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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My cat, Beans, is 10 years old. I got him when he was just a few months old and I love him with all my heart. When I first got him, my family and I kept him strictly as an indoor cat, and during that time he was hard to manage to say the least. One day he got out and I thought that he would get run over or I would just simply never see him again. It broke my heart (I was 10). Surprisingly, he came back and has been living happily as an indoor-outdoor cat since he was two. I realize I made a mistake trying to cage an animal that wanted freedom. I’m living in a new town now and thinking about adopting a kitten but I want to make an environment for a cat that promotes freedom, but also makes sure they are safe and are healthy/well fed. any suggestions?

~ Isaac

A long-haired orange tabby cat in a tree

Photo (CC-BY) by Dwight Sipler

Siouxsie: Although many cats can live happily as indoor-only cats, it’s true that there are some who appreciate being able to enjoy the grass under their paws and the wind in their fur. If you want your new cat to have access to the outdoors, there are some things you can do to provide him with that access and keep him safe.

Thomas: First of all, the cat you adopt must be spayed or neutered. If you adopt from a shelter, that shouldn’t be a problem because every shelter we know of sterilizes cats before adopting them out. Intact cats of either sex can and will escape, and you’ll have to deal with pregnancy or injuries — or worse yet, death from cars, dogs or ignorant, hateful humans.

Bella: The first thing we’d recommend is building what cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy calls a “catio,” an outdoor enclosure on your deck or in your back yard with access from a window.

Siouxsie: These can range in size from a simple bay window design with chicken wire, which allows your cat to sit in the sun without setting foot on the ground, to huge, elaborate constructions that could take up half a back yard.

Thomas: The most basic cat enclosures are build with 2×4 lumber and chicken wire on all sides, including the top, so cats can’t escape by climbing out.

An outdoor cat enclosure

Outdoor cat enclosure. Photo via Just4Cats.com

Bella: Of course, you’ll want to add some extra goodies like climbing posts, fountains and a shaded spot so your cat can have shelter from the hot sun or the rain while she’s outside.

Siouxsie: You’ll also want to have flea and tick control: you can use monthly preventive on your cat, and we’d recommend sprinkling the ground with food-grade diatomaceous earth on a regular basis, too.

Thomas: There are many pre-made cat enclosures on the market, ranging in price from a few dollars to hundreds or even thousands. The Stanford Cat Network has a list of resources for pre-made outdoor enclosures and fence systems.

Bella: If you have some skills and tools, you can also build your own enclosure. Just4Cats.com offers a low-cost book with plans for 65 different enclosures.

Siouxsie: If you want your cat to have the run of your whole back yard, Cat Fence-In and Purr-fect Fence can be installed on top of existing fences to keep your cat from escaping. Purr-fect Fence also has kits that include entire fences.

Thomas: These kits can be quite expensive, but Alley Cat Allies offers an instruction and materials guide for making your own cat fencing system.

Bella: So, Isaac, there are lots of ways you can allow a cat to enjoy the outdoors and be safe at the same time. If you do let your cat outdoors, we strongly recommend that he have a collar with a tag that contains your contact information, and a microchip: collars can come off, but if your cat escapes and finds himself at the shelter, a microchip exponentially increases the chance that you’ll be reunited.

Siouxsie: Good luck, Isaac, and please send us pictures of your cat enclosure once you’ve got it built!