What’s a “catio” and why would you want one? A catio is an outdoor enclosed patio for cats (and sometimes their caregivers), where they can enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors without getting into trouble. While catios can’t provide total freedom, they prevent kitty from getting hit by a car, being badly injured or killed by wildlife such as coyotes, getting fleas and all the diseases that can result from them, fighting with other cats, and upsetting neighbors who loathe cats. They also lessen cats’ chance of getting feline hyperthyroidism (an increasingly common feline disease caused by exposure to chemicals in homes), relieve boredom, and assist in multiple-cat households when a cat needs his/her space or just a place to snooze. Last—but definitely not least—catios help keep birds and other little wild creatures safe. Especially if you use bird feeders and/or have a “real” garden designed to attract and nurture wildlife, allowing your cat to roam freely is inviting disaster, particularly if they are young or seem born to kill. Domesticated cats are predators and obligate carnivores and, despite their domestication, most yearn to stalk and kill prey—we can’t blame them; it’s in their DNA. Since we are ultimately responsible for our cats and their actions, it behooves us to keep them indoors but also to think about their needs by offering a place to lie in the sun, breathe some fresh air, and watch a little slice of the world.
Of course, expecting a cat who has been always been allowed to roam freely to suddenly agree to stay indoors may be asking too much (no matter how exciting the catio may be!). We have a 15-year-old Katrina Kitty who still yearns to go outside. (I cave in to his demands, but only for short periods during mid-day when birds are least likely to be foraging, not during baby bird season, and never at night. Most of the time he just relaxes in the sun.) But cats who are new to your household and kittens who have never experienced the outdoors are ideal candidates for the catio life. We have several rescued cats who came to us as half-feral older kittens and our catio is indispensable for meeting their outdoor needs—they love it!
There are many different types of catios, from fairly inexpensive window boxes that cost less than $100, to more expensive and elaborate designs that may include catwalks, tunnels, roofs, furniture and multi-levels (the latter is essential!). Some people design and build their custom catio themselves, as my husband, Rick, and I did, while others hire a contractor or handyman. Kits to build your own are available online. For more detailed guidance and tips, as well as links to companies that sell kits, check out this article from The Humane Society of the U.S.
When we initially thought about making a catio, we considered turning half of our elevated backyard deck into one, but it would have been very difficult and there was no way for the cats to come and go on their own—that is, no place to install a little cat door. Our cats really love our deck, but three of the four cannot be trusted not to leap eight feet to ground level. One day, it hit me: Why not turn a mostly unusable space on the east side of our house into a space for the cats? When we bought our house I thought it could be made into a little sunroom, but a catio wouldn’t require heating, insulation, etc.
A little history: When our house was built in 1929, there had been an exterior wooden porch, about 13 feet long by 7 feet wide, with two doors to the inside at either end. Twenty to thirty years later (in the 1950s, judging by the type of brick) someone put a concrete floor over the wooden floor and created narrow planters made with brick and mortar, and installed a huge floor-to-ceiling window and sliding glass doors. Sometime later, the space was enclosed to make it into a greenhouse of sorts, with translucent fiberglass panels for walls and roof’ the planters were covered with formica. But functionality was poor: Summer temperatures climbed into the triple-digits (ventilation was poor when the exterior door was closed) and it was cold in the winter. Plus, the old fiberglass had yellowed, the carpet was filthy, and the sliding glass doors and window that covered the interior wall were single paned and energy inefficient. Renovating the space would help increase energy efficiency and provide us with a much more useable space.
The Casbah Catio
Since we did everything ourselves, it took about 5 months to complete, not counting the time it took to replace a window and door and the winter months when we put things on hold. Rick did the majority of the planning and work; I helped with tiling and did most of the painting (and gave moral support!). We were able to reuse some of the wood from the old structure, and some came from our local Rebuilding Center, which sells reclaimed materials, but we did have to buy a fair amount of new materials. Very large rocks that were found in the planters found homes in the garden.
I’ve always loved Moroccan design and finally I was able to sneak some elements into our home. The tile came from the outlet room of Pratt and Larson in Portland; selection varies and I think we made at least six trips there to find what would look good together. At $1 a pound, it was a great deal.
Initially, the most important task is planning. Some suggestions: Try to site it where the cats will be able to see things of interest; think about how the cats will be able to get in and out (it’s nice to connect it to the main house because if you have to carry your cat to and fro, it may get little use after the novelty has worn off); consider how you will keep it dry; and give cats variety, including some elevated places to perch and snooze. Make some sketches and draw up a basic plan. If you are going to do any demolition, be sure to figure out where you can take items (like old carpet or glass) to be recycled, rather than just throwing it in a landfill.
Here’s a basic synopsis of how we turned an unusable space into our catio: First, we removed the existing glass doors and window (and smashed them up to transport to a recycler). The wall was then framed in and a new, large window (that closely resembles an original window in our living room) and a door that enters our dining room were installed. Next, the demolition began.
The original porch floor hadn’t been connected to house, so that had to be fixed. Rick also dealt with some rot in a sill plate where a door once stood. Following that, 4x4s were added and walls were framed in. Painting was done as things progressed. Because we wanted natural light to enter the catio and window and door, we chose a roof of clear, corrugated polycarbonate outdoor patio cover (lightweight, easy to install, inexpensive).
An outer door that leads to the backyard was then installed and we chose DIY screens to keep the cats in. Most people use a large metal mesh, but we chose recyclable aluminum screen (over nonrecyclable plastic), for several reasons: First, a few years earlier, two young birds had entered our house through a very small opening one morning and were immediately caught and killed by our cats and we feared this could happen with the large mesh. There is smaller mesh available, but it’s difficult to see through. Once installed, screen almost disappears from view. Second, since we like to open the door that connects the catio to our dining room during nice weather, we wanted to keep insects out. Of course, screen is shreddable by claws and it gets dirty, but for the most part we’re happy with it. If it does get completely shredded, it’s not very difficult to replace (and recycle). Don’t use plastic mesh—cats can get their claws stuck in it.
Speaking of doors, we wanted a cat door so the cats could come and go on their own, but were concerned about drafts during the winter. Rick installed a Freedom Pet Pass door, an energy efficient flap door. The only thing that’s problematic is that because our two female cats are tiny (barely 7 pounds) and scare easily, they have trouble pushing the door outwards due to a fairly strong magnet; they usually manage by pulling it inward with their claws. Coming inside requires less force so isn’t a problem for them. The door is visible at the lower left corner of the final photo, below.
Levels are essential for felines, who often make their living by observing prey below. We placed them so they could easily hop from one to another. My cats highly recommend them for bird and squirrel watching!
We also added a bench at the far end (with vents to the outside) that offers some storage space and seating for us.
Tiling was actually fun—we were on the home stretch and it brought such warmth and a personal touch. The cats couldn’t care less, but we love it .
Finishing touches: A large log (found near a river bank) was also added, as well as final bits of woodwork and paint. Scatching post, litter box, water bowl, lantern, grass for grazing, and cushions for comfort (with washable covers) were the final touches to our Casbah Catio.