It was the kind of cat enclosure that indoor cats dream of: 6 feet tall, open and airy with perches for upwardly mobile felines. Barbara Galbraith Furbish put down pavers and river rocks for drainage and several inches of Vermont cedar chips as flea deterrent — and a chair so that she could keep her cats company.
The cats were delighted. They watched the wild rabbits and caught moths. One of them, Enki, even scored a mouse.
Then, one night, “all hell broke loose,” Furbish says. The cats, who had just come in from the enclosure, morphed into one “frenzied, spitting, hissing, crying furball” and “pell-melled to the remotest corner of the bedroom. Luke was so frightened, he literally pooped on the floor under my night table.”
They were still lashing out at one another the next day, acting as though they had never seen one another and had “to re-establish their clan.”
Furbish’s cat gang had seen, as it turned out, a free-roaming, un-neutered red tabby. Frightened and territorial in their big, airy enclosure, they had turned on each other. It was redirected aggression, pure and primal toward Luke, the resident red tabby.
This happens more frequently than you’d think. Our first cats, Cricket and Kilah, used to start fighting whenever we took in a foster or lodger cat. Each seemed to blame the other for the interloper’s presence.
Even cats who don’t have enclosures can get worked up when they see strange animals outside their homes. I was once introduced to an extremely shy cat named Morgan, who had inexplicably begun spraying the windows and front door.
Morgan had his reasons. He could see all sorts of wildlife — and possibly other cats — wandering around through the door’s long glass panel and the windows. It had left him feeling vulnerable and exposed, much as Luke & Co. did in the new enclosure when the tomcat showed up.
The Catio Way
Cat enclosures, or “catios,” have become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to safely give pets a taste of the great outdoors. They range from roofed dog kennels to actual enclosed patios.
Some people get really creative and add all sorts of items to enhance their felines’ fun, such as:
“Repurposing old rugged plastic children’s playground equipment added indestructible furniture and interesting hangouts” to writer Marci Kladnik’s catio. “A playhouse became a kitty powder room, and the litterboxes were moved inside.”
Regular Cat Furniture
Bring out your cat condos, multi-storied towers and tunnels. One cat lover suggests recycling or transferring worn cat trees from your house to the catio.
Catnip makes a welcome addition to any cat-scape. Spider and rubber plants, lemon button ferns, and Areca and ponytail palms are also safe to include (if you’re not sure about a particular plant, check the ASPCA’s website).
Obviously, the bigger the catio, the more room for exercise and fun. “An enriched environment is vital for a cat’s emotional and physical health,” cat behaviorist Amy Shojai insists. “Jumping, running, climbing, hunting — felines are built to move. They are also stress magnets. If they do not have access to cat-centric things to do, they will find another way to relieve the energy.”
Check out this clever DIY catio:
A Cat’s-Eye Point of View
Following the enclosure incident, Furbish went outside to scope things out. She got down on her hands and knees and tried to see things through her pets’ eyes. And she realized that the enclosure’s openness had left them feeling very scared and open to attack.
Cats like to see without being seen. It’s how they hunt; it’s also part of how they’ve survived in the wild. The catio needed to be “not just physically enclosed but also visually enclosed.”
So Furbish used plastic privacy lattice sheets to cover the canopy and the exposed sides 4 feet up from the ground. She also placed potted plants around the enclosure. “It really is about giving your cat something to hide behind, peer through, even dig. If they’re brave enough to look out, they can go up on the shelves,” she says.
Furbish no longer believes in leaving the cats unsupervised. In fact, she thinks catios should open off a room you spend a lot of time in — one “where they can see you and feel safe. …When you’re building an enclosure, you must think from the cat’s perspective and not just from the perspective of the person who wants to spend time with her cats.”
There are a few things to think about when building or buying your cat’s enclosure:
- Try to get aluminum screen or wire versus plastic or nylon. Plastic and nylon won’t always hold up well to determined claws.
- Attach all screens firmly. Don’t leave any edging that can be pried up or loosened.
- If the enclosure is in a sunny spot, make sure there is shade or access to the house/apartment.
- If you put plants in the enclosure, be sure they are not toxic to cats.
- Always leave plenty of water.
- Seal the enclosure firmly, whether it’s on the ground or in a window, to prevent escape.
“Don’t underestimate the strength of your cat’s claws; a nose-to-nose encounter with a gray squirrel (or a stray cat) can be awfully exciting,” warns the Humane Society of the United States.
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Melissa Smith contributed to this article.