Protecting birds and cats with a “catio” February 26, 2014

Posted by Ilana DeBare in Conservation, Golden Gate Audubon

By Ilana DeBare

The black cat named Totoro trained his bright yellow eyes on a Chestnut-backed Chickadee singing on a branch. The chickadee was only a few feet away. There was no windowpane between them. The cat could practically reach out and grab the bird.

The bird was safe.

Totoro was in his “catio” – an outdoor enclosure or patio designed to let house cats experience the sights and smells of the outdoor world, while keeping both birds and the cats themselves from harm.

“We have some of the happiest cats,” said Phil Price, a Golden Gate Audubon board member who built the North Berkeley catio where Totoro was sitting. “They love to come out, sniff the air, sleep in the sun, and watch people walking their dogs down the street.”

The tern “catio” is so new that there’s no Wikipedia entry for it yet. It’s not listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Totoro watching a chickadee / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Totoro watching a chickadee / Photo by Ilana DeBare

But the concept is catching on among cat owners who care about birds. Last fall, the Audubon Society of Portland sponsored its first Catio Tour, featuring twelve catios in the Portland, Oregon, area.

The latest scientific studies suggest that outdoor cats – both domestic and feral – kill more than 1 billion birds each year. A single domestic cat typically kills between one and 34 birds each year; one feral cat kills an estimated 23 to 46 birds annually.

Keeping cats indoors is the best way to stop them from killing birds. Keeping cats indoors also helps them stay healthy — safe from hazards like cars, dogs, and fights with other cats.

Catios, meanwhile, are a way to give indoor cats a taste of the outdoors.

Catios can be jaw-droppingly expensive and elaborate. Web sites like CatioShowcase.com feature some cat enclosures that could be mistaken for Hawaiian resorts.

Elaborate Utah catio featured on CatioShowcase.com

Elaborate Utah catio featured on CatioShowcase.com

Resort-like catio in Florida featured on CatioShowcase.com

Resort-like catio in Florida featured on CatioShowcase.com

But catios can also be inexpensive and homemade. That’s the case with Phil Price and Juliet Lamont’s Berkeley cat complex.

Price started out in the late 1990s by building a cage out of plastic PVC pipe and wire mesh on the roof of his garage, accessible through a cat door that he cut in a wall. He installed some potted plants and a cat climbing structure.

Then in 2003, he added an outdoor catwalk – a long wooden plank framed by PVC pipe and wire that stretches from his garage roof to the home of his sister-in-law next door.

Phil Price and the original cage area of his catio complex / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Phil Price and the original cage area of his catio complex / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The catwalk bridging Phil Price's house and his sister-in-law's house / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The catwalk bridging Phil Price’s garage roof and his sister-in-law’s house / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Next he built a cat ladder – a series of climbable shelves on the outside of his house, again enclosed with wire.  He built a similar ladder on the outside of his sister-in-law’s house.

(Price and Lamont also have a network of indoor catwalks – long shelves close to the ceiling, with cat-size holes in the walls that allow their cats to slink overhead from room to room.)

Chester on the indoor catwalk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Chester on the indoor catwalk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Totoro on the indoor catwalk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Totoro on the indoor catwalk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Price estimates that it took him one weekend to build the initial enclosure. All told, he’s put in maybe 30 hours of work on the cat structures.

“None of this stuff was hard to do,” he said. “I’m well aware of how eccentric people think this is. But look at dog owners. They spend half an hour walking their dog every day, 365 days a year. I’ve spent just 30 hours on this in 15 years.”

While Price’s catio has a funky do-it-yourself look, it blends smoothly into his leafy, woodsy Berkeley neighborhood. His brown-shingled house backs up onto Codornices Creek, and he’s counted over 50 species of birds in his back yard.

Despite Price’s love of birds, the initial inspiration for the catio wasn’t avian – it was feline.

“One of our cats got cancer and was on chemo with a depressed immune system,” he said. “We didn’t want them getting out and bringing (germs) back…. The cats came first. The birds we got into later. But once we started thinking about our backyard as a wild area for birds, we couldn’t let the cats out anymore.”

These days Price and Lamont have three cats – Chester, Nimitz and Catesby.  Totoro and another cat live next door with Lamont’s sister.  Sometimes Price opens a gate within the catwalk so the cats can move freely between the two houses. Other times, he keeps the barrier down and the cats meet and meow at each other through the mesh.

Or, like Totoro, they settle down in a spot with a good view of nearby trees and their feathered inhabitants. Price may be on the board of Golden Gate Audubon, but he is not the only bird watcher in the house.

“People say, ‘It’s not natural to keep cats indoors, cats need to roam,’ ” Price said. “Well, there’s nothing natural about having 30,000 cat-sized predators roaming and hunting in a ten-square-mile urban area… And we have happy cats. They’re engaged, energetic, not neurotic. They play with each other and with us a lot.”

The catio provides outdoor room to explore / Photo by Phil Price

Phil Price and Juliet Lamont calling to Chester in the catwalk

Phil Price and Juliet Lamont calling to Chester in the catwalk

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Do you have a catio in the Bay Area? Tell us about it! Post a comment here or email Ilana at idebare@goldengateaudubon.org

Tags: cat enclosure, catio, cats and birds, catwalk, indoor cats, Phil Price.

Comments

  1. Suzy Hayes
    February 27th, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    The Prices are obvious RESPONSIBLE & LOVING CAT OWNERS & BIRD/WILDLIFE LOVERS as well. But MOST cat owner’s are not going to go to the trouble, nor the expense to do this type of construction for their beloved kitties! Heck, most of my cat owning neighbor’s don’t even have their cats spay/neutered or even vaccinated! It’s a cryin’ shame for ALL.

  2. February 28th, 2014 at 4:02 PM

    I see the same things Suzy does, and have no idea if there’s any way to reach those types of people. But, I also think there are a lot of responsible cat people who just don’t understand the cat/wildlife connection — or who feel they have no good alternatives. I think a post like this goes a long way in terms of education and inspiration.

  3. Kari
    March 7th, 2014 at 9:31 AM

    I have always agreed with “Catio” just didn’t know that it had a name – awesome!!!

  4. Kim
    January 17th, 2016 at 5:02 PM

    I have always spayed and neutered and considered myself a responsible cat guardian. I also know that my house got small fast and there are only so many cats that wander up that you can keep indoors, even if it is the safest thing for them.

    One cat that wandered up and that I had for over 8 yrs before he developed diabetes ended up wandering off. After more than a year passed, I spotted him in another neighborhood! He had not received his insulin for 13 months and was on death’s door.

    I was ecstatic to have my baby back. But even tho he loves being outside, I cannot just let him roam free. I am so excited about all the different catio plans! I bought materials today and cannot wait for MooMoo to enjoy the outdoors this way, and meanwhile allowing me to have peace of mind!

  5. GGAS
    January 17th, 2016 at 7:46 PM

    Great idea, Kim! And so happy you found MooMoo and he gets to enjoy his old age with safety and love. If you live in the bay Area and need help, I suspect Phil Price might be willing to advise on catio construction.

  6. Sandy Wada
    September 12th, 2016 at 2:46 PM

    I love this idea too, but am construction challenged, do you have any recommendations for a contractor in the East Bay?

  7. GGAS
    September 12th, 2016 at 3:32 PM

    H Sandy. This is probably something any handyman could do if you provided the concept. If you’d like, we can put you in touch with Phil Price, our member in Berkeley who built his own catio. He did it himself – no contractor – but I suspect he would be very happy to brainstorm with you. The you could;d just get the name of a carpenter or contractor fro,m your neighbors or friends. If you’d like to contact Phil, email me (Ilana) at idebare@goldengateaudubon.org.

  8. Abby Magee
    December 11th, 2016 at 6:41 PM

    I love the catio idea. Meanwhile I have trained my cat to walk on a leash. We walk up and down the block and spend hours in the garden.

  9. GGAS
    December 11th, 2016 at 8:23 PM

    Congrats! That is quite a feat. Good work by you and your very amenable and smart cat. 🙂