of photos in “Summer Catio”.
For other great resources on cat enclosures, see below:
Catio Showcase provides essential eye candy for catios and will surely inspire you to build one, big or small.
International cat care has a comprehensive article exploring the different fencing and cat enclosure options in Fencing in Your Garden.
Cats of Australia has a wonderful showcase of readers’ catio submissions. The catio bug will not leave you after browsing through the catio pictures!
Hauspanther is my go-to site for browsing the latest in modern kitty furniture and design trends for the hipster cat in your life. This is the ultimate guide to catify your home and more!
Do you allow your cat access to the outdoors, enclosed or not? Whether you have made a catio or have been thinking about building one–please share in the comments below.
Yasaar has a BA in Fine Art and graphic design and works as a project manager in visual display. When she leaves her day job she can be found on her blog at Chirpycats.com where she expresses her love for all things feline, with a special focus on cat environment enrichment and gardening for cats. Yasaar makes miniature sculptures of her cats from her homemade cold porcelain clay and gets her inspiration from writing haiku. She loves to travel and Aoshima Cat Island in Japan is a destination on her bucket list.