It’s been three years since Amber’s cat got insta-famous. When she first got Jake, her striking four-year-old bengal cat, she laughed off suggestions from her friends to make him his own account on Instagram. But when posts on her personal account that featured Jake kept getting attention from random users, she decided to go for it. “In three days, I had more followers on [Jake’s account] than on my own personal Instagram that I’d had for three years,” she says. Users loved to follow Jake’s exploits and admire his gorgeous dappled coat. However, not long after she’d gotten Jake, she was facing a dilemma. Bengals, especially ones who have been raised with dogs like Jake has, are extremely athletic, and love to run, jump and climb. Jake got into the habit of dashing at doors, trying to get out of the house any time he got the chance. Twice, he got out. The second time, he disappeared for four days. Amber was certain that he had been stolen. When Jake turned back up on her porch on that fourth day, she knew they both needed a change. “He’s clearly got wild cat in him and wants to go outside,” she says, “but he’s so beautiful, he’s going to get stolen.” She found her inspiration in a pile of wood left over from a fence she and her husband were building in the back yard just after Jake’s second birthday. “I asked my husband if we could build a catio. He definitely thought I was crazy at first.”
It wasn’t long before the catio, a wooden enclosure that Jake could access from a window, started to take shape. Amber’s design was inspired by images she’d found on Pinterest and with her husband’s help the catio quickly evolved into a space full of shelves, toys and bedding that is, simply put, Jake’s favorite place on earth. As soon as the catio went up, the door dashing ceased; Jake gets his daily dose of nature curled up in the sun in the safety of his catio. “Jake will go outside for hours, especially in the summer,” Amber says. “He just watches the birds and the squirrels and he just sits out there and naps, totally calm. He really loves it.”
Amber says the easiest way to create a catio space your cats love is to take your cues from them. She’s constantly adding and changing elements in the catio to see what Jake, and now his little “brother” Juneau, enjoy. “Just keep changing it,” she says to anyone considering a catio. “They’re cats, they’re curious. They like to explore. When they start to get used to something, put in something else. Throw them a curveball.”
Amber spends a lot of time in the catio with her animals, so she can really get a feel for what they like. If she notices Jake spending a lot of time laying on a particular shelf, she’ll add a bed there. She once added some wooden stepping stones and quickly noticed that he “flat out refused to use them. He would just jump an extra couple feet just so he wouldn’t go on them.” They were soon replaced with something more to Jake’s liking. By contrast, Jake’s favorite catio feature is a swing bridge that Amber made herself out of wooden slats strung together with rope. He’s constantly on the bridge now, soaking up the sun.
Amber says she’s really enjoyed the community that comes with sharing about her catio both online and in real life. She’ll often see comments on her posts from people who are just starting on their own catios: “People comment all these nice things like, ‘Thank you for inspiring us to give our cat that same kind of space.’ It’s cool to hear.” In real life, she knows of at least a few people she works with who are working on catios of their own. “One lives on a busy street so she never wanted to let her cats outside. She saw my catio and said, ‘That’s awesome! I’m doing that too.’ And her cats love it. A lot of people are worried for their kitties and don’t want their kitties to get hurt. This is a fun way to keep them exploring and make their life a little more interesting.”
Amber loves to make seasonal changes as well, bringing out plants when the weather is nice and decorating the catio for holidays. In the future, Amber plans on completely updating the catio, ripping out the back and doubling the size. She wants to add more features that play to her bengals’ natural love of water, like a fountain or waterfall.
When Toni tragically lost one of her cats to an accident, she knew she couldn’t afford another loss and decided to start keeping her other cats inside permanently. When her cats started getting restless, she took to the internet for solutions and quickly found a photo of an enclosure someone had built outside a window to let their cats get some air. With more research, she learned these enclosures had a name: catios. “That was all it took,” Toni says. “A vision was born and construction began.” Her first catio was a simple window box that hung on the outside of the house, built using scrap wood from other projects. Unsure if their cats would take to it, Toni didn’t put a lot of effort into this first experiment. “We weren’t sure if they would use it or not so we didn’t spend a lot of time making it pretty.” The catio was an instant hit, and after a storm damaged the structure they took the opportunity to hire a contractor and build a bigger, better catio. “Off we went on a catio adventure. Paws down, it’s the best upgrade to the house we’ve ever done,” she says.
Toni says the cats love the catio and that it reduced a lot of the tension in their multi-cat household. Holly, Lucky, Scooter, Smudge, Fudge and Nano all find their way out to the catio on a daily basis, enjoying the fresh air and taking in the birds who perch at the nearby feeders. She says there’s been a decrease in furniture scratching and “kitty disagreements” with the extra space and stimulation that the catio provides.
One of the most distinguishing features of Toni’s catio is how green it is. A combination of plastic and live plants help to make the space feel like a miniature jungle. Toni highly recommends filling a catio with both real and artificial plants. It’s important to do research before adding any live plants as many are toxic to cats; luckily, the ASPCA and Plants For Cats both have guides to choosing cat-friendly plants. Toni has a few of her own favorites; she recommends the spider plant for its resilience (“easy to grow and it shakes off the nibbling of leaves with no problem!”), areca palms for a tropical feel and prayer plants for gorgeous, colorful leaves. Toni says that plastic alternatives are a lifesaver if you aren’t able to devote a lot of time to tending and watering; she likes to use them in hard-to-reach areas of the catio that would be difficult to get water to.
A few small details go a long way in making the catio magical. Toni says they installed bird feeders around the outside of the catio and after the birds realized they were in no danger from the cats on the other side of the mesh, they quickly became the cats’ favorite form of entertainment. She says adding a bit of mood lighting is always a good idea; a few solar lights are an inexpensive way to add a great look in the evenings. Like Amber, Toni gives the catio some seasonal twists: “The cats get their own Christmas tree!”
One of the first things Toni learned when putting together the catio was to eliminate dead ends; when you have more than one cat, it’s important not to leave opportunities for them to get in each others’ way, block or even trap each other in a corner or on a high shelf. After a few weeks, they started to notice when the cats seemed to want a new ramp to a certain area and added in more shelves accordingly. “We let them tell us what they wanted.” It became evident that the cats wanted a shelf directly in front of the window looking into the catio. “We didn’t put one there at first because we didn’t want to obstruct our view. But it turned out the cats really wanted to watch us from outside. So we added the walkway and now they love sitting outside and watching the humans inside.” She extends this advice to anyone else who’s putting a catio together: “If you have a catio and find your cats don’t use it much consider some reasons. Does it lack comfort items like beds? Is there a place to hide out? If you live in an area with extreme temperatures can you mitigate that by adding additional shade or shelter?”
One last tip: Toni advises new catio owners to pay attention to your flooring. She says that you should always start with a concrete, wood, or paver block floor rather than building a catio on bare dirt or sand; she says if left on its own the floor of your catio will quickly become a mess.
For years now, Alan Breslauer’s company, Custom Catios, has created bespoke cat enclosures for cat guardians in Southern California. He sees catios as the solution to the very real dilemma many cat guardians face between letting their cats out and keeping them in. He points to how much lower the life expectancy is for outdoor roaming cats and the toll they can take on local bird populations as reasons someone might keep their cats inside. On the other hand, he says, “there are all these risks for indoor cats too. Primarily obesity because they don’t get enough exercise, there can be territorial aggression in a multi-cat household, but most importantly it’s the boredom and stress-relieving behaviors.” He says these behaviors, like clawing carpets, marking and door dashing, are often caused by boredom and being prevented from doing what comes naturally to them. “Indoor house cats are going to live a much longer life, but is it a happy life?” Alan’s work helps bridge the gap between these two concerns: giving cats access to the fresh air, stimulation and exercise of the outdoors while preventing any harm to the cat or to the surrounding environment. He sees catios as the perfect way to help cats achieve the kind of activity they were meant for— without taking it out on your wallpaper. “Cats have all these souped up traits. They can hear with pinpoint accuracy. They can see in near total darkness. They can jump five to seven times their body height. Imagine having all that stuff and not being able to use it.”
Alan says that it’s obvious how much having access to a catio can improve an indoor cat’s life. He says that when he’s present to see his clients’ cats experience their catios for the first time, “It’s so much fun, just the joy of the cat. I know we can’t attribute human feelings to cats but it certainly looks like joy: the rolling around and the jumping and the purring. And the owners are so happy when they see it.” He says in general cats are much more impressed with height than square footage; a tall catio with lots of lofty shelves and climbable elements will help your cat show off its natural agility and give it a space it’ll never tire of. “Watching a cat climb up a pole, talk about pure joy,” he says.
He says that his clients will often report back that behavioral issues like marking in the house, door dashing or clawing furniture has reduced after the addition of a catio. “I never promise people it’s going to fix the behavioral issues,” he says, “But it never makes it worse.”
As his business has expanded and more people learn about and want a catio of their own, Alan has gotten to experiment with a lot of fun extra features: everything from floor to ceiling climbing poles, outdoor litter box compartments, hiding boxes and peek-a-boo bubble beds are available to help clients build their perfect version of “Cat Disneyland.”
Alan has a lot of tips for catio owners looking to flesh out their brand new enclosures. “When we leave, hopefully they’re just beginning at that point. We usually leave them one bed as a gift to get started. Beds are great not just because cats like beds but also because it gives them a place to leave their scent.” He thinks every catio should have a sign on it as well. “You should name your catio.” He says the mesh around the outside of the catio gives owners opportunities to embellish with anything from fake butterflies to long, winding vines.
Because the point of the catio is to allow indoor cats to experience nature, he says, it’s important to maximize the experience. Adding bird feeders and building your catio near bushes and flowerbeds will help attract birds, bugs and other wildlife for your cat to take in while it lounges. “If your catio is in a concrete area, you need to bring that stuff to the catio,” he says. Even a smattering of potted plants will help create the stimulating environment your cat is hoping for.
All in all, Alan couldn’t ask for a better job. “I love what I do and I truly believe I have the best job in the world,” he says. “I go to work every day and I really do feel like I’m helping cats and their cat guardians and the environment, all these birds and other animals that are otherwise potentially in the cats’ harm’s way. I feel like I’m doing good all around.”