DIY Regrets: The Cat Shelves My Cat Hated and Wouldn’t Use

DIY Regrets: The Cat Shelves My Cat Hated and Wouldn’t Use

Nothing will humble you faster than trying to build something nice for a feline friend.
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Welcome to DIY Regrets, a series that celebrates the middling successes, and downright failures that come from embracing the do-it-yourself lifestyle.

Owning a cat is a constant exercise in humiliation. Every time you pat the couch and chirp "come up here!," the cat is more likely to yawn and walk away. Digby, my eight-year old rescue cat, is a sweetie who sleeps in my arms every night—but at least once a day, she looks at me blankly when I motion for her to sit with me. Cat ownership keeps you humble. I am prepared to fail in most parts of life, but none more so than attempting to entertain the cat.

When my husband and I moved to Los Angeles last year, we were slightly overwhelmed by the task of decorating the apartment. It has ugly walls that are covered with an interior design trick known online as The Landlord Special (slapping an inch-thick layer of the cheapest white paint available over any surface, dirt, or imperfections). ​​A lot of the decorating we did in that period was tinged with self-conscious anxiety. In our previous apartment in D.C., we had little space for form over function and knew we would move out West eventually, so we mostly kept leftover Craigslisted furniture from our previous shared houses. Now, we suddenly had a blank canvas, and nothing stopping us filling it other than the limits of our own imaginations (and our lease). What type of art would we put up? Would it have a theme, or just try to look cool? What colors even go together? My husband is colorblind, so that task was all mine.

With more wall space to use and a desire to fill it fast, I quickly settled on putting in some climbing shelves for Digby. We found a perfect set from Etsy, from a store aptly named CatWallFurniture, with four small steps and one larger perch, covered in gray carpet and pre-drilled for mounting.

I was not prepared for the depths of failure I would reach.

Be aware of your own capabilities

In building the shelves for Digby, I became acutely aware of the gaps in my knowledge. It was my first time using a power drill, let alone owning one. I messaged a friend with a lot of Dad Cred to ask embarrassing questions about drill types and finding studs. So when we attempted to screw the anchors that came with the shelves into the wall, and the anchors resolutely would not go all the way in, turning and churning the drywall out, it was an emotional setback. The tip of a metal anchor snapped off in the wall. What new failure had I invented?

But with perseverance, we figured out the problem. We had moved from the East Coast, where the problems facing construction are slightly different—namely that there is much less chance the earth will suddenly shift beneath you. In some buildings out here, particularly earthquake-prone areas, the traditional drywall-between-studs setup that all the guides prepare you for is slightly different. Here, the drywall between the studs is backed with a sheet of plywood, which is great once you know about it—with long enough screws, you can mount directly into the board, no anchors needed. With just one trip to locally cherished Baller Hardware, we secured the longer screws, patched our failures, and drilled confidently, praying I wasn’t actually drilling into a pipe. It worked. The steps were solid.

Measure once, then measure twice. And measure a third time

Many cat owners are familiar with the experience of buying their cat a toy or bed, only to find them more interested in the box it came in. We had thought such an enormous swing could so easily turn into a big miss. That it didn’t felt miraculous. After a few days of scaredy cat behavior, Digby started climbing up—first with encouragement, then of her own accord. She would flow, otter-like, up and down the steps, and catch toys when we threw them up there.

There was just one problem: The final step, the perch, was just a bit too small even for Digby’s petite size. She could stand up on it, but I had envisioned her snoozing on it, an incompetent sentry above us. A couple times I saw her trying to lie down, with her sad rump hanging over the edge. This would not do.

Know before you go

CatWallFurniture did sell other options for bigger beds, but they were expensive, and I already felt silly for spending $88 on the first set. And, I thought, isn’t it ultimately just a big piece of wood and a bracket that I could get at Home Depot? What if I bought a piece of wood—perhaps even one measured to Digby’s exact size—and did it myself? I was high on success. I was the picture of hubris.

The shelf would need something soft on top, like the carpet on the Etsy steps. I searched for a cat bed that would fit, but came up short. Well, I scoffed, what’s so hard about making a cat bed, which is just a bit of foam in a pillowcase? In the attempt to keep costs down, after my husband gently suggested that the time and expense necessary for this project was approaching the cost of just buying another on Etsy, I put out a request for foam on the local Buy Nothing group. A kind soul gave me some, but it was too thick and too narrow.

Off to JoAnn Fabrics I went, looking for that good foam. (I am omitting hours of online research between each step here.) It was about $14. Then there was the glue, and the velcro strips I got to attach the pillow to the shelf—so I could remove it for washing—and the pins, for sewing.

Next was HomeDepot. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I was under the impression that you could ask them to cut off a piece of one of the big long wooden boards they sell, and you could pay just for that part. The checkout worker, herself confused by my misapprehension, told me it would be $35 for this 12x16 piece of wood. I paid for my brackets and practically ran away, the shame of Obviously Not Knowing What I’m Doing rising.

But whatever, Home Depot: With more Googling, I realized I could get a piece of wood exactly this size at Michaels. It’s meant to be used as a plaque for mounting, but she doesn’t know the difference. That was about $18. Costs were mounting, and you can be sure I was not going to add them up.

All that was left was for me to go back to Baller Hardware for more of the right length of screws, sew (by hand) a pillowcase to go over the piece of foam, sew velcro strips onto that, glue the other side of the velcro to the piece of wood, drill holes in the right place on the wood, then mount it to the wall. None of this frightened me now. I was a DIY master, making my own future.

I cut up a very pretty Opalhouse pillowcase that didn’t fit our pillows. I sewed. I glued. It did not hold, so I went in again with better glue. The pillowcase fit my foam. "This is how I win," said Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, and now me. Mounting this one was a piece of cake. The shelf was the perfect size, aligned with the rest; the pillowcase was precious, positioned so she could see out of our patio door. It did not feel like it would fall, most importantly.

I placed Digby gingerly on it, as I had with the other steps, and she darted away like it was made of lava. No problem, I thought—it took her a few days to get used to the others, and it’ll take her a few days to get used to this.

Accept failure

The homemade shelf went up in September. It is now March, and I have seen Digby use that shelf of her own accord once. Every other time her paws have touched it, they had been placed there by me, or I had snuck catnip under the pillowcase. I tried removing the pillow, thinking perhaps she interpreted its plushness as instability; no interest. I tried buying a sisal scratching pad and placing that on there, thinking she would want to scratch it; nothing. I gave up. The scratching pad lives in a cardboard box on the floor now. I suggested that maybe she’d like the shelf if the scratcher was glued firmly down, so it doesn’t slide around, but as my husband pointed out, she loves the box-pad so much more. It would be wrong to take it away.

This is what we must remember when buying things for cats: Whatever product is that you want them to enjoy, what matters more is what they actually like. Maybe just don’t buy things for your cats, and if you do, pre-accept defeat. Don’t expect that your cat will like something that is almost exactly the same thing as something she loves. Don’t tell your husband that you are doing things like this, and hide the JoAnn Fabrics receipts.

More than anything, learn to quit while you’re ahead, and know when you have gone too far. Anyway, I must go—the second scratching pad I ordered is here, and I have to glue it to Digby’s shelf.

Illustration by Danny Miller

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