I had a near miss with Charm and the bathroom window screen yesterday so I’m sharing my article on keeping cats safe by open, screened windows with this and my experience with nearly my entire household escaping from a damaged window screen years ago—which may have significantly changed the story of my life with cats had I not rounded them all up and gotten them back inside.
NOTE: If your cat has escaped your home please read Your Indoor-only Cat Got Out the Door!
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I’ve been keeping an eye on Charm in the bathroom, concerned about her being able to push out the window screen in the bathroom. She is a good mom but a little tired of being cooped up with the kittens. She is also not spayed yet and recently lived entirely outdoors; dangerous as that might have been she handled it well and likely enjoyed it. But with experience I don’t put anything past an unspayed female cat, even if she is in a closed room on the second floor of the house.
The bathroom window has an expanding screen, sturdy but several years old and well-used. The window itself is a good window but the original screen from that window was thin, and poorly made and came apart at the bottom from Kelly sleeping on the windowsill in 2012 (more on that great escape below). I rescreened it and tried to reinforce the frame and screen itself but that didn’t make it durable enough so I got the expanding one. I placed it under the upper window and keep the lower window partway down to make it difficult to get a paw up to the top, and have a binder clip holding it in at the bottom and keeping the two leaves pushed against the window frame. Over the years it had bent and it wasn’t meeting the window at the top.
I had been closing the window most of the way when I wasn’t in the bathroom with Charm and the kittens, but yesterday was hot and I was in the studio all day and stepped over to the bathroom to visit the kittens about every half hour when I took little breaks from my art. Charm hasn’t shown much of an interest in the window aside from a few peeks and she’d been comfortable ensconced in the sink for a while. But in early evening when I went in to feed them dinner and she wasn’t in the sink or the tub or the cubby by the tub or under the cabinet—the only possible places to hide—I looked at the screen and could see it was just a little buckled at the top. She wasn’t on the deck roof, so I ran downstairs and started calling for her as soon as I stepped out the back door. When I hit the steps she ran out from underneath, but she stopped, recognized me and came right back to me.
I am very lucky and need to have a new sturdy window screen made, especially if I am to continue fostering with no air conditioning. Up to now my fosters have been mostly geriatric or hospice fosters, and neither Smokie nor Bella showed any interest in messing with the screen, but none of those cats were hormonal female cats with the call of nature.
Read below how to keep your screens in good shape and keep your kitties safe if you open your windows. And imagine how many cats would not go missing!
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About windows, screens and cats
Make sure your screens can handle your cats
Above, about 40 pounds of cats are pressing their heads hard against the screen to see the chipmunk on the windowsill. The screen is very sturdy and well-made, set in the window frame with an overlap on the inside and spring-loaded clips around the edges, and the screening itself is heavy duty. Nothing less would put up with the beating the screens at this window have always taken with multiple cats pressing, leaping, hanging and climbing on the screen, permitted here because of the bird feeders outside. It’s their exercise and entertainment, environmental enrichment.
At other windows they make lovely photos and paintings, but you really need to be aware of a few things before you can all have a nap in the sun.
First of all, never presume your cats won’t jump out the window if it’s open without a screen. This sadly happens frequently each spring as people open their windows on unusually warm days before they either put their screens in place for the windows or turn on air conditioning and leave the windows closed. Even by accident a cat can fall, and even a cautious cat can decide to step out on a ledge or a roof.
Screens and cats can get along—I have always had my windows open all summer long with no air conditioning, and as many as ten cats of all sizes and levels of ingenuity. A few other escapes happened, but only involving one cat with motivation, yet teaching me another lesson.
Open windows are naturally enticing to cats, and truly an enhancement to their environment. Because of that, even if you only open your windows once in a while, you need to have screens in place and be certain they can withstand the rigors of a cat with an agenda, or without—or a bunch of cats following their predatory instinct all at the same time, like a little over 40 pounds of motivated cats pushing on the screen. My cats lean on my screens while they sleep, leap on them when they see a bird at the feeder or a neighbor cat outdoors, and though they have other “exercise equipment” easily available, now and then they have a good stretch and claw them or climb them just for fun.
With all these cats and all these years, I’ve only replaced one screen once, and that was from my own accident when I ripped it in basement storage. I used the “pet safe” screening but didn’t notice it handled the rigors of cats better than the usual vinyl screening that came with my windows or metal screening from my older windows and storm doors. After 20 years, it’s time for me to replace the screens on that big casement window that sees a lot of action, and I’ll be getting regular screening for that.
The way the screen is constructed is very important. The better the quality of the window, the better quality the screen, a little heavier screen, the frame a little thicker and wider and so that the spline—the narrow tube of rubber that holds the screen material into its frame—is thicker and its channel deeper, holding the screen into the frame more securely.
My bathroom window is a nice one but not necessarily expensive. I returned home one afternoon to see the screen in the casement at the top of the stairs at an angle and Kelly and Giuseppe out on the deck roof! Kelly was really happy walking along and looking at her new paradise to explore, but Giuseppe was outside desperately leaping up to the casement trying to get back in, which had pulled the screen on an angle and prevented him from getting a clawhold on anything. In the bathroom, I could see the entire bottom edge of the screen flapping free and cursed myself for neglecting to take care of that when I’d seen it beginning to bulge and possibly let loose as Kelly had long naps on the windowsill each day. It had seemed sound enough and she was so happy.
Kelly only looked curious, not frightened or ready to jump, so I closed the bathroom window and first reached out the casement and got a grip on Giuseppe’s scruff and pulled him in, shutting that window; the other cats gathered around as I did this and I saw all were accounted for.
Then I closed the bathroom door, opened the window and pulled the damaged screen inside, leaning way out the bathroom window coaxing Kelly to come to me while she happily ran around on the roof, talking to me. She eventually did come over and effortlessly leaped up on the windowsill, purring and rubbing on me. I brought her in and closed the window.
I was lucky there was a deck roof right under the window to catch Kelly when she accidentally rolled out the second-floor window in the middle of her nap. Cats fall out of windows all the time and the consequences are often much worse.
I actually replaced that screen with a much sturdier expanding screen that is held in place with clips. Repairing that screen did not make it any more secure—I even tried gluing it all together with a larger piece of screen and it still let loose—and I couldn’t find a replacement that was any better so I will be making a new screen or having one made.
Installation, new screens and reinforcing old ones
A screen that simply pressure-fits into the window frame or holds in place with magnets can be easily pushed out of place—and not just by a cat, but also by an intruder or even wildlife, or a child or adult. Screens should not only perfectly fit the opening, but also be held in place by some means. Never underestimate the intelligence of a cat, even without opposable thumbs, to be able to remove a screen that isn’t held in place by something they can’t remove, or for a good accidental shove to push it out of place.
The basement door sees a heck of a lot of activity from indoors and out since both neighbor cats and wildlife approach the door. Also, a certain kitty with box-cutter claws managed to trim a hole large enough to escape. I wouldn’t do this at windows but at the basement door I added a layer of metal “hardware cloth” on the inside of the door that no one can get through, indoors or out.
When I replaced my biggest windows soon after moving in I did my homework for value and cost, insulation and construction, and saw the screens that would come with them. My newer screens either have metal springs top and bottom and a deep track or tiny spring-loaded thumb-latches that fit into slots around the screen—the second is what holds those 24” x 48” screens in place at the big casement and they also install from the inside, so they are difficult to push out the opening.
The older casements upstairs have only thumb latches that turn to hold them in place and the frames are metal, but I have also added a strip of packing tape top and bottom that holds them in place for the season, and a spring-loaded pressure-fit curtain rod that holds them against the window frame.
Both Namir and Kublai were escape artists—I would swear Kublai had thumbs when I wasn’t looking, and Namir had a Swiss army knife hidden in his right paw and you can read about one of his great escapes in Just a Little Adventure. Someday soon I’ll tell other stories of their little escapes.
But for now, create a safe and enjoyable environment for your kitties around your windows. The ASPCA has an informative article on “high-rise syndrome” that reflects both the dangers of falling several stories from open windows as well as cautions about windows and screens. So that you and your kitties can enjoy summer birdwatching and even long naps, take care if you shop for replacement windows, keep your screens in mind as well as the mechanics of the window, and if you have your screens replaced, make sure the replacement screen is sturdy enough to hold its shape without twisting, and you have some means of fixing it in place in the window.
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Meanwhile back in 1998, the first escape
I heard a siren, or was it the wind? I knew it was summer and my windows were open, but it was very early and I thought I’d better get up and close the windows if a storm was coming.
As I awoke I realized there were no cats with me at all though I lived with six and they always slept with me and impatiently milled around on the bed until I awoke, but not even immovable Moses was in her spot on the other pillow.
Wide awake, I leapt out of bed looking everywhere. That house was rather large and I had no idea where to look first because I had no idea where they might be. But I followed the now obvious sound of two cats wailing at each other and in the dining room found a window screen pushed out of place and Fawn timidly about to step outside. Through the window I could see Sally, who was deaf, out in the garden! I grabbed Fawn and slammed the window shut, then ran through the kitchen out the back door and grabbed Sally just as she saw me and was about to playfully run off.
Holding her as she struggled wildly I looked around and realized the yowling was coming from the front. I had to put Sally inside so I tossed her in the back door and ran around the side to find Stanley in a standoff with a huge tabby tomcat under the front porch. Stanley, sweet and loving, could be unpredictable in his temperament and he had actually bitten me about a year before that; set off like this I had no idea how he’d be, and I knew not to go near them or try to touch them.
I clapped my hands to distract them, yelled and stomped my feet threatening to run toward them knowing if the tom ran so would Stanley. They inched their way out from under the porch as I continued clapping and stomping and I guess the tom figured he could deal with the cats but not with the crazy human and took off, but I called Stanley as he gave chase and he stopped, content the intruder had left “his” domain. Stanley was still wild-eyed but I managed to talk him down and both scruff and cuddle him, and carry him back inside.
Back outside, I saw Allegro trotting along the railroad tracks at the bottom of the hill along our back yard. Down I went—summer nightie and bare feet—and though he ran, startled, I managed to follow him along the tracks and talk him into familiarity enough trust and let me cautiously approach him, touch him, and quickly pick him up.
In the house with him and all the others, I found Moses on a chair under the dining room table, and that left only Kublai. I fed them breakfast, knowing I couldn’t leave for work until I found him. The people I would be calling in to would understand this and after putting on some real clothes I went back outside, the sun now risen, and called and called for my heart cat, the leader of my household, and after about two hours he came trotting through my neighbor’s yard, talking to me, asking me what the problem was. I scooped him up and carried him inside, my household again intact.
He ate, then immediately returned to the window where the screen had been removed and began working along the bottom edge, stopping to look at me: “Don’t you see how easy this is?” It was a window I often used in spring to move my seedlings outside for the day and back inside at night. I could see he’d carefully watched my actions to lift and remove the screen, and it was old enough to be easy for him—just like the old door handles he could easily turn which I had replaced with ones where you had to push a button to make the handle turn.
I closed all the windows, went to work, and then set about adding a little hand-tightened thumb latch to all 12 windows in the house. I kept collars and tags on them, but there was no such thing as a microchip in those days. I tried not to think about what would have happened if I’d been gone for one of my 14-hour days or if formerly feral Moses had gotten out or timid Fawn, or even the braggadocius boys.
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“Boys at the Window”, 1998
At the top, it just so happens the two principals in this story are at the very window they escaped from that morning! Allegro reclines on my desk and Stanley on the windowsill, watching me work. Some things never change—today I have Sunshine and Bean sprawled on my desk now and Mimi on the windowsill, watching me work. This scene was from 1998, in the house I rented before I moved here, when I was still experimenting with drawing materials and styles and techniques. The reference photo was poorly exposed, a little blurry and they were silhouetted, but I liked the composition and did a little sketch from this photo as well as photos of each of them individually on “coquille board”, an illustration board covered with a tiny raised pattern that would capture a drawing material like colored pencil, creating a sort of halftone pattern. This was used far more often when line art was required for printing in black and white, but I still like textured boards for things like this. I’ve never published this image or the others so I thought I’d use it to illustrate this story since there is a connection, of sorts. I’ve also used coquille in my set of notecards from that era, “Kitties Being Kitties” and also mentioned its use in “The Artist’s Life: Early Feline Influences and Memories”.
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