Years ago, my late husband built an enclosure for our cats out of scrap wood and chicken wire. They loved hanging out in there, playing tiger; 2 of them, Zorro and Woody, actually caught chipmunks and were very pleased with themselves — even if they did have to be wormed afterward.
But there was a downside to this kitty paradise. There were a few escapes, and once in a great while, somebody would accidentally get shut in the enclosure overnight. You couldn’t really get in there and clean it. Worst of all, 4 of our cats came down with some mysterious airborne virus, even though they’d been vaccinated. They all pulled through, but we came very close to losing our blue dilute tortie, Keisha.
Nowadays, enclosures, or “catios,” are very popular — my friend Barb, in fact, built one for her cats that they love. Not everyone is comfortable with the catio option, however. I don’t have a cat enclosure at this house, and I’ve no intention of ever adding one. But there are, as I’ve learned, ways of creating indoor playscapes for your felines.
Consider Climbing the Walls
That’s right — you can put up shelves and perches for your cats to climb and enjoy. They are, according to catsplay.com, “a great space-saving idea for small spaces and apartments when you don’t want to take up valuable floor space,” and they allow your cat “to explore and lounge up high” — something that cats find deeply satisfying on a primal level.
People can get pretty creative with these perches and walkways, as contractor Peter Cohen’s House of Nekko in Goleta, California, shows. Over a 20-year period, Cohen — who is also the co-founder of Zen by Cat, a nonprofit organization fighting the good fight against feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) — built a colorful feline playscape in his home. In addition to the usual “floating” or wall-mounted perches, there are also cat tunnels, skywalks and stairways.
“We think our cats are living fun, interesting, healthy lives with us,” Cohen says. The cat-friendly decor allows his pets to “run around the catwalks at amazing speeds, or they can just hang out and enjoy the view.”
The inspiration for all of this? Bob Walker’s 1996 best-selling The Cats’ House. Walker, an animal photographer, and his wife, artist Frances Mooney, made their former San Diego home a place where their cats could really stretch their paws on such delights as floor-to-ceiling scratching posts, “sharply curved” kitty stairs and 140 feet “of elevated highway.” “It’s not just a matter of being pet-friendly,” the artistic duo said, “but rather a question of giving your pets environmental enrichment.”
Create a Space
“You can, of course, simply designate a room or area to stock with your kitties’ favorite toys and essentials,” observes Yahaira Cespedes. She emphasizes the need to keep the focus on “your cat’s comfort. That is why it is best to design a room where your felines can feel at home either at rest or at play.”
So look around your home. Is there a room or space that you don’t really use much?
“Before I had the ‘catio,’ I actually screened in my back porch,” Barb told me. “I’ve always made sure that I have plenty of cat trees, toys — catnip things and floor toys like tunnels — and I spend 30 minutes in the morning and evening with all of them, just throwing stuff around and getting them to move and run.”
Still another friend has made over her detached 1930s garage for a recent rescue. Arthur is pretty feral and far from ready to join her other cats. So Linda had a door and a couple of windows put in the garage, then added a rug, feeding station, toys, litter boxes, various cat tents/igloos, an old chair and a cot with an orthopedic dog mattress on it. There are even a couple lighthouse lanterns on a timer and a wall clock that she thought would be “soothing” for him to listen to.
Benefits to Your Cats
“Enriching a kitty’s surroundings usually involves doing less and more,” explains Dr. Karen Becker, DVM. “It is about creating minimally stressful living quarters and reducing or eliminating unusual external events that cause anxiety. … The goal is to minimize change and maximize the amount of control kitty feels over her situation.”
And the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) advocates “appropriate environmental enrichment (EE) to obtain and preserve optimal physical and mental health of our feline family members. Providing the proper environment increases the chances of living in harmony alongside these phenomenal creatures for years of enjoyment.”
Check out Peter Cohen’s amazing cat-friendly house:
As it so happens, I recently gave my felines the finished part of the basement. They already had a few big cat trees and toys down there, so I just added a few more and some feeding stations. There’s even an exercise wheel and a secure window that they can sit in when the weather’s nice.
It still needs a little tweaking, but the cats are quite pleased with it. After all, there’s nothing like having a room of one’s own.