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Strengthen and Extend Your Cat Tree With a Cubbyhole Activity Centre

My aim with DIY projects around the home is to look for innovative space-saving ideas and save costs on materials by recycling.

Greebo using cat tree

Greebo using cat tree

How to Guide on Remodelling Your Cat Tree With a Cubbyhole Activity Centre

Our cats love their cat tree, the more we extend it the more they like it. However they are part Maine Coon and as such the big brother now weighing 17Ibs puts a lot of strain on the cat tree to the extent that although its safe it does wobble a bit like a tree when hes on the top most platform.

Therefore in this article I take you on my journey from our pet cats first scratching post and platform to their present cat tree, and on the way explain, demonstrate and illustrate how we strengthened these to accommodate the weight and size of our Maine Coon cats, and how we utilised the old cats scratching posts and platform to strengthen and extend their new cat tree.

Maine Coon Cats

All of a size can be challenging

Anyone who has a Maine Coon cat as a pet for the first time will soon come to realize what a challenge their weight and size can be in finding suitable cat toys and activity centres that are big enough and strong enough to support their weight and size.

Our cats, Greebo and Dippy (brother and sister) are only half-breed Maine Coons crossed bred with an ordinary Moggy (An affectionate British name for domestic housecat). Dippy has taken after her mother but her brother who can reach 3ft when he stands up on his hind legs and weighing at 17Ibs. is typical Maine Coon; just like his father.

Maine Coons evolved from the offspring of the domestic short hair cats' resident in the state of Maine, New England, north-eastern United States of America, with long haired cats introduced to the state of Maine; brought over on-board ships from Europe, most likely England from what little historical information exists. Although these two cat breeds in themselves where just like any other domestic cat their feral offspring quickly adapted to the local Maine environment, becoming bigger and stronger and endowed with two thick fur coats ideally suited for the Maine climate. Their fur coats consist of two layers, a very soft and well insulated under fur coat with a thick water resistant top coat; making this breed of cat very soft and fluffy.

This new breed of cat initially, initially feral in the state of Maine, due to their size and strength are excellent hunters who naturally played a big role in keeping vermin under control on farmsteads so not surprisingly close bonding between farmers and cat and eventual domestication was a forgone certainty. The early Maine Coons were predominantly large long haired tabbies although these days come in a variety of colours.

The striking features of Maine Coons are their size, intelligence and placid nature. A Maine Coons typically weigh 20Ibs or more and can reach up to 3ft or more when they stand on their hind legs; making them over twice the size and weight of an ordinary domestic cat. They also have a high level of intelligence, brighter than most cats, so they are good at solving problems when they want to; and very striking is their placid nature, often referred to as 'gentle giants'.

Greebo, our Maine Coon cat

Greebo, our Maine Coon cat

Cat Scratching Posts and Platform

Cats love platforms and scratching posts saves your carpets and furniture

When we first had Greebo and Dippy (brother and sister) as kittens we were told they were half Maine Coon but didn't fully appreciate the significance of this until Greebo (who takes after his father) grew too big to fit through the cat flap. I quickly resolved this by replacing the cat flap with a small dog flap.

When we had Greebo and Dippy as kittens we treated them to a cat scratching post which they took to straight away and loved; it also included two dangly cat toy balls, one fixed on either side of the scratching post with plastic rods. Greebo with his typical Maine Coon strength quickly broke one of the plastic rods supporting one of the cat toy balls but the other has survived albeit I've had to retie the plastic ball back to the rod a few times.

Seeing how much they loved their scratching post, and how much use it was getting (protecting our carpets and furniture) we treated them to a second, bigger and better, cat starching post; this time with a platform. And they loved it even more, now they could sit on their platform to gaze out through the French doors onto their back garden domain; which they do frequently.

However, this scratching post and platform wasn't designed for Maine Coon cats. Dippy, who takes after her mother, is more like an ordinary pet cat and can easily get through the cat tunnel; which she does frequently when playing, but her big brother, taking after his father, is all Maine Coon and is far too large for the tunnel. Also, as he grew he quickly became far too big and heavy for the platform so it wasn't' long before it broke under his weight. This was easily fixed by screwing a couple of wooden battens on either side of the top of the wooden post for additional support and bolting a couple of pieces of decking firmly to the centre post. The decking I made was much larger than the original platform and more fitting for a Maine Coon cat of Greebo's size.

Cat scratching post

Cat scratching post

Cat Trees You Buy

Cat trees generally use the same type of material and construction. They all have good reviews and the multilevel platforms join all the main cat tree trunks together adding to their strength and stability. The condos as with all condos on cat trees will be far too small for Maine Coon cats but more than big enough for most other cat breeds; this shouldn’t be an issue if you own a Maine Coon as they will quite happily sit on top of the condos and use them as platforms.

Cat Trees Suitable for Maine Coons

Bigger is Better

Finding the right cat tree for your cat and your home, can be a challenge. For your cat (whether they're Maine Coon or not) the bigger the better, but this has to be balanced against what will sensibly fit into your home.

If you have plenty of spare space then go for it and get the biggest you can afford; your cats will love it. However, in our case we have a typical British home which isn't particularly large so the only suitable area (until we build a conservatory) is limited floor space in front of the French doors. A location for the cat tree our cats love because it means they can sit on the platforms and survey their back garden.

Therefore, in looking for the most suitable cat tree for us and our cats we needed something that was quite small (with a small floor area) and strong enough to take the weight of a Maine Coon. Our choice was a modest cat tree that had a good review from a Maine Coon owner, with the proviso from her that it wobbles a little when her cat uses it. We bought the cat tree on the strength of that review and sure enough it is a strong construction (for the most part), and although well suited for ordinary domestic housecats does wobble a little (like a tree) when Greebo is on the top platform; but sturdy enough so as not to topple.

Many of the larger cat trees have interconnections between the various branches making the whole construction more rigid and therefore more suited to large cats like Maine Coons.

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Below are some of the inherent weaknesses of our cat tree and how we overcame them to make it stronger and more suitable of Maine Coons, while at the same time extending its height to make it an even greater activity centre for our cats.

Greebo on cat tree

Greebo on cat tree

Modifying, Strengthening and Extending Your Cat Tree

Observe and make notes before designing your modifications

Requiring a modest cat tree, small enough to fit the available floor space, we bought one on the strength of a review reassuring us that it would support the weight of a Maine Coon. And yes it is generally strong enough although there are a couple of weaknesses that could so easily be improved upon with little added expense. Namely the top platform should be solid wood, or plywood rather than MDF so that it doesn't shear through the central supporting bolt under the sheer weight of heavy cats like Maine Coons, and the base needs weighting down with much heavier wood.

The top platform (although solidly bolted down by one bolt in the centre) is only 18mm MDF which unlike solid wood or plywood just rips away from the bolt fitting under the weight of a 17Ib. Maine Coon cat. Also, with the main cat tree being just one column, with a heavy cat on the top platform it acts like a leaver on the base causing it to move; indicating the base needs weighting down or securely fixing to a solid base. Obviously on larger cat trees this isn't generally a problem because they tend to have interconnection platforms, bridges and tunnels that help to tie the whole tree together and make it more rigid.

When we first got the cat tree we didn't make any modifications straightaway because we wanted time to observe how our cats use it and to determine what the weak points maybe; therefore we let our cats use their new activity centre for a few months before making the changes described below.

Dippy on cat tree

Dippy on cat tree

Making Modifications on a Shoestring Budget

Having decided we needed to make modifications to our cat tree to strengthen it and to take the opportunity to extend it at the same time I decided that having spent a lot of money on buying a good cat tree that I would do this DIY project on a shoestring budget using existing materials in my shed.

Repurposing Old Scratching Posts to Strengthen and Extend the Cat Tree

Fortunately I kept our old cat scratching posts, one with a platform, envisaging that I might be able to incorporate them into the new cat tree. Therefore the first step was to take a few measurements of the cat tree (specifically the length and width of the base) and available floor space. Then armed with a cup of coffee I made my way down to the shed where I could sit down comfortably for half an hour and survey the available reclaimed wood at my disposal to determine which bits scrap wood I could use for this DIY project.

I quickly eyed some contiboard (laminated chipboard) panels from a dismantled wardrobe a friend gave me as recycled scrap wood. These pieces I envisaged as ideal for the top, bottom and back to an open front cubbyhole in which the old scratching post would fit; and for the sides I spied a couple of shelves from an old hi-fi unit that looked about the right size. This new cubbyhole for the cats would form a solid base that the cat tree could be securely bolted to, making it more stable; without increasing the floor space and at the same time increasing the height of the tree, which I was condiment the cats would love.

However before rushing headlong into making the cats' new cubbyhole I wanted to strengthen the cat tree first; just in case I wanted to utilise and parts from the old scratching posts. So after getting another cup of coffee I sat down in the shed for another half hour while I thought through the next phase of this DIY project. In considering the problems and finding the solutions the main trunk of the cat tree is solid, the weak points were the platform at the top and the strain placed on the bottom of the trunk by the whole trunk acting as a leaver when Greebo (a Maine Coon cat at 17Ibs) sits on the top platform.

As it turned out the top platform was easy to resolve. I could have replaced the existing platform with solid wood and or plywood and bolted that straight into the top of the trunk. Except the bolt is solidly fixed into the top of the trunk and is only 18mm so I would have needed to use quite thin plywood to bolt down onto the trunk and then a much thicker and stronger piece of wood or plywood securely fixed to the top of the thin plywood. A much simpler solution was to use the base of the original scratching post as the replacement platform. Unlike the platform I was replacing the base from the original scratching post still had the screwed fitting solidly fixed into the MDF. To keep it that way so that it can't pull through the MDF, like was happening on the platform I was replacing; I used a thin sheet of square metal I found in the shed. I drilled a 10mm hole in the centre of the metal square to take the bolt and a 4mm hole in each corner of the metal so that it could be firmly screwed to the underside of the replacement platform, as shown in the photos below.

To help spread the load of a cat sitting on the top platform a ramp is fixed to the bottom of the three platforms, which for an ordinary housecat is fine, but for a Maine Coon cat more is need to spread the load at the bottom of the trunk further. For this I decided to add a piece of timber between the base and the bottom platform as an extra support and as I had already used the base from their original scratching post I decided I would use the scratching post itself as the outer cover to the additional support. Fortunately the tube of the scratching post was just the right size to slip over the timber I wanted to use so all I had to do was cut them both to size (to neatly fit between the base and bottom platform) and firmly screw the timber into place from top and bottom.

Raw materials for making a cat cubbyhole

Raw materials for making a cat cubbyhole

Making a Cat Cubbyhole as an Activity Centre for Cats

Utilising an old cat scratching post to transform a cubbyhole into an activity centre

Having made minor repairs to our cat tree and strengthening, as described above, the next woodworking task in remodelling the cat furniture was to make the cubbyhole as the new solid base to our cat tree and at the same time extend its height. I also wanted to incorporate one of the old cat's scratching posts into the design of the cubbyhole as a simple way of turning it into an activity centre for our cats.

Having already selected the scrap wood which I was going to recycle into this DIY project it was just a simple task of cutting all the pieces of wood to size and screwing them all together with the old cats scratching post built into it. As it happened all the pieces of wood I'd chosen where ideal lengths so all that was required to make them the correct size was to cut just a couple of inches of the height of the back piece and an inch off the height of the side pieces. I also found a piece of thick hardboard that made an ideal extended base for the old scratching post to tie it neatly into the new cubbyhole; I only needed to cut a couple of inches of the length of that for an ideal fit.

The only other cutting needed was a slot in the back panel for one of the dangly cat toys (attached to the old scratching post) to fit through the back of the cubbyhole, and a small recess on one of the side panels to fit the dangly toy from the other scratching post I'd dismantled for spare parts to strengthen the cat tree.

As our cats old scratching post and platform was to be the central piece, building the cubbyhole around it I started by placing the scratching post upside down on top of the top panel of cubbyhole. Then building up from there I added the sided pieces and then the bottom last; screwing it all firmly into place as I proceeded. I left the platform on the old scratching post as a solid base to screw into not only to make the cubbyhole solid and rigid but also to form a solid and rigid base to bolt the cat tree to as a practical and safe way of extending the height of the cat tree.

Cat cubbyhole and activity centre made from scrap wood and old cat scratching posts

Cat cubbyhole and activity centre made from scrap wood and old cat scratching posts

Safely Extending the Height of Your Cat Tree

I can't think of a simpler or safer way of elevating the height of a modest cat tree other than securely bolting it to a base cupboard; provided the cupboard is broader and wider than the cat tree to maintain and improve the centre of gravity so the cat tree doesn't become top heavy; and provided the cupboard is solid and can safely take the weight of the cat tree.

You don't have to make your own cat cupboard for this purpose, you could use or adapt any old (second-hand) piece of furniture that's suitable; or you could do as I did and make a bespoke cubbyhole for your cats (cats love cupboards). And with a little imagination even take it a little further and turn it into an activity centre.

In any event, having made a cubbyhole for your cat or adapted a suitable and solid cupboard as a base to extend your cat tree the two needs to be firmly bolted together. For safety the cat tree must be bolted, using coach bolts, and not just screwed down. Specifically due to their height any load exerted at the top of the cat tree will apply a stronger energy force at the base of the tree that will loosen the screws making the whole structure unsafe; whereas if it's bolted down securely onto it a base unit as descried in this article then it stays bolted down.

As shown in the photos below, once I'd installed our new extended cat tree with its new cubbyhole play activity centre at the base our cats immediately took to it, and love it.

My Video of Our Cats Playing on Their Cat Tree

Cats having fun at playtime

This video made be me are highlights of 20 minutes of interactive play with our cats using dangly things on sticks and other cat toys while they play on their cat tree.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Arthur Russ

Your Comments and Views on Cats and Cat Trees

Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 16, 2017:

Thank you all for your comments and feedback, and yes anonymous, I like to think if they had a choice Greebo and Dippy would have chosen us; we try to make them feel its their home as much as we can.

CherylsArt on June 29, 2013:

Good idea to extend your current cat tree!

CherylsArt on June 29, 2013:

Good idea to extend your current cat tree!

anonymous on April 05, 2013:

I think Greebo and Dippy saw you coming an picked you because they are so smart and just knew that you would be able to make adjustments for their special needs in a big way and you came through for them....they look like royalty to me! :)

SquidooPower on March 28, 2013:

According to my cats, I'll go before the cat tree does. Moral of the story? If you have cats, get a cat tree.

ChristyZ on March 21, 2013:

This is an excellent lens! It deserves a purple star. Your cats are adorable and I've actually always wondered how people make their own cat trees. I might try making one this summer.

moonlitta on March 21, 2013:

These are cute looking fellows. Cuddly as plush but more fun than the toys:)

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