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Airdrie House & Home: Creating an outdoor space for your feline

After the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down the world, many people turned to pets for companionship. During the first wave, animal rescue groups across Canada reported increases in adoptions, long wait lists and a plethora of applications.

After the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shut down the world, many people turned to pets for companionship. During the first wave, animal rescue groups across Canada reported increases in adoptions, long wait lists and a plethora of applications.

Crossfield’s Tails to Tell Animal Rescue Shelter has also benefited from the surge in demand for rescue animals. According to Colleen Holden, a volunteer and member of the Tails to Tell board of directors, while the shelter had to close for part of 2019, it still adopted out nearly 200 cats from May 2019 to 2020.

“We in took 197 cats, and it's hard to believe, but we also adopted out 197 cats,” Holden said.

She said adoption for the 12-month period afterward – from May 19, 2020, to May 19, 2021 – better reflected the demand surge seen elsewhere, with the rescue shelter taking in 312 animals and adopting out 268.

With many residents becoming new cat owners, it comes as little surprise people are looking for ways to ensure their new family members have what they need to lead happy, healthy lives in their “fur-ever” home.

One such option gaining traction online and in the pet-owning community is “catios” – enclosed outdoor spaces made especially for cats. Whether you have a large yard capable of housing a free-standing enclosure, a balcony or simply a window, a catio can be created in almost any space.

“Cats love to roam,” said Tails to Tell volunteer Dawn Parker. “Cats love to do it, even though there's a bylaw in Airdrie [stating] they cannot leave their own yard. So people have been looking at catios to give cats the benefit of being outside while also adhering to the bylaw and keeping [the animals] safe.”

Safety is a huge part of why cat owners are turning to “cat patios,” which Parker said help extend a cat's lifespan by limiting exposure to outdoor threats.

“We do have a large coyote population around Airdrie,” Parker acknowledged of the urban predators that wouldn’t hesitate to make a meal out of a roaming house cat. ”And, of course, diseases. Cats have a longer lifespan when you can keep them from roaming because they will pick up diseases rolling in dirt. They can get ringworm [from the dirt] or pick up rabies on their paws, just from being outside.”

Catios also keep animals that cats are known to prey on from falling into their grasp, while also adding enrichment and the stimulation of nature – the cats can watch the birds, but not get to them.

While there is an abundance of tutorials and design options for catios available online – from window boxes to elaborate cat complexes with overhead tunnels and multiple rooms – Parker said the main supplies needed to create a catio come down to weather-resistant wood, such as solid cedar, and sturdy wire or screening.

However, there are considerations to make before starting the build.

She said chicken wire is often used to enclose DIY catios, though it isn’t the material she recommends.

“It has very big holes,” Parker said. “So keep on the alert, because wasps can get through those holes and can build [nests] within that catio.”

Parker is Tails to Tell’s go-to volunteer when it comes to catios, because her husband Kevin builds them. Kevin uses metal screening with smaller holes in the cat patios he creates because large bugs cannot get through.

“It would be much the same as your screening in your home windows, but [the holes] are a little bit bigger. And the [mesh] would be metal, not nylon,” she said.

The location of the catio is another consideration, according to Parker. While cats may love basking in the warm sunlight, too much solar exposure can be hazardous to their health.

“You want to make sure that you’re creating shade because you don't want your cat to get heatstroke,” she said.

Catios are great ways to provide stimulation and enrichment, which cats need daily. This makes the view from the enclosure an important component when selecting where to build the enclosure. Look for an area where the cat can see wildlife, bugs pollinating the garden or you and the family as you go about your outdoor activities.

Parker said cats love to roll in the dirt, but not all dirt is created equal and some dirt can house parasites. The location of the catio should therefore avoid "unclean" dirt, and the structure should be built on a flat, level foundation.

“[Cats] love dust baths, like horses,” she said, adding she intends to put an area of “clean” dirt in the catio Kevin is building for their cats.

Yet another consideration before building a catio is whether the enclosure will be free-standing or attached to the home. If you want to allow your cat the ability to leave or enter the enclosure as it pleases, a catio attached to a window, balcony or door that can be left open is ideal. Parker said her husband recently built an enclosure on a pedestal located outside a window for a client with a young child.

“So now, when they go out, she opens the kitchen window and doesn't have to worry about taking a cat out and leaving the baby alone,” she said.

For free-standing units – which tend to be larger enclosures – cat access can be accomplished via a tunnel connecting the home to the catio.

Once the location is determined, it’s time to start thinking about what elements to include.

Parker said shelves or elevated areas for cats to perch or lay on are a must-have feature.

“Cats love to be high, so off the ground,” she said. “They like to go high if they feel threatened, for one thing, to get away from their predators. So that's their genetics. That's instilled in their DNA. They like to be high. They feel more, I think, exposed when they're low.”

Access to fresh drinking water is also essential to prevent heatstroke and dehydration, and so is access to shade. Parker said her catio has a roof on it, providing both an area out of the sun and some coverage from rain or snow.

Enrichment items such as a scratching post, dangling toys, clean dirt, grass or other cat-safe plants are also great additions. If your cat enjoys watching birds or butterflies, Parker encourages the hanging of bird feeders or plant flowers near the enclosure.

An item to avoid in the enclosure, according to Parker, is the litter box.

“You don't want the bugs in your litter box,” she said. “You don't want any parasites or anything like that, that shouldn't be laying eggs or doing whatever it is bugs do in that litter. So don't be putting a litter box out there.”

Though catios kits are available on the market, creating your own allows you to make the space specific to your cat. While most are built from lumber and wire, there are online tutorials for catios made from everything from shelving units to wire storage cubes.

If you want to DIY, you need to make sure that it's a very solid construction, according to Parker.

“We get some pretty heavy-duty winters here in southern Alberta,” she said. “You don't want the wind to come up – we've seen it pick up trampolines – but you don't want a cat in it when there's a wind. If the wind suddenly picks up and [the construction is not sturdy], it's going to topple on top of them and cause injury. So really watch your construction.”

She added maintenance is also key to ensuring the safety of your pet.

“Always make sure that [the enclosure] survived a winter. [Check that] nothing's getting rusty or that nails are poking out all of a sudden that they could hurt themselves on accidentally,” Parker said. “It’s like, we have insurance for a reason. We don't jump out of a plane on a whim. Always put safety first.”

While you don’t have to be in the catio with your pet, she added it’s important to not leave a cat unattended in the catio.

“Don't put them out there and then go grocery shopping. Don't be doing that,” she said.

"We want to keep these guys safe. We don't invest in their vet bills, and we don't invest money into rescues and their shots and everything like that, to just poo-poo their safety. And that's something that's always going to be first, front of mind – always consider the safety.”

If DIYing a catio is too far out of your comfort zone, you can contact Kevin at catiosbykevin@gmail.com or search online for a pre-made unit that suits your needs.