Even the cutest indoor cats can be dangerous predators. Research suggests house cats and strays together kill billions of birds every year.
Four years ago, Portland’s cat and bird advocates teamed up to promote a solution to this problem: Catios are enclosed outdoor patios that aim to protect both cats and backyard wildlife.
This year, more than 1,200 people signed up for the city’s annual Catio Tour, hosted by the Audubon Society of Portland and the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon. The tour included eight catios featuring all kinds of ramps, perches, tree limbs and even a hammock for cats to enjoy.
One is on a houseboat on the Willamette River. Another has a bridge running from the house to the top of a gazebo and ending with a spiral staircase. Some were constructed by professional builders and cost thousands of dollars while others were homemade.
Donna Freeman was on Portland’s first catio tour four years ago. That’s where she got the idea to build one for her cats.
Her brother designed and welded a metal catio in the back of her Lake Oswego home.
“It is really a piece of art,” Freeman said. “He is a perfectionist and always does everything to the utmost.”
The cats use it all the time, she said. A hummingbird feeder hangs from the roof just outside the metal mesh walls.
“They just love to come out and watch the birds,” she said. “We feed the birds, and that’s another reason why we want to protect the birds. Sometimes the hummers come and the cats are so quiet the hummers don’t even know it.”
Many tour-goers asked Freeman if her brother would be willing to build more catios…maybe one for their home?
That’s just what Feral Cat Coalition director Karen Kraus likes to hear. A key goal of the tour is to inspire more people to build catios for their cats, she said.
“It’s one thing to read about it or see it online,” she said. “But to actually go out, see what people have done and think: ‘I could do that in my yard. I want one like that.’ That’s what we want to do.”
Many cat owners don’t intend for their cats to go outdoors, Kraus said, but they sneak out the door anyway. More catios mean fewer free-roaming cats, she said, and that means fewer cats will become feral or stray.
“That’s better for the cats and better for the environment,” she said.
Kraus said the idea of catio tours has spread from Portland to Seattle and Colorado, and now her group is talking with the Humane Society of the United States about promoting the concept at a national level.
Most people on the Portland tour are looking for a way to give their indoor cats some outdoor time, she said. But catios can also help get stray cats off the street and transition them into a home.
Stanley Held found his cat Samantha in the alley with a kitten in tow.
“We trapped her and brought them both in to be spayed, and we were supposed to release them back where we found them,” he said. “But we kept them in the house a couple days so they could get over their surgery and then a friend came over and named them. Once they had names we couldn’t just put them back out there, and they didn’t want to go back out.”
Held found a thrifty way to build a catio for Samantha and her kitten in his yard in Southeast Portland. For around $100 he created a two-level structure that gives the cats safe outdoor access through his basement window. It also includes a sandbox and fescue grass for them to nibble.
“I wanted them to be safe and have an outdoor place, and it seems to have worked very nicely,” he said. “We get squirrels and birds that come into the backyard, and I don’t want our cats to become killers. So the cats can watch the birds, watch the squirrels. The squirrels and birds can watch them, but they’re separated and everybody is safe.”
Matt and Lisa Freeland attended the tour to get ideas for their own backyard.
“We have two cats that really seem to want to be outside with us when we are sitting outside,” she said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to see what some of our options are and see if there was something we could do to our own home.”
Right now, the cats are stuck watching them from open screened windows. The couple doesn’t want to let the cats roam free because they could run away, get in fights with aggressive outdoor cats in the neighborhood, or attack their backyard birds.
But they do have a covered pergola that they could build a catio around, Matt Freeland said. So, they’re shopping for the best arrangement.
“In the wintertime, you come home from work and sit down to read the paper, and the cat jumps on your lap,” he said. “But in the summertime, we’re outside and the cats can’t be with us. So this would keep us all together.”