Building a 'catio': Why I spent Dh3,000 on an outside space for my four rescue cats

I had ideas of creating a social outdoor space in my new Abu Dhabi villa, but I also knew I needed to make it special for my pets, too

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"Do you think it's too much or not enough?" I ask Ernesto as he takes measurements in the backyard. Even though it's May and the temperatures have warmed, he seems enthused to be outside and with the choice of space I've given him. "No, they'll love it," he reassures me.

It may seem silly to some, but when recently shifting houses in Abu Dhabi, I had to consider what my cats would also enjoy. When I finally moved into a two-storey villa (which offered a staircase for them to get in more exercise), I also took note of the backyard, trying to figure out how to best utilise it.

These pampered cats have their very own catio

These pampered cats have their very own catio

Having lived in apartment buildings for the past six years, this was the first time I had my own outdoor area. I had thoughts of hanging up lights and hosting my friends for a barbecue night – but I also knew I had to do something for my cats.

After all, my four rescues had always been cooped up indoors, so it seemed fair to share the space with them, too.

The backyard space - before the catio was built. Evelyn Lau / The National
The backyard space - before the catio was built. Evelyn Lau / The National

Creating a safe space for my cats

I was recommended Ernesto by a friend who had recently used him to build a small catio (yes, a patio for cats) in her villa. After getting in touch, I sent him a photo of my backyard and asked if he had any ideas on how to best make use of the space. He came back to me with two drawings outlining possible ideas.

Once I settled on a design, we agreed upon a price – Dh3,000 in total – and we were off. In all, the project only took three days for him to build after taking measurements of the space.

Some people might wonder why I don't just let my cats roam outside as some of my neighbours do. Indeed, I've had a few cats (some stray, others clearly pets) visit my backyard or even my front door looking for food. Even my family's cats back in the US are free to roam, only usually coming back at night when my mum calls for them. But for me, I just didn't want to risk it.

The idea of something happening to one of them if they were allowed out around the neighbourhood would be too heartbreaking. After all, they were all rescued from the streets at one point, with one needing to be nursed back to health after she was found dumped, matted and malnourished.

Too often I hear stories of pets getting into fights with other stray cats or, even worse, getting accidentally run over. In my mind, it seemed a catio was the best solution as it allowed them to enjoy the outdoors while also staying in a safe space.

A new world for them to enjoy

So far, it's been about a week since the catio was completed and my cats seem to be enjoying it. All four have ventured out at least once to explore. Suddenly, they're able to see birds more closely without a window pane in the way. I like to imagine this new world is one they are quite happy with.

Evelyn Lau's cats Georgie and Zabeeb enjoying the catio
Evelyn Lau's cats Georgie and Zabeeb enjoying the catio

However, it is still a work in progress. I'm hoping to eventually add more interactive elements so they don't feel like they're just stuck in a big cage. I've added an old cat tree as well as a scratching post, with more ideas to come later.

But for now, they're able to get fresh air and sunlight and I get the peace of mind of knowing they'll be OK.

One of my Arabian Mau cats loves it so much, he spends all evening sprawled out on the top ledge. I like to joke that he's no longer part of the family; he's gone to the world, he's an outdoor cat now.

But, of course, I know that thanks to having a secured catio, that he'll be back inside sooner or later.