A solution for letting cats enjoy the outdoors—safely

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Merlin and Sirius Black in their catio

Backstory: As some readers will remember, I’ve posted before about free-roaming and feral cats and the dangerous lives they lead—dangerous to both them and their songbird prey. Studies vary, but it’s safe, even conservative, to assume that a billion or so birds and an even larger number of small mammals are killed per year. On a less serious level, cats like to treat the gardens they happen to wander into as litter boxes, which is not great for plant health or general ambiance.

Weasley

In Buffalo, animal agencies follow the TNR (trap, neuter, release) policy for feral or abandoned cats, which is considered humane by some, ineffective by others, and downright cruel by a group of animal activists who believe the lives lived by outdoor cats are characterized by hardship, disease, and injury. It’s difficult for me to speak to this, as I’m not sure what the alternatives would be. As a cat owner, I keep my cat inside.

A friend and neighbor, Johanna, has a different solution: she’s built a catio. I’d heard of these, but had never seen one in person. Hers is pretty cool, I must say—sort of an outdoor jungle gym that three of her four cats seem to enjoy. Johanna’s carpenter friend Eric Peterson designed and built the structure, which is based on similar designs seen on (where else) Pinterest. It is accessed by a cat door in the house, and the cats can enter and exit at will. There is an interior climbing structure that I think is key—we know cats love anything they can climb—and the catio can be used in winter.

During Garden Walk weekend, the three cats, who are vocal and full of personality, basked in the attention of about 1200 visitors, but Johanna reports that she has noticed Weasley, Merlin, and Sirius Black (who has 15k Instagram followers) using the catio when the garden is empty. The garden, by the way, is new, and very attractive, with a planted fence, veggie/berry patch, fruit trees, water feature with architectural remnants, and many natives. I didn’t take great pictures of it, but here’s the pond:

Elsewhere in the garden

Our fifteen-year-old cat, Livia, seems satisfied with sitting in the window occasionally and might go as far as the steps if the door is open. I think she’s fine without a catio. But if I had younger cats and the wherewithal, it’s definitely something I’d consider.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com

11 COMMENTS

  1. We have a screened porch that our cat loved, but, no cat door. I like the idea of a cat in the garden, but, just don’t believe they belong outside.

  2. I love this idea. I chase cats off my property to protect wildlife and it makes me feel like a crazy lady, but there is little else I can do to prevent them from killing birds and chipmunks, using my gardens as a toilet, and fighting in the middle of the night in my yard 🙁 I have seen some lovely people who put a collar and leash on their cat and tie them up on a porch or patio to enjoy the outdoors, but the catio is even a step up from that. I have also seen photos of people who build amazing interior shelves and perches in their homes for their cats (on Pinterest, of course).

  3. This is a fantastic idea! I belong to a Nextdoor Neighborhood group and I’d say at least 3-4 times a week someone posts that their cat has gone missing. It’s unfathomable to me why people expect that letting their cats roam free won’t end up in some kind of disaster eventually. The owners are completely unwilling to keep their cats indoors, but then want the neighborhood to keep an eye out for them. This is a great solution and I imagine the cats would love to have one of these.

  4. I have an indoor cat and an indoor/outdoor cat. The latter was a stray; I tried to turn him into an indoor cat, but he would attack me, the other cat, the dog if not let out, otherwise a perfect gentleman. He keeps the rabbit population down in my garden, keeps other cats out of the yard, but I’m sure he has killed a bird or two, so I don’t feed birds anymore – no sense offering him a buffet. At least he eats what he kills. As he ages, he spends more time inside than out, so I’m hoping someday the outside will no longer call him. Our local shelter has a “barn cat” program for relocating feral cats to the country where they can keep mice and rat populations down. More important than keeping a cat indoors is having ALL PETS neutered/spayed – that’s my rant.

  5. Here’s a photo of my 25 year old cat enclosure. https://photos.google.com/search/cage/photo/AF1QipNht3Mz666Eih3A7IVHUgYC1ZgXkurGynOBKVrv Needs occasional mending. Access from a basement window ( that has iron security bars to prevent unwanted human entry) other side of deck. Come and go as they please. Ring bell at night to get them in. Fifteen bird feeders, grass, sounds, wind, keep them stimulated. Always occupied.

    TNR people don’t TNR because it makes the cat feel better. They do it to because it makes themselves feel better. They care little for wildlife. One major proponent at the biggest TNR organization told me, ” They don’t kill healthy birds.” Fake news. Good for donations. In fact, when their cats kill an adult bird, the other parent will abandon feeding the young. So, all young die. They destroy amphibian populations. TNR people say their colonies decrease in size over time. Latest studies show that is dead wrong and those they no longer see in the colonies haven’t died. They wander into others’ yards. I’ve trapped three TNRs in my yard. They came from somebody’s colony. TNR people say euthanasia is inhumane. I’ve owned and own a lot of cats. Dying in the wild without euthanasia is not humane. TNR people are the prototypical “I don’t want to know how animals die…Stop talking” people.

    I trap the invasive species felis catus. A lot of them. And, I don’t TNR. They are humanely euthanized. Some have ended up as loved members of my family. Many don’t. But, they pass without pain, disease, hunger.

    • Hi Marcia,

      The link did not work but I appreciate the comment. That is exactly what I have heard about TNR–touted as the perfect solution but completely unproven. Our city convened a “cat taskforce” with a completely stacked group of TNR advocates. The one poor homeowner who came to one meeting because she was unable to use her own backyard never attended again. No one cared about her concerns.

  6. I read an article a few weeks ago (I think in the NY Times, but I’m not sure, sorry) about employees at Google in Mt View CA forming a group that traps, neuters/vaccinates and releases feral cats in the open bay lands surrounding their campus. A local bird group monitoring an endangered species of burrowing owl discovered the cats preying on the owls, until there was only a few left. When they realized the Google employees were supporting the cats (putting food out and giving them shelter), they told them what was happening and a big fight ensued. I don’t know how it ends–the article was about the conflict–but the clear losers are the owls.

    • Yes, Anne I saw that too. Too bad I forgot about it or I would have included it in this post. There’s always a big fight because roaming cat advocates are very vocal. And the alternative of euthanasia is unattractive to everyone. We’ve finally brought ourselves to controlled elimination of deer in some areas, but cats will always be thought of as pets.

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