It was finally spring, the weather was warm and my Japanese cherry tree was in bloom—a perfect day to sit on the back porch of my D.C. rowhouse and relax. As soon as I opened the door, my cats swarmed out onto the second floor retreat. Mr. Meowgi, a former feral kitten, slunk between the balusters until almost his entire body was hanging off the porch, contemplating the distance to the ground. His partner in crime, Morrissey, sat on the railings masterminding his leap onto the nearby cherry tree (a maneuver he’s executed once before). The others watched, taking notes on their various options for further yard exploration. So much for relaxing. Shuffling all the cats back inside, I reminded myself it was time to construct a catio.
A catio, or enclosed cat patio, is an ingenious concept that allows cats to experience the outdoors without you having to worry about forming a neighborhood search party for your ragtag group of escaped felines or rushing to the emergency vet for injuries sustained when an escapee doesn’t quite land on his feet.
Catios provide a safe space for otherwise indoor cats to express natural behaviors, building on the human-animal bond and potentially diverting the need for a cat with behavior challenges to be re-homed. They enable indoor-outdoor cats to continue to have a nature experience without the dangers to themselves and to wildlife. Additionally, catios can be a bridge for those who are unsuccessful in keeping their cats indoors all of the time. For some “backyard” community cats, catios can provide an opportunity to have a safe haven and potentially transition to indoor living.
Longstanding campaigns urging people to keep their cats indoors have not seen the success their promoters desired and laws preventing cats running at large are difficult and costly to enforce. Research The HSUS commissioned back in 2013 found “participants appreciate the appeal to ‘bring cats indoors when possible’ versus being told more directly what to do, even if they feel it is less realistic for feral cats.” Building momentum around catios provides that kinder, gentler approach--a carrot instead of a stick, a “do” rather than a “don’t.” Moreover, it gives people a “how.” A catio can be simple or complex, and can be crafted to fit various budgets and landscapes.
While catio installation may be beyond reach for some, it is an innovative addition to our toolkit for protecting both cats and wildlife. The idea that cats kill large numbers of wild animals has gone viral, and while we can debate the numbers we recognize that cats do prey on birds and other wildlife. No, not all community cats can move into catios—that’s not realistic, and it’s not what I’m suggesting. But catios can be a vehicle to reach and provide benefits to the larger community, especially when free-roaming owned cats get snarled in discussions of TNR.
The Audubon Society of Portland and Portland Feral Cat Coalition have pioneered the catio tour as a way to show the confluence of an often polarized debate. So often talk of cats and birds is framed as two opposing sides endlessly debating the number of feathers each cat has in his hunting cap, with little focus on where we agree and what we can do to achieve our shared goals. But this is a tool that both cat and bird people can agree upon, and it can be a seed for a larger collaborative discussion. Most of us are not on one side or the other; we are smack dab in the middle as we all look to humane and sustainable ways to reduce the number of free-roaming cats.
The Portland Catio Tour inspired Seattle, which had 11 catios featured on this past weekend’s tour, and Santa Cruz, California, which launched a tour this spring and added a pre-tour talk about local wildlife to help inspire efforts to protect all animals. If you are having trouble finding your footing with wildlife advocates, consider using catios as a bridge to building a relationship and finding out what else you can agree on. Plus, catios can be really fun!