Living in proximity to wildlife has its joys—and sorrows. If you have outdoor cats, they’re at risk from predators. Here’s how to keep your cats safe and happy.
By Ruthanne Johnson
They leap to kill birds, pounce on mice and even wrestle snakes into submission. Yet despite their killer instincts, cats have somehow stolen our hearts. Their quiet padding across the floor to greet us when we come home and purring in our laps make us feel loved. So we strive to give them what they want: food, water, and lots of cuddling and petting. To satisfy their craving for fresh air and sunshine, we let them outside—despite the obvious dangers.
Whether you live in a rural, urban or city environment, the great outdoors is a risky place for pets and wildlife alike.
Cats cause the death of millions of songbirds and small mammals every year. But cats (and small dogs) are also prey for wild animals like coyotes, mountain lions, foxes and even raccoons. Dogs and other cats also attack and sometimes kill cats. Roaming cats can contract and spread infectious diseases and become riddled with parasites, costing their owners concern and big bucks. And then there are cars—bone-crushing opponents for even the most able-bodied and agile of critters.
To keep pets safe, some cat owners keep their kitties inside or set aside monitored playtime in the backyard. Others walk their cat outside like a dog. But some cat owners are turning to outdoor cat enclosures as a way for their pet to safely enjoy the outdoors. Many of these structures are as beautiful as they are functional.
Boulder Magazine editor Mary Jarrett found out the hard way about the dangers that even part-time outside pets face when her tortoise-shell tabby recently went missing. After prowling Jarrett’s block during the day, Bettina—described as smart and athletic—always came inside at night. “We had a very established routine, and I never worried about her when she was outside,” Jarrett says. But late one afternoon when Jarrett arrived home, Bettina was nowhere to be found.
A week later, a neighbor reported seeing a dead cat on a nearby lawn. “Was it a really beautiful cat?” Jarrett anxiously asked. But the woman couldn’t tell her, because the animal was so mangled. The body was finally identified by microchip as Bettina; her death likely from a raccoon attack.
Jarrett is still shocked that wild animals killed her savvy cat in downtown Boulder. “I don’t live on the western border of Boulder, where people know that cats and dogs disappear every day,” she says.
Nine years ago, a neighbor’s chow killed John Kuepper’s 14-year-old, cross-eyed cat, prompting him to transform his three remaining cats into indoor pets. But that only lasted about two months. “They were allowed to go out before, and then we suddenly changed the rules,” Kuepper says. “They didn’t go for that.” The three would sit by the door and make a mad dash for the exit whenever it opened.
Kuepper thought about how zoo enclosures allow animals to explore outside while keeping them secure, and he decided to try something similar in his own backyard. After 18 months of testing different structures, he hit on success with an inward-leaning barrier made of wire mesh and scrap material he attached to the top of his existing fence. His cats avoid it.
As Kuepper’s months of trial and error attest, escape-proofing a yard for cats isn’t as simple as slapping up chicken wire to the top of a fence and securing the ends. Cats problem-solve to get what they want, which includes wandering if the environment doesn’t fulfill their needs.
Therefore, you should consider a cat’s natural characteristics when building an outdoor enclosure. They need places to sharpen their claws and comfy resting areas for catnapping. Cats use sight, scent and sound to ambush their prey, and will climb to survey their quarry from above and to seek refuge from predators. So perches and climbing opportunities help keep them in shape.
To keep his cats happy in their new, escape-proofed backyard, Kuepper built carpet-covered posts for scratching and placed cat-sized shelves at different heights around the yard for lounging and surveying. “Every time I looked in the back, the cats were all there (on the shelves),” Kuepper says. He also installed a pet door that allows them to come and go at their leisure.
Sunny & Safe
Other cat owners Kuepper knew liked his idea, and he soon found himself building professional enclosures through his Denver-based company, Cat-Man-Do. He’s installed everything from fence enhancements, like the one for his cats, to window boxes, enclosed patios, kitty walkways and wire-mesh pens adjacent to the home. “We’ll evaluate a site and build whatever it takes to keep the cat safe and comfortable,” he says.
After seeing an example of Kuepper’s handiwork inside a local pet supply store, Terry Teis and Lindy Lyman contracted him to build an enclosure for their cat Sunshine, who accesses it from a cat door built into a laundry room window. The couple paid about $1,000 for the southwest-facing structure, where Sunshine now spends nearly two-thirds of his time keeping vigil over the yard. It’s money well spent, considering the thousands of dollars in vet bills they forked out after their other pet—a rescued alley cat—contracted intestinal problems from eating wild birds. Along with peace of mind, the enclosure provides an odorless place for Sunshine’s two litter boxes. A human-sized door on one side of the enclosure allows for easy cleaning.
Lyman, a painter and art educator, keeps Sunshine’s “cat palace” color-coordinated and artfully decorated with dangly cat toys. A cobalt-blue hammock hangs inside the roomy enclosure, and nine curry-colored shelves serve as perches. A blue awning cov-ers the top for protection from the elements, and a small tree growing through an opening in the flagstone floor offers a place to sharpen claws. “He loves it out there, even if it’s raining or snowing,” she says. “Whenever he hears a squirrel, raccoon or fox at night, he’s out there announcing that this is his area.”
Because of their advantages for cats, owners and wildlife, outside enclosures are growing in popularity. Animal-welfare organizations, such as The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and PETA, offer information about enclosures on their websites, and a handful of companies offer standardized, ready-to-install fence barriers and portable enclo-sures with kitty walks that can be set up on the lawn or deck and connected to a pet door leading inside. Some companies sell materials for building your own enclosures; others help cat owners design the enclosure of their kitty’s dreams.
Jarrett says if she had known about outdoor cat enclosures, Bettina would probably still be alive and enjoying the great outdoors from the safety of an open-air palace. “Bettina was just turning 6, and I had expected many, many more years of her company.”