How to Build a Catio for Your Cats: What You Need and What You Need to Know
Tricked out with spots for climbing, napping, scratching, and lazing, an enclosed outdoor catio is the best of both worlds. It gives your cat access to fresh air and brain-stimulating sensory experiences. And it keeps her safely confined.
"Cats are meant to roam and hunt," says Lauren Novak, ACDBC, KPA-CTP, FPPE, a certified behavior consultant with Behavior Vets of NYC. "And most indoor cats are desperately bored." This, they say, is the best reason to provide your indoor cat with an outdoor enclosure known as a catio—short for cat patio. "Catios provide increased enrichment," Novak says. "Your cat gets some outdoor time and some fresh air without being at risk of getting run over by a car or getting into a fight with feral neighborhood cats."
"A catio is like a backyard for your cat," says Lance Harding of Cat Topia, a nationwide custom catio builder based in Colorado. And yet, a catio will prevent your cat from causing harm to wildlife and the ecosystem. (The American Bird Conservancy estimates that outdoor cats kill 2.4 billion birds each year in the United States.) "Catios are a bridge to solve a lot of problems," he says, adding that his company's mission is to reduce cat homelessness and improve cat health as well as bird populations.
A basic catio structure is a framed wooden box wrapped in strong screening material. From there, catio designs vary greatly. "We don't see catios as cages," Harding says. "We know this is an investment. It looks good in the backyard. It's a talking piece when your cats are family members."
He says that his customers testify to their own cats' increased happiness. "Catios are such a new trend that stats are just starting to be looked at," he says. "But our customers report that 98% of their cats are out in the catio immediately and stay out there most of the time, even in winter. Customers feel like their cats are happier."
Harding says that indoor cats exhibit stress by "scratching, vocalization, and urine marking. Especially when multiple cats are in an area. Cats are territorial and having a safe place outdoors gives them a place to be their natural selves." He adds that catios can be designed with divided sections, so that cats who live in the same household but don't get along can be outside together—but separate. "For instance, a basement cat and an upstairs cat can go into the same catio, but the catio is divided by a wall to decrease cat anxiety," he says.
Catios don't have to be large or include divider walls to be effective, though. In fact, catios come in all shapes and sizes and there's no right or wrong way to design your own catio. A window box catio is a screened or glass outdoor box that extends from your window and, in many cases, sits between the window sash and sill like a window unit air-conditioner.
A freestanding catio might occupy a part of your yard separate from your home and require you to transport your cat to and from the kitty play space. Large outdoor catios are basically screened porches for cats. They usually cozy up to the house (attached or not attached) so that cats can access the space via a cat door window insert or a cat door installed in a wall. The difference between a screened porch for you and a catio, however, is that humans require floor space while cats prefer vertical space for climbing and perching. This means that you can claim a narrow but tall space for a catio that would never work for a human's outdoor lounge.
"Build whatever you can afford with as much space as you can provide for your cats," Novak says. "A window box is better than nothing, but the more space and the more [accessories], the better. Get creative and utilize vertical space—cats love to climb and perch up high."
What You'll Need to Get Started Building a DIY Catio
According to Novak and Harding, there are several decisions to make before you start building a catio. Answers to these questions will help you identify the right catio plan for your pets and your home.
Where will you place your catio, and what relationship will it have to your house? How will your pet get to it?
Will the structure be freestanding or attached to the house? Do you need to be able to take it down and put it back together? Decisions about where and how a catio relates to the main structure of your home might be based on the design of your house, or whether you're a renter unable to make permanent changes to your residence. "Cat Topia offers a freestanding design where it doesn't attach to your house but sits against it," Harding says, adding that this design is perfect for someone who rents or plans to move soon.
Novak advises that the best catio designs are those that allow your feline friend to get directly into the enclosure. "Kitty needs to be able to walk into the catio directly from the house," she says. You'll also want to be able to control this access, so choose a pet door that you can close or lock when necessary.
And don't forget to plan for a way that you can get into the catio. Even if you don't plan to hang out there with your pet, there will still be times you need to get inside for cleaning or maintenance or to check on your cat.
How big will it be?
"From a cat's perspective, space is essential," Harding says. He recommends about 20 square feet per cat and 8 feet of vertical space. "Also, many clients will build really big catios where they put outdoor furniture inside and we build benches. People want to be with their cats. It serves as a high-quality screened porch," he says.
What materials will the catio be made of?
Choose your materials carefully. You want your catio to withstand the seasons and hold up over time. For longevity of the structure itself, choose weather-graded lumber like cedar or redwood, which are also pest-resistent. Or you can build with pressure-treated lumber. Note that prior to 2003, pressure-treated lumber and plywood for residential use was treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which includes arsenic. Newer pressure-treated products use EPA-approved preservatives. "While the risk for sickness is low for cats when it comes to pressure-treated lumber," Harding says, "it's important to know that ingesting any pressure-treated chemicals can be a risk to a cat's health. You can always seal pressure-treated wood with stain or paint to reduce risk."
To enclose the structure, you need strong pet fencing or screening that will keep your cats in and other creatures out. "Fencing that birds cannot get in through and that cats can't chew or destroy" is very important, Novak says.
What will the floor, or base, be?
Will your catio sit on the ground, on a concrete pad, or will it be elevated or on decking? "When a catio is built on the ground, we concrete the posts into the ground to maximize the catio's strength," Harding says. "A lot of customers go with this option so that the cats have ground to explore and play on," he says.
"However, we recommend having the enclosure elevated on a deck system because that reduces the chances for cats to be infected by parasites such as ticks," he says. A slight elevation also reduces the chances of your cat having physical contact with free-roaming cats who might approach at ground level. A short fence around the base of an on-the-ground catio can help. "We build a custom cat wood barrier (about 2 feet tall) around the cat enclosure so that cats can't have physical contact" with animals outside the enclosure, he says.
What will the roof be, and will you need to create additional shade?
"We usually do a closed roof so snow and rain don't get in," Harding says. For closed roofs, metal, shingle, or greenhouse-style roofs are all options. "We can do open-roof styles, but we close them off with galvanized wire," he says.
While you're planning the roof, consider shade as well as weather. Yes, your cat will sun himself on the regular. But he will also need a shady spot to rest—whether the catio is shaded naturally or you plan shade-providing accessories as part of the structure.
What extras can you add for your cat's enjoyment and comfort?
Since the main point of building your catio is to create a space for your cat to hang out and enjoy, think about the features that will make it enriching for your kitty. She'll need high perches and ways to climb from perch to perch. "Do you have something that you can repurpose, like old shelves?" Novak asks. Inexpensive, utilitarian shelf brackets topped with short lengths of wood are also an excellent option.
Scratching posts are also essential. Consider using a fallen branch from your own yard in the catio—it will act as a climbing element, a perch, and a natural scratching post.
"Including places to hide is a necessity," Novak says. And Harding notes that "some people will sacrifice a few shelves to put in a litter box."
"Also," he says, "be sure to include a human access door so you can go in and out."
How to Build a DIY Catio Step-by-Step
Step 1: Choose or create the design.
Fancy or basic? Freestanding or attached? Room-size or a simple window box? Taking into account the size, style, and cost that fits your needs, find the design that works best for you and your cat (or cats). You might purchase a kit, buy a plan with instructions, or hire a professional to build your catio—depending on its size and complexity.
Step 2: Choose and prepare the location.
If you're building your catio on an existing deck or concrete slab, confirm that the base will support your structure. Or, if you'll be building a floor, clear the area: Remove shrubs, trees, and anything else that will be in the way of your plans.
If you have decided to give your catio a dirt floor, check to make sure there are no poisonous plants in the area, Novak advises.
Step 3: Gather and prepare the materials.
No matter your catio's location or size, build your catio with materials that will stand the tests of time, weather, and pests. A catio that's flimsy can become a danger to your pets—and your family. Most of the materials you need can be purchased at a local lumber yard or home improvement store. Also gather the tools you'll need.
If you're planning to paint your catio, prime and paint the pieces now. Or stain them. Then cut the wood to the lengths indicated by your plan.
Step 4: Build the frame of your structure.
Follow the instructions for your specific plan to build the basic frame for your catio. You'll attach the panels to this structure. Once the frame is done, add a floor if that's part of your plan. Then add the roof.
Step 5: Build and add the side panels.
Following your plan, build the frames that will make up the walls of your catio. When the frames are done, stretch and attach the screening. If your catio has a door, build that at this time too.
Before you attach all the side panels, consider whether you need to move any large items into your catio first. For instance, a tree limb makes a great climbing and scratching accessory, and might not fit through the door once the walls are in place. Other interior details may need to be attached to your frame before you add the panels. Follow the instructions specific to your plan.
Step 6: Add accessories.
Shelves for sunning and sleeping, perches for watching the outside world, places to hide—even a litter box—are all details that will make your catio a place your cat enjoys. Attach them with sturdy hardware to keep them secure as your cats climb and play.
Step 7: Finish strong.
"Don't cut corners," Novak says. If you build a DIY catio or assemble a catio kit, "make sure nails are not poking out and the edges are sanded down." Also, she says, give your cat time and space to discover his new outdoor play area. "Don't force your cat into their new space," she says. "Let them discover at their own pace."
How Much Does It Cost to Build a Catio?
A catio doesn't have to break the bank, but do think of it as an investment, Harding suggests. "Make sure if you are designing your catio, buying one, or hiring someone, you get a catio that is strong, will last for years, and your cat is well protected," he says. "Sometimes people sacrifice durability and strength for budget, but that is a mistake that will cost them in the future." A cheaply built catio won't last he says, and it can also be a safety issue, especially if there are predators in the area.
Besides durability, the other things that will affect the cost of a catio are size and materials. And where you live factors into the cost of materials and labor. To price out a custom catio, you'll need to get your basic design, then head to the local lumber yard or home improvement store to tally prices based on your specific plan; don't forget to factor in the hardware too. Add an allowance for any professional help you might need, and any ground prep—like pouring a slab or concrete footings. Prices for a prefabricated catio can range from under $50 for window sill units to thousands of dollars for a room-size design.
Keep in mind that while a window box catio might be a more economical option because of its smaller size and fewer needed materials, this type of catio can present its own challenge. "It's hard to attach a pre-made catio to a window simply because windows are all made differently," Harding explains. "Making sure a floating window catio is properly secured" is of utmost importance, he says, and sometimes that might require a professional's help. Budget accordingly.
Finally, Harding says, "Make sure your catio will match your backyard setting. Don't be afraid to really treat yourself with it, too. If you're a cat person, don't be afraid to show it!"