It was in the spring of 2007 when our beloved Mr. Spanky (A.K.A. Houdini) escaped once again; this time by jumping from an open upstairs window. Fortunately a week later a kind neighbor responded to our flyer and we were reunited. Because he is an indoor cat, we worried about his safety since we live in an area that has many predators and occasional traffic that keep the neighborhood pretty clear of stray cats. Knowing his love of the outdoors, the escape finally brought me to the conclusion that I needed to provide a safe outdoor habitat for him and our other Maine Coons.
I searched for various outdoor cages and habitat systems but I could find nothing suitable at a price I was willing to pay, so I decided this was a DIY project. Over these last 5 plus years it has been a huge success for both us and our feline friends.
Step 1: Gathering Requirements
The outdoor habitat needs to be:
1. a four season structure.
2. off the ground to avoid fleas and the urge to use this space as a litter box.
3. predator (fox, coyote and large bird) proof.
4. free standing, not physically attached to the house.
5. 24-7 accessible via a current window (not a hole through the house).
6. a fun space.
8. big enough for 2 to 4 large cats at the same time.
9. accessible from the outside through a lockable door.
10. a safe haven should there be a house fire.
11. not exceed $500 (this project was just at $500 five years ago).
12. relatively maintenance free.
13. escape proof (even for a Houdini).
... and so this project describes an approximately 8'x8'x4' outdoor cat habitat (or as we refer to it, the Catitat) that fulfills these requirements.
Step 2: Precautions and Considerations Before Construction
The structure I built is designed for cats. I have regularly entered the habitat for routine cleaning and maintenance over the last 5 years and it still easily supports my weight. However, this design is intended to be a non-load bearing structure with open sides for little or no wind resistance. We get an average of 9 feet of snow in our area, and can get wind gusts to 60 mph.
This design uses 4"x4"x10' foot posts set into the ground about 16 inches deep. This is not deep enough for a permanent enclosed structure or people deck. If your catitat needs to support a heavier load then consider using a 12 foot post and sinking it 24 inches or more in or on a substantial concrete footer.
As of this writing, some 5 1/2 years after the initial construction, the habitat is still solid. Our frost line is about 30", but at a depth of only 16 inches all of the posts remain plumb and all of the joints are solid.
Tools. I built this entire structure with the following18 volt battery operated tools: circular saw, drill, orbital jigsaw and power stapler. Use good tool sense and operating knowledge. You will also need wire cutters and heavy gloves for the chicken wire. You will also need some additional tools for the door installation that I will list later.
Skills. I'm not a wood worker, just an average DIY kind of guy. There are no special skills necessary to build this habitat, just some patience which I am not known to possess. I built it mostly by myself, with some assistance from my wife over a casual two day period.
Step 3: Materials Needed for the Base Structure.
4 each corner posts - 4"x4"x10'
4 each deck supports - 2"x4"x8'
4 each top supports - 2"x4"x8'
2 each center upright supports - 2"x4"x8'
3 to 4 bags of concrete mix. This will depend on your preference on depth and width of the footer.
1 - 2 lb. of 2 1/2" deck screws (enough for the entire project) - note that the recommended minimum sink depth is 1 inch, so a 2x4, which is 1 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches would require a 2 1/2 inch screw or longer. A 2"x2" beam is 1 1/4 inch thick so these are appropriate for this lumber as well.
1 box of 3" deck screws, optional. (I used a few of them to anchor the supports to the 4x4's for extra strength).
1 box of 2" deck screws for the decking boards that are about 1 inch thick.
50' of 48 inch wide chicken wire (left, top and right side at about 8 feet each for 25') and 2 front sections at 8 feet each. The total is about 42'.
A box of 3/8 inch staples for your staple gun.
I also used a 3/16 inch drill bit for pilot holes and a Phillips head driver for the screws. This is particularly helpful when securing boards close to the ends because the pilot hole will keep the wood from splitting.
Step 4: Prepare Support Posts and Minimal Lower and Upper Supports.
I used a mark on the first post as a guide to get the remaining three posts to a level depth, and used temporary 2x2's and 2x4's to align them. As you can see in my photograph, I also used temporary diagonal supports at the top. The critical measurement is from corner to corner on the diagonal at both the top and bottom of the structure. It's important that you do NOT build a trapezoid. These four posts are the most critical step so take your time.
Note the outside corners of the posts are exactly 4 foot by 8 foot apart. Also note that because the structure is against the house, the top rear 2x4 support is attached to the top of the posts, and the lower rear deck support is facing forward. See details in the illustrations. I placed the lower deck supports about 1 foot above the ground.
In this state the structure will feel flimsy. It won't be fully rigid until the chicken wire is attached, so be careful.
Step 5: Finish the Lower and Upper Supports.
When the top and bottom supports were complete, I added the two center upright 2x4's. Unfortunately these required notching, but the jigsaw made the job easier. The center upright posts should be centered because the chicken wire is 48 inches wide.
Step 6: Decking, Doors and Clean Out Run Materials List.
pressure treated lumber:
9 each 1"x6"x8' decking
28' (7 each of 4') 2"x2" pressure treated lumber (4 each 8' lengths).
2 each exterior hinges (I used tee hinges but any outdoor hinge should work fine)
1 each exterior hasp
1 each all season lock (optional)
Clean out runs:
12' (3 each of 4') 2"x2" pressure treated lumber (plus several 2" x 2" scraps)
2 each 2"x4"x8' pressure treated lumber
Step 7: Assemble Deck and Face Plates
Make sure to space your deck boards about 1/4 inch apart (official recommendation is 1/8 inch) to facilitate drainage and cleaning. Also note that if you purchase boards that are wet or very damp, they will be swollen and will shrink down when dry. As you can see in this photograph, the boards are almost butt up against each other, but they were extremely wet and are now about 1/4 inch apart.
Next attach the face plate to the two front support posts. This makes the entire front of the habitat flush and provides an anchor for the door hinges.
Step 8: Assemble the Door
The door width will be 4 feet, but you can obviously adjust the height depending on your situation. The door was installed in the front of the habitat because a side door might have interfered with access if we put any hammocks or other summertime outdoor cat furniture in the back left corner.
Most any type of hinge and hasp/latch will do fine. I chose a locking hasp because I didn't want to tempt a neighborhood kid to experiment. I also added a door back stop to keep it from being pushed in by any potential aggressive predators.
Step 9: Assemble Cleanout Runs
You will need 12 feet of 2x2's plus some 2x2 scrap spacers. See photos and illustration.
Step 10: Assemble the Skirts
The skirt is used to close the gap between the house and the habitat should you elect not to attach it to the house as I did. The skirts are attached to the habitat and close the gap to about 1/2 inch (or what ever you are comfortable with to keep a cat from escaping).
4 to 6 1"x6"x8' deck boards. The number of skirts you will need may depend on the distance between the house and the habitat The illustration shows 4 skirts, but I added an additional skirt board along the deck. See the photograph for details on the double skirt stack.
Step 11: Assemble Jumps and Runs.
At this point you are mostly on your own as to what you might provide for the cats to use for jumps and runs, but this is probably the most fun to design based on your cat's personality and needs. I used 2x2 supports as well as additional 1x6 decking lumber and 2x4's. Because a 2x4 is almost (1/4 inch difference) the same height as a 2x2, they can be sandwiched between two 2x2's to make a small ledge or cat walk (although most cats should be able to walk a 2x2).
I provided a walk out pad and several runs and jumps in my original design, then over the years I added a handicap accessible lower jump pad for a wounded kitty and a second perch for when we had visiting cats.
I would recommend that you complete as much inside work as possible before attaching the chicken wire because it gets a bit cramped when the enclosure is complete. Also keep in mind that you will have to navigate inside the structure for maintenance and cleaning.
See photograph of how ours is currently set up.
Note that one side is open enough that I can get in and out, and that is where we put a pvc and polyester cat jungle gym (discussed later).
Step 12: Cover With Chicken Wire
Step 13: Access
It took awhile to find an entry door that would mount to thin plexiglass. The difficulty is that these doors are designed to be installed into an exterior door or wall up to several inches thick. I purchased a medium size dog door that has an 8x11 opening from PetSafe. It is a classic style with aluminum frame and attached magnetic door latch assembly.
The plexiglass was sized by scoring and breaking it to fit the screen opening. I measured the door opening and traced that onto the plexiglass and drilled a hole at each corner. To cut the door opening out I used a dremel tool and cutting disk. I suspect you could use a jigsaw but be careful not to get in a state where the plexiglass is melting and sticking to blade. You could also use thin plywood rather than plexiglass and use a jigsaw.
I placed the aluminum door into the opening and drilled 4 holes through the frame and plexiglass. These holes were wide enough to allow a 1 inch wood screw shank to drop through. Next I cut scrap 3/4 inch plywood into two 1 inch by 12 inch strips (long enough to the span the two holes in the frame).
The four wood screws were used to hold the plexiglass as a sandwich with the aluminum on the inside and the plywood strips on the outside . I'll admit my plexiglass cutting was not very well done, and I really didn't care what the door looked like from the outside.
Because I have a picture framing shop as part of my art business, I used a Fletcher FrameMaster Point Driver to pin the plexiglass to the molding. I believe 1/4 round and some small finishing nails would work well. Keep in mind that although we clean the door monthly in the summer during peak use, I remove, disassemble and deep clean the entire panel once a year.
Finally, note in the photograph that we placed a cat tower within stepping distance of the inside entry door. This is secured with a bungee cord that is attached to the wall with a cup hook.
Step 14: Accruements
We found that a modular PVC and polyester cat jungle gym is great for outdoor use. The system we are using now is 4 years old. We set it up in April and take it down in November. We bought two "Multi Cat Jungle Gym"s (still available from Target) and combined them. We found that the solid polyester hammocks held rain water so now we only use the mesh hammocks outside. I found that Kitty City has a modular system but I didn't see mesh type hammocks.
I use twist ties, visible in the 3 cat photograph, threaded through the chicken wire from the outside to hold the gym in place.
Step 15: Additional Considerations
Some additional thoughts:
Two years ago I added a small roof over the window access. We make the habitat available 24-7 with the exception of temperatures below 15 degrees F. At these temperatures the air leaking around the entry door allows too much cold into the house. Additionally we feel it becomes unsafe for the cats to be out at those temperatures for extended times. Because the window is always open in the summer, I discovered that rain was damaging the molding around the window when it splashed up off the walkout pad. Because of this I added a small roof section (4' x 3') that keeps the window dry and provides a shelter for the cats on rainy days. It was a welcomed addition for both cats and us.
Because of the walkout pad, we cannot see cats that might be directly under the window on the deck. At one point I had two bubble mirrors that were used to check the habitat from inside if we decided to close it due to bad weather. Unfortunately they only lasted about a year. I need to get new ones set up as it is a lot easier than going outside to see if anyone is out there.
We considered staining the habitat but decided not to as I don't know if there is any prolonged effect this could have on the cats. The wood is discolored, but it doesn't particularly bother us. However, one problem with not sanding and finishing the habitat is that longed hair cat's fur gets stuck to the cracks in the wood and is hard to clean. I use a power washer several times a year to gently blast the hair off the wood without splintering it. Then, once a week during the summer I hose it out.
In retrospect I should have done more to protect the inside molding around the entry door from cat claws. I don't have a good solution for this but after 5 years it is noticeable damage. That's next year's modification.
Step 16: Finally, Peace of Mind and a Great Place for the Cats.
As I said at the beginning, we have many cat predators in our neighborhood that keep it clean of strays. Fortunately Spanky likes the habitat, and although we watch him very carefully, we are happy that he is content to lounge outside in the safety of the catitat.
Good luck and happy DIY'ing.
November 24, 2012. After lots of comments about the dangers of using chicken wire for an enclosure to protect the cats from predators I need to remind readers that if you plan to leave your cats in the enclosure without any route of escape, then this construction may not be safe for them. Many have indicated that a fox or raccoon can get through chicken wire, and once inside, with no escape for chickens, it is a disaster.
The primary purpose of my cat habitat is to keep the cats inside the habitat. Only secondary is it an enclosure to keep an aggressive predator out, or to at least slow it down while our cats can safely retreat inside the house. We never seal the cats outside with no escape back into the house.