More Americans adapt their houses for the comfort of four-legged pals
By Sandy Robins
updated 1:12 p.m. PT, Thurs., Feb. 9, 2006
Cheryl and John Leonard of Irvine, Calif., have a unique timeshare arrangement with their cats. Monday through Friday the felines have complete run of the spacious house. They can climb on counters and snooze wherever they like.
On weekends, the menagerie is confined to a specially-designed apartment with easy access to a secure outdoor living area. Then the Leonards pull off the white dust covers that keep their designer furniture fur-free and settle down to enjoy time alone in their home.
“The house is more theirs than ours,” explains Cheryl Leonard. “After all, they are at home all day while I’m out working so it only seems right to cater to their needs. And on weekends when we sit outdoors or entertain, they can see us from their outdoor enclosure, which has a little patch of grass for them to nibble on, staircases and ledges that allow them to enjoy the sunshine and continue to feel involved in all activities.”
The Leonards’ beagle “Daisy” has the run of the yard by day, including a fenced-off doggie play area.
As more Americans consider themselves “pet parents,” it’s not surprising that they are adapting their homes and lifestyles to their furry family members.
“Animals want the same things that humans do and people need to understand that,” says Leonard. “They want companionship and to be kept clean and secure. They also want their personal space. Naturally, we took all this into account when we remodeled the home.”
So what does it take for a home to qualify as pet-friendly?
“It’s not just a matter of being pet-friendly, but rather a question of giving your pets environmental enrichment,” say San Diego-based animal photographer Bob Walker and his artist wife, Frances Mooney.
Walker and Mooney are widely considered initiators of the fast-growing pet environmental enrichment trend in America, a movement that includes adding fancy furnishings, window seats and elaborate play structures to give lucky four-legged friends a place to escape or nap. Manufacturers like Midnight Pass in Norwell, Mass., are tapping into the fad with multi-story kitty condos and tunnel systems that can be set up either indoors or on patios or gardens to allow pets to safely enjoy sunshine and fresh air.
Customizing a home can run from several hundred dollars for an enclosed mesh tunnel for cats or small dogs up to thousands for customized interior structures.
Walker and Mooney had five cats when they moved into their suburban home in the late 1980s and decided to transform it into a feline adventure park. It is still a work in progress.
A floor-to-ceiling scratching column covered in 395 feet of pink-dyed sisal and connected to a wall-to-wall beam just below ceiling height was the first change. The scratching column provided their kitties a launching pad to an overhead fun zone.
“Initially, the cats would run full speed down the hall chasing each other, go up and over the top of the two couches and climb up the column and race along the beam and hit a dead end where it connected to the wall,” says Walker.
So the cats wouldn’t be trapped by the wall, Walker and Mooney extended the beams through the walls, running them from room to room to create 140 feet of cat pathways. They added more kitty roaming space with ramps and staircases.
These walkways of discovery and adventure lead to ceiling-high hiding-holes and lookout stations, because as Walker explains, “everyone knows cats like to look down on us.”
The couple’s experience tailoring their home for their frisky felines led to the best-selling books, “The Cat’s House” and “Cats into Everything.”
“We had an open house when we launched the book and 900 people passed through in the first four hours,” says Walker, who now customizes interior design layout for cat lovers.
For those interested in making their home more pet-friendly, Walker says, owners should consider their pet’s individual needs. “Leave enough space from the walls for wide-berthed cats to be able to turn around. Spiral staircases are great for youngsters but elderly cats prefer ramps.”
“And whatever you design, ensure that it has human access,” warns Mooney. “Cats hide when they are frightened or ill and you need to be able to get to them at all times.”
Environmental enrichment for dogs means redefining outside areas in canine terms.
Betsy Martin and Kevin Kipnis of Hollywood, Calif., had to get permission from the Los Angeles City Council to build a unique two-story dog house.
“Our house is so small we needed to give them space to sleep and play while we were out at work,” says Martin.
When the design team from the TV show “Monster House” was looking for a backyard to customize for dogs, they jumped at the chance.
The 400-foot Colonial-styled dog house is the new home to the couple’s adopted shelter dogs. A huge play area leads out to a bone-shaped swimming pool and a fire hydrant water fountain. A ramp leads upstairs to three individually-decorated bedrooms.
“The dogs love to stand on the upstairs balcony and spy on the neighbors,” says Martin, who admits that on hot summer nights she and Kipnis hang out there, too.
Areas to stop and sniff
But dogs can be tough on backyards and gardens, notes landscape expert Fran Kiesling.
“Boredom is a huge problem for dogs as it leads to destructive behavior,” says Kiesling of Dirty Dog Landscape Consulting and Design Service in Minneapolis, Minn. “It’s important to keep a dog engaged outside otherwise they will dig and chew and wear paths through the lawn.”
Training is critical, she says. Simple commands like “Go play” and “No play” can teach a pup the difference between play areas and those that are off-limits.
“Environmental enrichment has to take into account the dog’s breed and inherent personality, the limitations of the area concerned, and your own proclivity for maintenance,” explains Kiesling. “Dogs don’t understand property lines and flat spaces. They need verticality created [barriers] with shrubs or fencing. Also they don’t understand the difference between a dead stick and part of a newly planted shrub. It all smells the same so they have to be taught not to chew.”
Path systems appeal to a dog’s need to explore and investigate, providing areas where they can stop and sniff.
“A section of log that will decompose over time surrounded by ornamental grasses or perennials creates a wonderful sniff area,” she says. “Be sure to check your plants aren’t poisonous to animals or thorny.”
Ponds or water areas should be very shallow with sloping sides for easy access. Elevated mounds give a dog’s-eye view of the terrain.
“If you don’t have a natural rise, create one, put modular decking down and add a dog house as a snooze zone,” says Kiesling.
Redesigned pet-friendly spaces have become so popular they’ve even got their own term, “barkitecture,” to describe some of the one-of-a-kind dog house designs. The industry has a number of competitions around the country where designers and contractors create customized dog houses that are subsequently auctioned off to raise funds for animal charities.
Being “in the doghouse” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re, well, “ruffing” it in a customized “pug-oda” or an ultra-modern, feng shui doggy domicile.
Sandy Robins is an award-winning freelancer writer based in Irvine, Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.
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