How to build a catio your cat will love

Senior cat, Earl Grey in the catio tunnel, enjoying a little sunset meditation.

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.

Materials

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.

The challenging bit was actually creating the perches and highways according to our different cats’ needs.
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. 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 ‘catio 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.

How to build a catioCat super higway in catio

Cat Condos are fun

Cat Condo

Mr. Jack in his condo with George sitting on top.

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!

Cat Condo

Ninhsy Earl Grey snoozing in his favorite condo

There’s grass at the end of the tunnel

Cat tunnel

Mr Jack explores his tunnel and walks towards to tiny entry way back into the larger catio.

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.

Entry way into the cat tunnel

Entry way into the L-shaped tunnel. Mr Jack darts back in!

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.

Sarabi next to the fountain on a warm summer's evening.

Sarabi next to the fountain on a warm summer’s evening.

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?

A catio for the humans too, they're welcomeScout, the Tortie, loves flowers

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.

A great way to add to the allure of your catio garden is to add some solar lights.
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 complete 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.

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

Scout next to mr Literary Cat

Scout settles next to Mr. Literary cat

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”.

Like this? Save the pin below.
The perfect catio your cat will love

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.

About the author

The Lady Cat

Whiskers make me smile.
Coffee is good for you.
And cats are for life.
(Yasaar Nakchbendi)

21 Comments

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  • Your catio is gorgeous and your cats must love you for building it! I don’t have space to build something like this, so we purchased a 4x8x6 foot covered dog kennel for them to at least have access to the outside. But I certainly aspire to building one like yours one day! And “thinking cats”- love that!

  • Thank you Rachel! No matter how big or small, I’m sure your cats definitely appreciate the access to fresh air! If you don’t have the space you can always go vertical or build tunnels against the roof. But have you noticed that indoor cats are so much happier when they have safe access to some form of the outdoors? So overall, outdoor access like this no matter how small the space, does wonders for their quirky little mood swings!

    • Oh thank you so much for dropping by. I’m glad our catio is inspiring you to build your own just like it. Regarding your question about the cat runs, or catwalks/tunnels, we did not attach the ends. Because the core frame is wood, the tunnels are quite heavy and sturdy and just sits flush with the two entrances, resting in place on the grass. When it’s time to mow the lawn, we just drag it sideways, then drag it back into place or rotate it.

      Our L-shape tunnel is one piece, so the right angles are joined already. But we recommend building the L-shape tunnel in two pieces as it would be much easier to move separate pieces than one huge ready-made L-shape. For the heavy lifting I rely on my husband! lol

      For more pics you may browse in the gallery on the menu above, in the drop down, Summer Catio. Please let me know if you need any further info, I’d be glad to advise!

      • Oh, I am so in love with your catio space! I love all the plants. I’m having a tough time because our catio is mostly in the shade with some spotty sun throughout the day. I just think they need the different plants. My plan of bringing in the catnip and oat grass in pots was pretty much a 10-minute euphoria followed by destroyed plants! I’ve got to come up with something. I’ll be keeping your catio in the back of my mind till we’re able to maybe add on! 😀

        • I keep my catnip in hanging baskets and give them a treat now and again. It’s also planted alongside the ground tunnel, so that they have access to it for a nibble but it’s still protected enough so that they cannot total destroy it! But in the Fall I bring inside all the grasses that seem to last all winter. Carex grass is the toughest and they like it.

          Oh and for your shaded Catio, get some plants that don’t mind shade like Jacobs ladder, Impatiens, violas and pansies, nasturtiums, and few hanging baskets with spider plants and Boston ferns to name but a few. All non-toxic for kitties!

  • We have eight cats all indoors. I really want to build a catio so that my babies can have exposure to a safe outside world. We will be moving in the near future and I would love to be able to surprise Jack, Sally, Max, Sunshine, Oliver, Emma, Chloe and Vinny will a play area.

    • That’s fantastic! Your cats will love it. I have really noticed that since building the catio, our cats get into less ‘arguments’ so to speak and definitely less tension between them. And it’s nice to see how they organize their own time-share schedule with each cat owning different corners of the catio throughout the day. You and your kitties will have lots of fun. Good luck! ??

  • I loved this idea. Our kitties go outdoors. Shoko cruises the Lane and never leaves the Lane other than to come home. Kali no longer goes to the Lane unless I go for a walk with Shoko in the Lane. Then she may come with us.

    If, I was in a more populated area, I would definitely have a catio. Your ideas and suggestions are perfect. I do have a fountain on my deck. I get around the scum problem by putting filtered water in it. You know, from a Brita filter. At first they drank out of the fountain but now, no. They seem to prefer running inside for a drink. We have a big bowl of water on the deck. This seems to be a toy for Kali as she digs in the water and then licks her paws.

    Thanks for the peek at your catio.

    Jean, Shoko and Kali

    • Hi there Jean, thank for reading and glad you like the tips. I also have noticed that the cats prefer to come inside for a drink from the indoor fountains. The outside fountain is more for ‘zen’ appeal both for the cats and us! I have also noticed that they love the sound of the running water and will fall asleep next to the fountain. It must be soothing for them too. To keep algae and scum at bay I use Small Fountain Cleanser which is safe for all animals. Because it’s not a chemical it takes a while to work it’s magic so now I only have to clean the fountain every two weeks.
      I have now also added a bowl of water in the catio for drinking which gets changed daily.

      • When you talk about this chemical *small fountain cleanser*, is it for the outdoor or indoor fountain? The outdoor fountain we never clean. It never gets dirty with the Brita water in it. The sides are not slimy. The indoor fountain where the girls drink, we clean out once a week. I like the idea of letting it go for 2 weeks though.

        • It’s safe for any type of fountain, but I wouldn’t use it on our indoor fountains as like you, I clean them out once a week and those have filters.
          But the label says it’s safe for for pets, children and wildlife and it is not a chemical so I use it on the outside fountain.

          • I see. Our outside fountain is on the covered deck, I guess this is why it doesn’t get slimy. Thanks for the info, the filter is something I didn’t think about so you’re right, it wouldn’t be a good idea on the indoor fountain.

  • I had seen your catio photos previously but not read this post. You have the best catio ever. We turned our lower deck into a catio many years ago, but it does not have all the great features yours does. We’ve been trying to do more, and I appreciate all your great ideas. Thank you, Janet and Kitties Blue

    • Thank you and you’re most welcome 🙂 Each year my husband would say “that’s it, no more catio additions” and then the next year comes along and we cannot resist just another ‘tweak’. This summer it was the additional tunnels, which are not shown here, but you have probably seen them in my other recent posts.

  • I am so excited! I have been thinking of building a Catio for awhile now. I just recently moved and my boyfriend is allergic to cats. So he suggested their own room. We talked about a Catio. He put in a human door, then the snow came. Now that they have their own room, they will soon have their own Catio. The snow has melted and is now in the 60’s. I have been cleaning up the area they are going to have has their own. I have been thinking of ideas in my head, but YOU, have inspired me to put it on paper, measure it out and buy the material. Your website has been so informative and it is now bookmarked in my computer. Thank You so much for your inspiration

    • Hi there Heidi,

      I’m so glad I could inspire you with some useful ideas for a catio. Now is the perfect time to start planning your layout for when the good weather finally arrives! In the coming weeks, I will be adding more about how to beautify your catio space. The possibilities are endless and the key is to just think like a cat. I call it putting your “thinking cat” on 🙂 Please let me know if you have any questions.

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