I had always wanted to build an outdoor cat enclosure, or catio, since I had started keeping my cats safely indoors. The idea of creating the perfect safe haven for my cats to explore and experience a piece of their natural habitat seemed like the natural thing to do. So what is the best way of merging the two worlds of a cat, indoors and outdoors? By building an outdoor catio space in a safe environment, where cats can feel free to roam, protected from outside hazards.
As a child, 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, poisons, cars, and cruel people. 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 but building an outdoor enclosure will make your cats feel like they ate the canary. I really do feel that allowing your cats exposure to a natural but safe environment outdoors will make for a happier cat.
Before we built our homemade catio space, my cats were leashed trained and that worked for a while…
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 our cat companions but an attractive looking, relaxing, inviting and calming space for the humans of the household too. We wanted a space where human and feline could ‘commune’ and really tap into their cat’s inner tiger, and completely engage their inner ailurophile (why don’t we use this word more?). This catio jungle 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!
How to get started with building a catio
There are a few things to consider before building your new cat jungle: budget, space, and materials. The cat enclosure can include a maze of tunnels, platforms and hiding places, or it could be a simple window box catio or even a screened-in balcony. Consider the following pointers before getting started:
- You might need permission from your landlord if you are renting or certain city by-laws may require permits for certain backyard structures.
- If you are so inclined, do some basic sketches or doodles of what you have in mind. You would be surprised at the outcome after some brainstorming designs that come to mind. If you love gardening you might want to consider a design that merges with your landscape garden. Perhaps their very own catnip tunnel?
- There are ready-made kits available for purchase with setup instructions if you prefer this route.
- You could opt to have the catio attached to one side of the house with access to the catio through a catflap. Or it could be a stand-alone structure.
- Ensure that your catio enclosure is thoroughly secure from break-ins from uninvited guests such as other wild animals or strays. Remember, cats are expert escape artists and their curious natures make it easy for them to figure out loopholes for escape.
- Do you want a catio exclusively for your cat? If space is not an issue, you can create a very pleasing environment for both you and your cats.
- The fun part of the pre-planning phase is figuring out the tree-dwellers from the ground-dwellers. In our catio jungle, we have a good mix of low-lying shaded areas for the ground-lounging cats and plenty of highways for those high flying felines.
- In a multi-cat household, it is imperative to think of placement of the entryways and exit routes to allow for cats to get away from the resident ambusher cat. (There’s one in every household!)
- Location, as always is also something top on the list. Cats love their sun puddles but they also need shaded areas throughout the day. If you are going to include a garden, you will be choosing the appropriate plants for shade or sunny areas. Our catio is south facing which gets lots of sun and the vines provide plenty of shade too.
- What is the look and feel of your catio you have in mind? You could use PVC piping, metal or wood for the frame. We chose wood for that cottage-like character, with Silver Vines plants that finish the look.
- Protection from fleas and ticks: This point is often overlooked but very important. If you are allowing your cat outdoors, even in a protected space, they will not be protected from pests such a fleas and ticks. Ensure those vaccinations are up to date and that you are covered for any potential flea infestation. We are fortunate that we have never had a problem with ticks or fleas but always practice caution.
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″).
Redwood or red cedar are both decay resistant but slightly more expensive than pressure treated wood. Since 2003, lumber in North America is no longer treated with the toxic chemical, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) which as the name suggests, contains arsenic. If you are unsure about safety, you may use a non-toxic wood sealant over treated wood.
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.
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 any time of day. The cats play condo ‘musical chairs’, moving from one condo to the next, from the morning until afternoon. My oldest cat, Ninhsy Earl Grey, 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 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. For ideas and tips of incorporating a cat garden for your catio, visit our Cat Garden post.
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 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 and flea 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.
Building your cat’s dream outdoor enclosure might not solve a behavioral problem altogether, but it certainly will help to create confidence in a previously timid cat. When you increase territory, no matter how small an increase, you create a new opportunity for ownership of space. For cats, to claim ownership of a piece of furniture, an outside time-shared condo, plant pot or herb garden, is precious and priceless! The Chirpy Cats crew seem happier and livelier than before – perhaps they do feel like the cats who ate the canary, but not quite. The bird feeder is off-limits!
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 Summer Catio 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 chirp us in the comments below.