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It's time to build a 'catio'

Last updated: 24 June, 2010

When it comes to their homes, there are few things New Yorkers prize as much as a little outdoor space – a terrace, perhaps, or a small deck in the backyard.

 A catio built in Toronto. (Steve Payne/The New York Times)

 A catio built in Toronto. (Steve Payne/The New York Times)
Their cats feel the same way. So some cat owners who would never dream of letting their pets roam free outside have come up with a creative compromise: an enclosed space – usually in the form of a screened-in porch or deck – that allows them to share the great outdoors. Please don’t call it a cage. They prefer the term “catio.”

“The cats, they like to sit out there,” said Stefanie L Russell, 44, referring to the balcony of her 12th-floor Greenwich Village apartment, where a homemade enclosure keeps her three Burmese cats safe. “Before, we basically didn’t use the balcony at all, because we were afraid that the cats would fall or jump.”

Two years ago, she and her husband, Robert Davidson, fenced off half the balcony, which runs the length of the apartment. They used industrial-grade PVC pipe and heavy black netting, creating a fully enclosed space that they decorated with furniture, plants and carpeting. Now the couple and their nine-year-old daughter, Sophie, leave the terrace door open for Oliver, Lily and Jackson, who are, as Russell put it, “the type of cats that love to run out in the hallway.”


Practical structures to fancy spaces

The cats seem happier, she said, and there has been an unexpected bonus: “Before, we used to have pigeons nesting on the balcony, and it was just a mess.” These days, the birds keep their distance. Catios have made inroads in the suburbs, where they range from small, practical structures – like a box made of wood and chicken wire – to all-out fantasy cat playgrounds, replete with tunnels and scratching posts. But such enclosures remain a rarity in the city, where giving up even a square foot of real estate to a litter box can seem like a sacrifice. The forfeit felt worthwhile to Mary Sillman and Martin Stein, who set aside half their small deck in Park Slope for Buster, a nine-year-old gray cat adopted from a shelter who had been using the deck off their one-bedroom apartment as an escape hatch.

Two years ago, Stein, who is an architect, built a catio the size of two phone booths that Buster can get to through a window. “It’s just been the greatest thing for him,” Sillman said. “He just loves looking into the gardens below and people’s backyards.” Although the couple has less outdoor space for themselves, they do not mind, Sillman said. “It’s kind of like we’re sharing the deck.”Another Park Slope resident, Rose-Marie Whitelaw, turned her entire 10-by-20-foot deck into a haven for her seven cats.

Using pipes, chicken wire and deer fencing, she erected a seven-foot railing that the cats cannot climb, then spray-painted it black so it would be less obtrusive.  Sliding glass doors lead to a kitchen and home office, and the cats can usually go in and out all year round.

 “People can be very creative,” said King, who designed her first cat pen a decade ago for her daughter’s kitten. “You’re really only limited by your imagination and your pocketbook.”

Even indoors, a cat enclosure can be a boon, said Carole C Wilbourn a cat therapist in Manhattan who recommends them to clients struggling with what she calls “inter-cat hostility.” “I have cases where someone is introducing another cat, and they have a studio apartment,” Wilbourn said. “It’s kind of hard for them to put up a barrier” for the cats to get used to each other without fighting, she said.

An enclosure keeps the cats separate – but within eye range – until they can get along. Veterinarians disagree over whether it is depressing for cats to spend their lives indoors. Some, like Drew Weigner, a cat specialist in Atlanta, believe that outdoor space offers cats emotional benefits. While it is safer for them to stay inside, “in an enclosed yard, they’re going to get more exercise,” Weigner said. “Plus, there’s the intellectual stimulation, quote-unquote.”

Keep enclosures off the ground

Weigner advises suburban cat owners to keep outdoor enclosures off the ground, to guard against fleas and parasites. He warns against high-rise syndrome, in which cats leap or fall out of unsecured windows. “We have some clients that decorate the inside as if it’s just another room – a picnic table, cat grass – so they can hang out there with their cats,” said Kris Kischer, who sells dog and cat enclosures. Using instructions from a website called Just4Cats.com, the McCormicks erected two large outdoor pens connected by a 44-foot tunnel.

The front enclosure – 10 feet square and 7 feet high – abuts the house and has a cedar floor and shelves where the cats can lounge. From there, the long tunnel, which is about seven feet off the ground, leads to a larger enclosure with a bench where the McCormicks like to sit.

Kate Benjamin, who runs the style blog ModernCat.net, sees catios as part of what she calls the modern pet movement, which holds that people shouldn’t have to sacrifice taste or comfort to live with pets.

On her website, Catioshowcase.com, she collects images of well-designed cat enclosures, and on her blog, she showcases hip-looking cat beds and litter boxes. Her own catio has shelves for climbing, a built-in litter box and a floor-to-ceiling scratching post. She is passionate about her vision for pet products.

So you want to build a catio?

Cat owners who want to create a safe outdoor space for their cats have several options.
Do-it-yourself equipment like PVC piping, heavy mesh nets and chicken wire is available at home stores. Various websites offer photos, construction tips and other pointers.
A website called just4cats.com sells a book with detailed drawings and instructions on how to build a cat enclosure. The site also has an attractive gallery of its customers’ installations.

Jennifer A Kingson  
NYT News Service

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