by Barbara George ~Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
While most cats prefer to be warm and cosy indoors, there are those that prefer to be outdoors, for various reasons. They can still be warm and sheltered in their own outdoor home.
The advantages for creating an outdoor home include keeping them safe and warm, being able to monitor them for signs of illness or injury, and encouraging them to stay close to their homes and not intrude on neighbours. Separate feeding stations allow for keeping a check on the amount they are eating, and reducing the number of kills.
Every situation is different, as are the needs for the cats that live there. These are the main points to consider when creating an outdoor home-from-home for cats; not all will be applicable.
The main requirements are for safety and security. Homes should be large enough to move around in but not too large as heat will be lost in the free space. The entrance should just be big enough for the cat to get through; this minimises heat loss and adds to security as no large animal can enter, and there is only one opening to defend. The opening should be above floor level and to one side; again to minimise the impact on weather and to prevent bedding from falling out.
The house should be positioned in a secluded or quiet area, off the ground, facing away from the weather, and ideally with some form of protection to the front of the opening so it is not immediately obvious. A bush, hedge or wall about half a metre away offers a safe passage to home. If this is not possible then a cat-flap may be appropriate to keep out wind and curious animals or people.
The house must be stable under all conditions; if using lightweight materials it may be necessary to weigh the house down. Houses can also be painted with non-toxic paint to blend into the surroundings. Awnings can be added as protection over the opening.
Waterproofing and wind proofing the house will help to keep the cats dry and warm. In cold areas insulation can be used inside around the walls and ceiling. Make sure all products used are non-toxic and pet-friendly.
An essential feature of the house is the ability to keep it clean, so build in an easy way to open the house for access to replace bedding, repair insulation, and generally clean it out.
If the house is large, i.e. a converted dog kennel, or built for multiple cats, a shelf can be added to provide extra space. Bear this in mind when designing the potions for access, either leave a space open for the cats to jump up or create an upper door as a separate entrance. The upper door should not be immediately over the lower door, for strength as well as the possibility of both doors being used at the same time.
Having established the house, it needs to be furnished with a bed or beds. Bedding straw is the best option; it retains heat and repels water, cats can snuggle down into a pile of straw and be warm on all sides. Blankets and towels absorb water and attract heat away from the body, so these will make the cats colder, and keep them wet. Wet bedding ca become mouldy. Another option is a pillowcase filled with styrofoam pellets; the disadvantage is they may be torn and the filling eaten, and they have to be washed to keep them clean. Used straw is thrown away and replaced with fresh as needed, often only every few months.
Food and water must be separated from the houses, both for instinctive and health and cleanliness reasons. Cats tend not to eat near where they sleep as predators could follow the scent of their kill and find their sleeping spaces. Food and water in the house can cause damp and mould, making it unpleasant for the cats.
Create an eating station away from the house, it not too far. This should be covered and protected from the weather while still allowing for multiple cats to eat simultaneously. There should be more entry and exit points than there are cats, or at least one side open for access. Food should be provided off the ground, at a comfortable eating height. Eating habits and the amount of food and water consumed can be monitored, which will help in identifying a change in patterns that may require medical intervention. Being away from the houses also allows the cats to feel safe as people don’t get too close.
There are a number of options for houses. A cosy box inside the garage with cat-flap access, a purpose-built house, a modified (new, non-dog smelling) dog kennel, a plastic crate lined and with a opening cut in the short side, and many other ideas available on the Internet.
Since we know that cats will be cats, it may be that the cat will not immediately take to his new posh home. Start by placing it in an area he frequents, encourage him to enter by placing a few strong-smelling treats or catnip inside. Don’t force him to use it, that will create an unpleasant association and he may never go inside! If it needs to be moved later, move only by a very small distance at a time; for some cats this may only be centimetres a week, until it is in the desired position.
Keep a check on the house and clean only as necessary, and when the cats are out. Adding or changing anything can cause some sensitive cats to be wary for a while before re-entering the house.