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How a Seattle designer builds safe, outdoor spaces for cats

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Catio Spaces wants to let cats outside—while keeping both cats and wildlife safe

Cynthia Chomos with her cat, Serena, in one of her own catios.
Courtesy of Catio Spaces

Cynthia Chomos was never a cat person—that is, until a neighbor’s cat found her as she was gardening in her Crown Hill backyard.

“My neighbor’s cat wandered my way and started hanging out with me when I got into gardening,” said Chomos. “I had joint custody for a while but she ended up becoming my cat.”

But it wasn’t until she adopted her current cat, Serena, that Chomos, a feng shui consultant and color designer, started to get an idea: “Why not do feng shui for felines,” Chomos explained, “outdoor spaces that create an enriching environment?”

That idea—and a desire to keep Serena safe—led to Chomos building her first escape-proof outdoor enclosure for cats, known as catios. “When I got this itty-bitty thing I was like, protection,” she recalled.

Chomos built her first catio just for herself in 2013, but by the spring of 2014, she had started building structures for other people. That led to starting her business, Catio Spaces.

“There’s been a lot of stress that’s been associated with the indoor outdoor issue,” Chomos explained. “A lot of cat parents feel guilty [keeping cats inside], but we have to keep our cats safe.”

Catios, she said, are “the best of both worlds: safety and enrichment.”

Sarah Anne Lloyd

Top left: The front of Chomos’s house features an additional window-box space. Right and below: Chomos’s first catio enclosure.

But it’s not just about safety for cats. “Another big reason I do it is to protect birds and wildlife,” she explained. Outdoor cats can wreak havoc on wildlife; according to the American Bird Conservancy, domestic cats have contributed to the extinction of 33 bird species, killing 2.4 billion birds each year in the United States alone.

Chomos’s custom builds across Seattle “can go from simple to luxurious,” she said, and typically range from about $1,500 to $4,500. Build-outs have ranged from enclosed window boxes to elaborate backyard cat networks—all designed to blend with the home.

“One of my goals was to really do designs that harmonize with the house and the garden rather than look like an unsightly cage,” explained Chomos. “They can be painted, stained, and of course decorated—and I have an outdoor litter box [in mine], which is never a substitute for an indoor one, of course.”

But as catios rose in popularity—and she started getting calls from around the world—she started making downloadable, DIY plans available on her website starting at just under $40 “for cat guardians across the country or cat parents that want to build one themselves.” 10 percent of the sale of DIY plans to go animal welfare organizations.

The bigger builds, like the one in her own backyard, are “large spaces for cat-human bonding,” she said. “It’s good for us to get outside and be in nature and spend time with our cats.” Space for bonding can scale small, too: One client in NYC even built out one of the smaller enclosures with enough room for a human on a high-rise balcony.

For her own creations, Chomos uses wood framing, and then 14 or 16 gauge, galvinized wire. “Typical wire you would get at Lowe’s or Home Depot would be two-by-three,” she notes for people building their own. “We typically use two-by-two or one-by-one but a two-by-three is perfectly safe.”

Two catio enclosures built by Catio Spaces.
Courtesy of Catio Spaces

After building the structure, Chomos will add in details for the cats, like cedar shelving, carpeted perches, and cat-safe plants like catnip and cat grass. For those building their own, she points to the ASPCA’s plant database as a good resource for what’s okay to have in cat enclosures.

Sarah Anne Lloyd

What started out as one enclosure in Chomos’s backyard gradually became a large network of outdoor spaces for Serena—an example of what one of her more elaborate buildouts can become. After the first enclosure, Chomos wanted Serena to be able to watch her bird bath, so she built a tunnel out to an arbor. Another wing eventually stretched out from there, leading to a “cat nap” catio with grass to lounge in, a structure for climbing, and a peaked roof.

Sarah Anne Lloyd

“There’s no better sound than the flap of the door knowing she’s going out on an adventure or coming back from one,” said Chomos. “I love that she’s enjoying her life.”

That extends to others’ cats, too. “I meet some compassionate cat parents and there’s nothing better at the end of the day when the cat steps into the catio,” she said. “I leave knowing I’ve made a difference in the cat’s life, and the cat parent’s [life] as well.”