“Mom, do you call Mrs. Phelan a cat lady because she looks like a cat?”
Smart kid. Mrs. Phelan, who works as an aide at my boy’s school, does have a feline aspect to her. But no — I call her a cat lady because she adores cats — and she’s got a bunch of them. And now that she’s retiring, I’ve offered to find a retirement gift. Something for the cats, I thought. She loves to see others happy.
“We’re cat lovers,” said Mike Chamberlain at Custom Cat Furniture (619-287-6576; [email protected]). “Right now, we have 6, but at one time, we had 24. We’ve been in the cat business for 25 years. For 10 of those years, we ran Squeaks Catique. We folded it about 5 years ago, but we kept the custom-furniture end of the business going. My father-in-law, Ben McGirr, makes the furniture. He just turned 94 the other day and making it keeps him busy, mentally and physically. He’s a retired aerospace engineer, and he’s really sharp — a mathematical wizard. He’s taken his aerospace skills and adapted them to the making of cat condominiums.”
I wasn’t sure if the cat condos included a workout room. Chamberlain laughed and explained, “A cat condo is basically a free-standing structure; they’re also called tree houses. It can have round beds or square beds, and it will have steps on it for the cat to go up and down. People usually order them carpeted, but sometimes they want the bare-wood look. When we do a bare-wood condo, we’ll sometimes use a peeler log. They come in eight-foot lengths; they’re just trees that have been cut down and had the bark stripped off. But as I say, people usually want them carpeted. We generally work with light, beige tones, but we can get whatever you want. We’ve done black, pink, blue, and green. And if the piece is going to be kept outside, we can get indoor/outdoor carpet.”
McGirr is happy to customize the pieces to the customer’s specs. “One piece fit onto a nook by the fireplace. The cat liked to go up on the mantel, so we built a tree house that fit into the corner so the cat could go from the tree house to a shelf to the mantel. Another customer had an entryway with a high ceiling, and there was a window up top. We built him a complex piece for his entryway. We had a 14-foot carpeted ramp that ran from floor to ceiling, right over the tree house, with a bed right below that high window. The cat could go up the ramp to the window or jump off halfway onto the top of the tree house.”
Of course, not every window ledge needs to provide such a lofty perch. “Often, it’s just a piece of wood with carpeting on top and supports underneath that sits over your existing ledge and gives cats a place to sun themselves. We have a long window in our house, and we put a six-foot-long ledge on it. Our cats love it and get up there often.”
Beds are another favorite hangout, and Custom Cat Furniture is happy to make ramps for animals that have trouble making the jump. “They’re usually for cats or dogs that are overweight or that have arthritis. The ramps go up against the bed — we’ll go to the house and measure the height of the bed. If the customer wants steps, we’ll ask how many; if they just want a ramp, we’ll add wooden slats on top of the carpet to give the animal something to grab hold of.”
Chamberlain also sells litter-box enclosures, either freestanding or incorporated into the cat condo. “It’s a wooden box lined with linoleum and covered outside with carpet. It’s sealed to prevent leaks, and it has a lid and a couple of holes on either side. You put your regular litter box inside, and it keeps it hidden — and contains the odors. The cat goes in and out as he pleases.” (Chamberlain noted that the litter-box enclosures, like the larger pieces he sells, are fitted with wheels for ease of movement.)
Chamberlain is able to keep his prices relatively low, he said, because “we’re not trying to make a living from this. We’re just trying to keep my father-in-law busy. Prices will vary depending on a piece’s size and complexity. A basic scratching pole and base will cost $10 or $15. Window ledges range from $30 to $90; ramps, $30 to $85. A litter-box enclosure goes for $40 to $120. The average tree-house price is $80, but our most expensive — it’s a little over six feet tall, and has a swing — is $365. But I think that something like that, if you bought it in a store, would cost $400 to $600. Also, we make our steps and beds wider to accommodate multiple cats or a larger cat. I’ve seen cat furniture with inky-dinky steps and beds, and there just isn’t enough room for a larger cat to enjoy himself. And we also re-carpet old cat furniture [$40-$80]. If your cat loves something and you’re afraid they won’t like a new piece, we can just recover it.”
Finally, I spoke with Ian Schoen of Modern Cat Designs in Carlsbad (877-977-8733; moderncatdesigns.com), which offers two modern-style cat condos. “They’re made with steel frames,” explained Schoen, “and they’re available in chocolate or beige. We’re producing furniture that fits with the modern lifestyle at an affordable price. The pieces assemble easily in five minutes due to a unique pin system. And the scratch pads are made from foam and covered with a cross-woven fabric that won’t unravel when cats scratch it. They have an opportunity to really dig their claws in.” The 42-inch-tall model, which “has an upstairs and a downstairs and promotes perching and vertical scratching,” costs $199.95. The short model runs $119.95.