I have two cats named Friday and Marvin. Marvin is a black and white short haired cat with a mellow and friendly disposition. He’s 13 years old. In my previous apartment (SEE: In the Shadow of the Hills), I left my balcony door open all the time, day and night. I lived on the second floor over a courtyard, and my two cats at the time, Marvin and Buster, hung out on the balcony whenever they wanted. I never had any worry about either of them jumping or escaping. Marvin liked to sit on the balcony railing, which was about six inches wide. Buster had a cushioned chair to curl up on. I even put one of the litter boxes out there. In retrospect, I probably should have been worried about one of the cats falling, rather than jumping, but it never occurred to me.
Buster passed away in April of 2018 at the ripe old age of 18. I didn’t think I was ready for another cat, but Marvin was getting lonely, especially since I was away at work all day. In November of 2018, my manager mentioned his mom was fostering kittens. Of course, I insisted on pictures, and asked if any of them were male. There were two males: one tabby, and one black cat. I told my manager I’d love to adopt “a little black kitten.” I had wanted a black cat ever since I was a kid, but the stars had never quite aligned. Finally, my dream was coming true!
I named him Friday (I first met him right after Thanksgiving, so “Black Friday,” lolgettit?) — and oh my God, he was a handful. Was, and still is. It wasn’t the first time I’d owned a kitten, either. I’d adopted Buster at twelve weeks. He’d been playful and affectionate. So was Friday. Don’t get me wrong. Friday is a sweetheart, but he is also a daredevil, always looking for new places to explore. The first time I met him, he strutted out of the cat carrier, little tail held high, went straight to the litterbox and peed, and then started eating Marvin’s food. I repeatedly had to peel my little kitten off the window screens, because he would leap at them and try to climb up them.
The screen in my bedroom is laddered with scratches, and Friday also took flying leaps at the screen on the balcony door. Eventually he broke off the bottom two wheels of the sliding door. I now have to lift up the door in order to open it. He also enjoyed walking along the railing for the hanging blinds, which is about a foot from the ceiling. He knocked over my television once. If there’s water anywhere, he will spill it. He doesn’t care about the word no. If I tell him “NO!” he will stop what he’s doing, look right at me, and then go right back to doing it. He plays fetch, and he comes when he’s called — but only when he wants to. But, he also sleeps at the foot of my bed almost every night, and hangs out with me during the day (when he’s not chasing flies around the apartment). When he was a kitten, I bought him a cat wheel, and he immediately figured out how to use it.
He’s now almost three years old, and he’s HUGE, and incredibly fluffy. The last time he was at the vet, he weighed 14 pounds. I had his DNA evaluated, and he’s part Siberian Forest Cat. Apparently these cats keep growing until they’re about five years old.
Fast forward to September of 2020, and I got the idea in my head to make my balcony more cat-friendly. It had been utterly bare ever since I moved in. The only thing I did was to sweep it periodically. (In the first picture below, you can see a small object on the balcony: that’s one of the wheels from the balcony door, that Friday knocked off.) I was stuck at home due to the pandemic. I was bored. I needed A Project. The first idea I had was to purchase a custom cut roll of artificial grass. I let the cats out, and they loved the grass. (I bought them a scratcher just for the balcony, which is the gray object in the second photo below.)
But, I had a couple of problems. The first was that the grass didn’t prevent the concrete balcony from being uncomfortably hot against the soles of my feet in the middle of the day. I figured if my feet were uncomfortable, the cats’ feet would be, too. This seemed to be the case, as they never wanted to be out there past mid-morning. My other problem was that both of them were constantly sticking their heads between the balcony railing bars to look down onto the street. They might fall or jump into the street; they could plausibly jump down to my downstairs neighbor’s balcony, which has a wide concrete ledge that projects out past my own balcony. Worst of all, they might jump down to the weird little half-balcony above the front door of the building (pictured below). If one of them got down there, I’d have to call the fire department.
Also pictured below is Marvin lying in the crappy cat bed that I built out of five Amazon boxes hot-glued and duct taped together. I can never get rid of it now: they both love it.
I figured I could enclose my balcony railing in something. I researched other people’s catios, watched a lot of YouTube videos, and settled on black plastic deer netting. It was invisible from the street, it was cheap, and it prevented little heads from poking through the railing. Sort of. Even though I zip-tied it pretty tightly, both cats pushed their heads against the netting as far as they possibly could. Worse, Marvin enjoyed chewing on the netting. Even worse than that, Friday started jumping up on the balcony railing. Unlike the wide railing in my previous apartment, this railing is about an inch wide. It was terrifying. Even when they were out there and supervised, I only needed to turn my back for a moment before Friday would be up there and walking along it, three stories above a street with trucks and buses roaring by.
I decided to build them an enclosure. (My balcony, by the way, is not all that large. It’s four feet by ten feet.) I shopped around, and finally settled on a dog kennel from Amazon. It was four feet wide, exactly the width of my balcony. But, I held off buying it, because there were a few other problems I needed to solve first. I bought Friday a dog jacket, which he hated, but it did keep him from jumping up on the railing. (He was too big for the largest size of cat jacket!) It’s not actually a tight fit; it’s fairly loose. Friday is just super fluffy. I replaced the plastic deer netting with black vinyl-coated metal hardware cloth. Not as cheap, but much more sturdy. I had never heard of this stuff before I started the catio project. I considered all kinds of chicken wire and metal mesh before Amazon suggested on the hardware cloth, and I was happy I did. It’s very easy to cut with wire cutters, and because of the vinyl coating, it can be bent and shaped with bare hands. Marvin is not at all interested in munching on it.
I rolled up the grass, and laid down interlocking wooden tiles. These passed the barefoot test. I was even able to thread zip-ties through the fasteners of the tiles at the edges of the balcony, and then attach those zip-ties to the bottom of the hardware cloth. That way, the cats couldn’t stick their heads underneath the bottom edge of the hardware cloth.
At this point, I still needed to keep Friday from jumping onto the railing. I needed something flexible, because I wanted to sit out on my balcony, too. I’d made myself a nice, deep bench from a four foot by two foot dunnage rack, stacked on some furniture risers. (The dunnage rack itself is only a foot tall, which wasn’t a comfortable height for sitting, but at $80, it was both cheaper and wider than every other outdoor bench I found.)
I wanted the cats to have some high perches inside the kennel. Friday in particular likes being up as high as possible. I bought a slatted plant holder/bookcase, and I gave all of the pieces three coats of boat varnish. It doesn’t rain often here in Southern California, but sometimes it rains very hard. It took me a few weekends to varnish everything and make sure all the pieces were dry between coats. I couldn’t let the cats out on the balcony at all during that time, since the varnish was incredibly sticky. It got everywhere. I ruined a pair of sweatpants and a tarp, and also used up a whole jar of coconut oil getting it off my hands, because I had no idea soap and water wouldn’t even budge it.
Finally, the bookcase was dry! I zip-tied the rest of the grass on the shelves, to make the shelves more grippy for the cats’ paws, and to give them nice soft perches to lie on. With a hacksaw, I removed several slats from the long shelf on the top of the bookcase, to make the topmost perch accessible.
I assembled the bookcase, and then I assembled the kennel around it, since I’d assumed the bookcase wouldn’t fit through the kennel door. In retrospect, I probably could have carried it in through the door, but it would have been a tight squeeze. The bookcase is actually upside-down. That way, the grass had a channel to rest in, on each shelf, and it wouldn’t slide around. Also, I figured the bottom shelf would provide more stability than four legs, because the cats would be jumping up and down. Even so, the bookcase is zip-tied to the kennel AND the balcony railing.
The kennel almost didn’t fit on the balcony. There’s a concrete lip where the building wall meets each end of the balcony door, that makes it a few inches shy of four feet. I had to leave off two pairs of bolts holding the kennel panels together. But, the kennel ended up being very sturdy anyway, once I zip-tied it to the railings. It had wire mesh sides, but no roof. The peaked roof beams were intended to support a sun shade that was included. But, I wanted a sunny, open roofed cage. I had already planned for rain, punching more drain holes in the artificial grass. Everything else was waterproof. I zip-tied more hardware cloth over the roof beam and down the front and back of the roof rise to create an enclosed roof that Friday could not escape. (I also zip-tied the kennel door open, to prevent it swinging shut.)
I went through an entire giant bag of five hundred zip-ties, then I bought a second bag. I cut up the artificial grass (surprisingly easy to do with just scissors), and I laid it on the floor of the kennel, over the tiles.
I still needed some kind of netting for the remaining space, but it had to be small. The kennel is four feet by four feet, therefore the netting only needed to cover the remaining four feet by six feet of balcony space. I found the exact perfect thing: a cargo net for the bed of a pickup. But. Once I’d got it all set up, I quickly discovered a flaw in my brilliant plan. The netting holes were wide enough that Friday was able to get his head through. Once his head was through, the rest of his body quickly followed. Luckily, since the net was attached to the balcony railing with carabiners, I heard him every single time he wiggled through. Still, I was concerned about him getting tangled in the net, which would increase the likelihood that he’d fall off the railing, or injure himself in some other way.
It’s been almost six months, and the cats still love their catio. They’re out there usually in the mornings and the evenings, in various places. Sometimes I’ll sit out there with them. I added a couple of waterproof shower benches for them to jump up to and sit on. I even solved the problem of the netting to keep Friday off the railing. After me typing in “small net” on the Amazon search bar multiple times, Amazon finally suggested a baseball backstop net. It’s perfect. The mesh is an inch square — much too small for Friday’s head. And there are two layers of netting. There were some angry meows. Never have I seen a cat more frustrated.
Friday’s next escape attempt was to climb up on the railing at the corner of the balcony where the net met the concrete wall and couldn’t be attached to anything, so I rigged up a few leftover panels from a modular closet organizer, and I think I’ve finally foiled him. Hopefully. (Those closet organizer panels are white, and you can see them in a couple photos of the bench.)
A string of solar lights completed the catio. My next door neighbor told me she had been very intrigued, watching it all come together over the weeks, and now it looks like something from Instagram. She admitted to me she’s not a cat person, but she also said she loves being out on her balcony and watching my cats.
I’m very proud of how this pandemic project came out. I’m not a DIY person for the most part. This is by far the biggest project I’ve ever attempted. The only thing I’ve ever done close to the scope of the catio was to disassemble the cats’ big scratching tree, remove the torn up rope and replace it with fresh rope. That took me two weekends. The catio took me two months. It took a lot of thought, and a lot of planning (and a lot of googling for things I wasn’t even sure existed). Everything has held up surprisingly well. I’ve lost one nut from a bookcase bolt, and I can’t find it anywhere. But other than that, the catio has survived sunny days, gusty days, and more than one rainstorm. The bench cushions are a bit faded, and the artificial grass is now tangled with leaves and feathers, and I probably should vaccuum it at some point — but if the cats don’t mind it, I sure don’t. It’s their place, after all.