Image via iStock.com/MilaSCH
By Kate Hughes
Over the past few years, there’s been a push from animal experts who recommend that cats be kept indoors—not just for their safety, but also for the safety of wildlife.
However, keeping cats inside limits environmental stimulation, which can lead to boredom, frustration and stress. “In the grand scheme of things, keeping cats exclusively indoors is a recent trend,” says Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant and cofounder of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consulting company in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’re imposing a drastic change on their natural lifestyle. Cats have physical and emotional needs, and they can get bored in an environment that isn’t enriched,” says Delgado.
Outdoor Enclosures for Cats
In an effort to enrich their kitties’ day-to-day lives, many pet owners are building outdoor cat enclosures that keep their cats safe while allowing them to enjoy the smells, sounds, sights and feeling of the outdoors.
These outdoor enclosures for cats are commonly known as cat patios or “catios.” “Catios are just one option for adding more mental stimulation and enrichment to your cat's life, which we think benefits their minds and bodies,” says Delgado.
Not all catios are created equal, however. If you’re thinking about investing in one, here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind.
Before You Get Started
While many cats would be thrilled to spend time outside in a catio, there are some for which it would cause undue stress. Before getting a catio, cat owners should think about whether an outdoor cat enclosure would be a good fit for their kitty.
According to Katenna Jones, an associate certified applied animal behaviorist, certified cat behavior consultant and owner of Jones Animal Behavior in Warwick, Rhode Island, cats who enjoy catios are typically curious and playful.
“If you can never find your cat when you get home with groceries because she’s hiding in a bag with the potato chips, or she gets into your purse all the time, or she comes up to you carrying one of your shoes in her mouth, that cat is a good candidate for a catio,” says Jones.
Once you’re confident that your cat would enjoy a catio, you want to be sure that you’re investing in a quality outdoor cat enclosure. “Sturdiness is key,” Jones says. “You want something that will keep your cat in, but also keep predators out.” Jones recommends avoiding netting, as it’s easy to rip through.
And don’t think your only option is a massive enclosure that will take up half of your yard; there are all kinds of catios out there. “I’ve seen everything from very expensive, professionally constructed catios with drainage and plants and furniture to much more simple enclosures that are basically chicken wire on a wood frame attached to a window. As long as the catio is well-made and safe, it will work,” Delgado adds.
While there are a wide variety of catios available, there are some features that Delgado and Jones believe are essential.
The first is the cat’s ability to come and go as she pleases. If the catio is attached to the house, Delgado recommends giving your cats the means to freely move between the two. “Cats should not be locked outside in the catio. It’s not a replacement for supervising your cat, and you should always be sure she’s ok.”
She adds that if you do install a cat door, like the PetSafe 2-way locking cat door, an uninitiated kitty may need to practice a bit to get the hang of going through the cat door. “Try enticing them through an open flap with toys or treats to get them used to going in and out,” she suggests.
Catios should also offer shade, especially if they get full sun for several hours each day. “There should always be shade available,” Jones says. “You should also provide spots where your cat can hide if they want to take a nap in a more secure place.”
Hiding spots could be anything from a built-in cube made of the same material as the catio to a cat condo like the Petmate Kitty Kat condo. If you want to go the extra mile and ensure that your cat can enjoy the catio in all kinds of weather, you can even add a cat heated bed—like the K&H Pet Products extreme weather kitty pad—to their hiding spot.
Jones adds that catios should include verticals surfaces for the cat. “Height is more important than square feet,” she says. “So rather than having a large, flat catio, I would say it's better to have a small, vertical catio with lots of shelves. Cats like to go high; that’s where they feel safe.”
If you’re not able to build a cat enclosure with shelves, there are lots of options available, including tall, small and medium-size cat trees (the Frisco 72-inch cat tree is a taller option), and even hanging shelves that don’t require any sort of building prowess.
What Should Be in It?
If your cat is going to be spending extended time out in his catio, it makes sense to add some of his indoor comfort items to the space as well. “You should have food, water and a litter box out there—all of the necessities,” says Jones.
If you’re not into going in and out of the catio all the time, an automatic cat feeder, like the Arf Pets automatic dog and cat feeder, and a cat water fountain, such as the Drinkwell 360 pet fountain, may make the most sense. A simple cat litter box would probably be a good fit, especially if the catio is smaller.
Engaging With the Outdoors
Catios are very versatile. They can be temporary or permanent, big or small. They can also be redesigned if certain components aren’t working for your cat. Most important, though, is that they give cats an opportunity to engage with the world differently than they would if they were indoors.
Delgado explains, “Cats can sit on a perch, roll in the sun, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the outdoors in a safe way. It’s an experience that they enjoy. If people want to give their cat a fuller life without letting them run loose in the streets, a catio is a good option.”
Delgado adds that if and when you decide to get a catio, you should never just pick up your cat and plunk her down in the middle of it—she should be able to explore at her own pace. “You don’t want to force them. It can take cats a few days or even weeks to test out a new environment, so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while for your cat to adjust.”
Before letting your cat explore the outdoors in her catio, it is important that she receives up-to-date vaccinations, fecal testing and deworming. This will ensure your cat stays healthy while she interacts with the environment and is prepared in case she encounters wild animals.