By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
It’s often recommended that cats be kept indoors to keep them safe, and it’s quite true that outdoor cats face an increased risk of injury, poisoning and human abuse and theft, as well as risks posed by wildlife, extreme temperatures, vehicle traffic and infectious agents. But keeping a cat cooped up indoors does deprive him of many joys of cat life, like watching birds go by, climbing trees, feeling the sun on his fur and experiencing beneficial grounding.
In a position statement released by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), an indoor/outdoor living arrangement, in a safe environment, is described as the best for cats, with AAFP noting, “Consideration for longevity often underlies the decision to keep cats indoors. However, a lifestyle choice made with the sole intention of increasing longevity — but in an impoverished or inadequate environment for each cat in the household — is not in the cat’s best interest.”1
If letting your cat out to roam freely is dangerous, but keeping him solely indoors runs the risk of becoming boring, what’s a viable alternative that’s growing tremendously in popularity? Build a catio!
Luxury Catios Are Growing in Popularity
The U.K.’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) is among those who have jumped on the catio bandwagon, recommending them as an excellent option for otherwise indoor cats. RSPCA cat welfare expert Alice Potter told The Telegraph:2
“Keeping your cat as a house cat keeps them away from busy roads but some indoor environments can become predictable and boring which can lead to stress, inactivity and obesity.
For some cats, for example those with a disability or medical problem such as cats who are deaf, living indoors could be a better option and they may feel more comfortable. The RSPCA would advise that indoor cats require a lot more of your time and effort to make sure they are happy and healthy.
A clean litter tray, scratching posts, plenty of space and opportunities to exercise, climb, rest and play as well as interacting with you are all very important. Cats with outdoor access benefit from more opportunities to exhibit natural behaviors like climbing, exploring, roaming their territory and communicating with other cats in the area.
A cat patio which allows them to access a bit of the outdoors in a safe environment can be a good opportunity for cats who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience the outdoors.”
Indeed, AAFP also highlighted the many risks faced by cats kept indoors, which include an inability to express normal cat behaviors, increased incidence of behavior problems, intercat conflict, boredom, lack of exercise and stress-associated diseases, which include feline idiopathic cystitis, upper respiratory infections and gastrointestinal diseases. On the other hand, cats who remain primarily indoors but who are allowed access to a safe space outdoors may benefit in the following ways, according to AAFP:3
- Ability to express normal feline behaviors, including development of own territory, choice of living solitarily or with other cats and scratching and choice of different scratching resources
- Improvement of emotional health
- Reduced risk of stress-related behavior problems
- Increased activity and exercise
- Environmental enrichment and a more stimulating lifestyle
Catios Are Only Limited by Your Imagination (and Budget)
Catios run the gamut from wire window-boxes to cat runs to elaborate open-air enclosures that run the length of an entire house. One constructor of wooden enclosures told The Guardian that cat runs made up just 10 percent of his business 10 years ago but now catios account for 70 percent.4
Special permits and permissions aren’t generally needed upon building, unless you’re planning on a particularly large structure, and costs can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, or more, if you have it professionally built.
You can also make a DIY version, of course, using wood scraps you may already have around your home, chicken wire and other creative materials. Ideally, your catio should provide room for your cat (or cats) to roam and really get a feel of what it’s like to be free outdoors.
Vertical spaces to climb and explore are encouraged, as is the addition of natural materials like patches of grass and cat-friendly herbs for foraging. Add in a few hiding spots, especially if you have more than one cat or a timid cat, and make sure part of it is shaded.
Ideally, allow your cat free access to the catio via a window, pet door or tunnel. Walkways installed at different heights add interest, as do various platforms, hammocks, ramps, shelves and cat trees. Make sure the catio provides spaces for your cats to scratch (including at least one scratching pole for each cat), using different materials. The possibilities of what to add to your catio are only limited by your imagination!
The Benefits of Outdoors Without All the Risks
While it’s clear that cats benefit mentally from having access to the outdoors, I do not recommend letting your cat roam free. By establishing a safe space outdoors, like a catio, your cat can gain the benefits of being outdoors without the risk of injury, predation or theft.
Even small spaces can be transformed into lovely catios, complete with lounging perches, hiding spots and vertical spaces to explore, but if you live in an apartment or are otherwise unable to create a safe outdoor space for your cat, another option is to walk your cat using a cat harness and leash.
Most cats, especially kittens, can be trained to walk on a leash, although not every cat will enjoy the experience (you know your cat’s personality best). Environmental enrichment is also important, whether your cat stays indoors or not (although it’s especially important in the former case).
If you can’t create a space outside, you can still transform your indoor space into one that’s fun and stimulating for your cat to explore by adding high-up perches, hammocks and ramps, as well as window seats so your cat can see outside. If you need some inspiration, the video below shows a house of your cat’s dreams!