In generations past, most cats lived in the house but also spent some hours each day outside.
Today more cats live inside only. These living changes are caused by many different things, ranging from dangers from cars, predatory wild animals, and dangers from illnesses and diseases. In addition, more cat owners now consider their cats are members of the family, rather than simply resident rodent control.
Outside cats are also efficient predators and can prey on more than rodents; they also hunt birds and other native animals. Songbird enthusiasts, in particular, are not happy about cats roaming freely outside.
This change from outside cat to inside-only pet has some side effects. Inside-only cats get bored. Life inside may be safer, but it's nowhere nearly as exciting as life outside. Boredom can lead to behavior issues, including scratching on furniture, litter box problems, tension between multiple cats in the family, and anxiety. Plus, bored cats tend to sleep more and exercise less causing an increase in feline obesity.
The Catio: Your Solution to Feline Boredom
This doesn't mean you need to give your cats unrestricted outside freedom, though. Life outside is potentially dangerous. However, limited outside access is something most cat owners can provide by building (or buying) a catio. A catio, or cat patio, is an outside, escape proof, enclosed area that your cat can access from inside the house. The catio doesn't have to be large; those outside a window may be as wide and tall as the window but with a solid floor. Others might take up a portion of an existing porch or patio. They can work for city cats, suburban, and even rural cats.
I built a catio for my three year old feline brothers, Spock and Scottie, because as they grew up they became more and more anxious when they couldn't go outside. Born in a feral cat colony, going outside was important to them and I was seeing more attempts to dash outdoors whenever they had the chance. After Scottie dashed out one day and was gone for three days, I built them a catio. The door-dashing behaviors disappeared overnight.
Location, Location, Location
The success or failure of the catio really depends on its location. Your cat needs easy access to the catio. Ideally, the entrance should be in a quieter part of the house without too much activity. A busy, high-traffic area of the house could discourage the cat from using it.
A cat door or small doggy door can provide access through a door, a window, or a wall. A cat door is better than leaving a window or door open as it can block breezes and insects. Plus, if sized for the cat, it limits access by kids and dogs. This should be the cat's exclusive area, not a shared place for children, dogs, and cats.
The outside area should also be relatively quiet so that the cat feels safe going out to the catio. No matter whether on one side of the house (or apartment) or the back, the location should be away from street traffic, strange people, busy play areas, or where wild predators could threaten the cat.
In choosing the location, think too about the flooring for the catio. If the flooring is to be grass or dirt, keep in mind that many cats are quite adept at digging and can dig under a fence section. You'll need to provide some type of flooring. However, if you build on a porch or patio, you can use that as the floor.
For my cats, I built the catio outside the back door of my house. I have access to the catio through the door but I also installed a cat flap door next to the back door so the cats can go outside even if my door is closed. The catio's outside location is up against the side of the house which is away from the area where the dogs run and play.
Size, Shape, and Materials
The size of the catio can be the size of your window or, if not outside a window, the size of a dog run. It all depends on the room you have available, how big you wish to build, and your skills at building.
You can build a framework from lumber and use hardware cloth or chicken wire for the walls. Since I'm not the best carpenter, I used sections of a dog run to create my cats' catio. Sections of chain link fencing were fastened together to create a rectangular catio up against the house. It's strong, secure, and escape-proof.
The top can be plywood, the top of the porch, or more hardware cloth. I do suggest at least half of the top of the catio (especially over the cat door) should be solid to provide cover from inclement weather. I used an additional chain link fence section to cover half the catio and tarp covered plywood to cover the other half.
Creating Comfort on the Catio
An enclosed box outside may be nice and your cat may well enjoy it but you can do more to make your cat happy. Some wood shelves up against the fencing or hardware cloth can provide resting and viewing areas. Multiple levels so the cat can choose viewing platforms are even better. A three sided box with a towel or piece of a blanket inside, securely fastened to a shelf, will be a welcome bed.
A tree stump or firewood log can serve as a scratching post. A 2x4 piece of lumber, mounted vertically, wrapped in rope, will also serve as a well-used scratching post. A bit of catnip on the log or rope will help attract your cat. A covered plastic container with a cat-sized opening cut in one end can contain a litter box so the cat doesn't use another area of the catio as a relief station.
Escape Spots, Food, Water, and a Gentle Introduction
Before allowing cats access to the catio, take a good look at it looking for escape spots. Cats are incredible escape artists—if their head can fit in an opening, so can the rest of them. Look at wall junctions, the sides and top, the bottom, and everywhere in between.
Although some cat owners provide food and water out on the catio, I don't. I have found that cat food attracts insects, including bees, wasps, and ants. So all food and water are inside the house in its normal place.
When introducing your cat to the catio, don't force her to go outside. If forced to go out, a previously inside-only cat might panic. Instead, leave the door, window, or cat door open and let her discover it on her own.