How to build a maze for your cat

Why you might want to build a maze for your cat
Anyone who has a cat and takes an interest in its well being knows that it needs to be stimulated. This is why we have toys for cats. I, for one always make sure my cat has two toys available at night when I go to sleep (usually a cloth mouse and a plastic bottle top - don't ask me why he loves bottle tops). Another good way to stimulate cats is through their food. A bored cat often ends up eating all day, and a fat cat is an unhappy cat. But making it work for the food both stimulates it and makes it eat when it is hungry, not when it is bored. For example, take a 500ml plastic bottle and cut a small hole in its side. Put some of the cat's food in there, and when it wants the food, it has to push the bottle around, so that some food falls out. I must stress that in any case, always give your cat some food that it doesn't have to work for, and make sure that it gets all of its daily ration; make sure that it can get all the food out of the bottle.

In any case, keep your cat stimulated. A maze is the perfect way to do so.

You will need
General guidelines before you start
In building this maze, you will take large pieces of cardboard and fold and tape them into maze pieces. Here are a few pointers before you start:
  • I have drawn below the shapes you will have to cut the cardboard into when assembling the maze pieces. These are the shapes that I think will amount to the simplest and sturdiest assembly. However, you may find it difficult to find such large pieces of cardboard (like 80cm x 60 cm), or you may find a better design, in which case feel free to improvise. For example, the corridor (see below), can easily be built using 4 pieces of 40cm x 20cm, taped together, although I definitely wouldn't recommend that particular combination, as it would be very weak. Two pieces of 40cm x 40cm won't be too bad, though you would have to reinforce it.
  • Use the strongest cardboard you can find. Weak cardboard will have trouble staying in shape once you fold and tape it. Also, you will not be surprised to find that your cat will sometimes jump on the maze, as cats will jump on virtually anything steady enough to hold them. You want the maze to be able to withstand the cat's weight without buckling. As few house cats weigh more than 150 pounds, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, but strong cardboard is better.
  • To make the folds sturdier (i.e. to make sure that what you folded to 90 degrees stays at 90 degrees), try to use the natural folds of the cardboard. Unless you work in a cardboard factory, the cardboard you will find will probably be cardboard boxes, whole or folded. When cutting out your pieces (as explained below), try to use the folds that are already there. In any case, try not to have a "natural" fold in the middle of one of your pieces, as it will weaken it.
  • Use your judgement to strengthen the maze. The most common, and least stable piece is the corridor. It is not stable because if you push on it, it can flatten, whereas the other pieces have turns that hold them steady. To strengthen the 90 degree corners, you can use the polystyrene that is already inside many of the cardboard boxes (the one that is used to protect the stuff inside the boxes). This polystyrene has loads of 90 degree corners that you can use to strengthen your corridors by cutting the polystyrene into shape and taping it on the corners (on the outside it is easier, but I guess you could also do it on the inside) in various places.
  • BEFORE you start building pieces, read the section on fitting the pieces together, as it explains how you may want to vary the sizes.
The maze parts
There are 4 types of pieces that make up the maze: the corridor, the corner, the T-intersection and the 4-way intersection. You can build as many as you want of each and put them together however you wish, to create a maze. Or you can rearrange them into a different maze each day.

Below are pictures of each maze piece. On the left is the picture of the piece after assembly and on the right in the picture of the piece of cardboard before folding and taping to form the complete piece. To create a maze piece, take a large piece of cardboard, and cut it in to the shape or shapes in the picture on the right. Then fold and tape it using the instructions below.

Glossary of ascii art symbols

  • I - vertical border of the piece.
  • X- cut along this line (vertically).
  • _ - horizontal border of the piece, or if is inside the piece, make a cut along this line.
  • : - fold along this line vertically.
  • . - fold along this line horizontally.
(These symbols apply to the right hand drawings only. The left hand drawings are ascii art of what the piece is supposed to look like.)

The corridor

This is the basic piece of your maze, and the easiest to make:

                        __________                                        <---  80 cm  -->
                       /         /|                           _______________________________________
                      /         / |                          |         :         :         :         |
                     /    a    /  |                       ^  |         :         :         :         |
                    /         /   |                       |  |         :         :         :         |
                   /         /    /                     40cm |         :         :         :         |
                  /_________/  b /                        |  |    a    :    b    :    c    :    d    |
                  |#########|   /                         v  |         :         :         :         |
             d->  |#########|  /                             |         :         :         :         |
                  |#########| /                              |_________:_________:_________:_________|
                  |#########|/                               <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm -><- 20cm ->>   

Assembly instructions: (note: the assembly instructions are to make this node idiot proof. You may not have to read all of them)
Cut a piece of carboard to 80cm x 40cm. Mark lines on the cardboard as in the diagram, at 20 cm intervals (along the 80cm side, giving 4 strips of 40cmx20cm). Bend the carboard away from you , to form 90 degrees between each side. a and d should now meet. Tape them together along the edge, so that you have a rectangular corridor 40 cm long with 20 cm walls. This is really very easy, and should give you no trouble whatsoever. Usually, cardboard from large boxes will have natural lines running along it. You will find that folding the cardboard along the line will mean that there is a few millimeters of discrepancy between the line you planned and the actual fold. This is not a big deal, but will give you a bit of trouble when fitting parts together. Have no fear, you will overcome this petty obstacle.

The corner

                        ____________________                              <---  80 cm  -->      
                       /         .         /|                 _______________________________________
                      /         .    w    /#|             ^  |         :         :         |         | 
                     /    a    ._________/##|           20cm |    w    :    w'   :   w''   |    d'   |   ^
                    /         /|         |##|             v  |         :         :         |         |   |   
                   /         / |    b'   |##/                |_________:_________:_________|.........|   |
                  /_________/  |         |#/              ^  |         X         X         :         |      
                  |#########| b|_________|/             20cm |         X    b'   X         :         |  60cm
                  |#########|  /                          v  |         X         X         :         |      
                  |#########| /                              |    a    X.........X    c    :    d    |   |  
                  |#########|/                            ^  |         :         :         :         |   |
                                                        20cm |         :    b    :         :         |   v
                                                          v  |         :         :         :         |  
                                                             <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm -><- 20cm ->  

Assembly instructions:
For this you will need 2 bits of cardboard. You can cut them out of a single 80cm x 60cm piece, as shown, or cut them separately. As this 80cm x 60cm piece is quite big, and you will not always be able to find one, you may have to improvise. If you have to improvise, you may want to wait until you get the hang of maze building before you do. The large piece is labelled a-d, and the small piece is labelled by w's. (Make sure that you cut along the X's).Take the large piece and fold it as you did the corridor, always away from you. Tape a and d together. Hold the piece as in the left hand picture, and fold b' to the right, as in the picture. Fold d' (not seen in the picture) to make the end of the corridor. Take the smaller piece, and fold it along the lines. Place it as in the picture, so that the piece becomes a corridor with a corner in it.

The T-intersection


              ______________________________                               <---  80 cm  --> 
             /                             /|                 _______________________________________
            /    w        w'        w''   /#|             ^  |         X         X         X         |            
           /_________..........__________/##|           20cm |    a'   X    b'   X         X    d'   | 
           |        /         /|         |##|             v  |         X         X         X         |   ^
           |   d'  /    a    / |    b'   |##/                |         X.........X    c    X.........|   |     
           |      /_________/  |         |#/              ^  |         :         :         :         | 40cm
           |______|#########| b|_________|/             20cm |    a    :    b    :         :    d    |   |
                  |#########|  /                          v  |         :         :         :         |   v
                  |#########| /                              |_________:_________:_________:_________|    
                  |#########|/                               <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm -><- 20cm ->

                                                                    <---  60 cm  --> 
                                                             |         :         :         |
                                                             |    w    :         :         |   ^
                                                             |         :         :         |   |
                                                             |         :         :         |   |
                                                             |         :         :         | 
                                                             |    w'   :         :         |  60cm
                                                             |         :         :         |  
                                                             |         :         :         |   |
                                                             |         :         :         |   |
                                                             |    w''  :         :         |   v
                                                             |         :         :         | 
                                                             <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm ->  

Assembly instructions:
Cut piece A and fold it as with the corridor. Tape a and d. Fold b' to the right and d' to the left (as in the picture). Take piece B and fold it along the lines. Place it so that the w's are as in the diagram. Notice that a' is covered by w''. Likewise the top part of c is covered by piece B. This will make it sturdier. (Note: a' is not really necessary).

The 4-way intersection

                         /         /|                                            A
                        /   a''   /q|
              _________/         /__|_______                               <---  80 cm  --> 
             /                             /|                 _______________________________________
            /    w      a' w'       w''   /#|             ^  |         :         X         :         |            
           /_________          __________/##|           20cm |    a''  :    q    X         :    q'   |   ^
           |        /         /|         |##|             v  |         :         X         :         |   |
           |   d'  /    a    / |    b'   |##/                |         :_________X         :_________|   |     
           |      /_________/  |         |#/              ^  |         X         X         X         |   
           |______|#########| b|_________|/             20cm |    a'   X    b'   X    c    X    d'   | 60cm  
                  |#########|  /                          v  |         X         X         X         |  
                  |#########| /                              |         X.........X         X.........|   |
                  |#########|/                               |         :         :         :         |   |
                                                          ^  |    a    :    b    :         :    d    |   v
                                                        20cm |         :         :         :         |   
                                                          v  |_________:_________:_________:_________|
                                                              <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm -><- 20cm ->

                                                                    <---  60 cm  -->
                                                         ^   |         :         :         |
                                                        20cm |    w    :         :         |   ^
                                                         v   |         :         :         |   |
                                                             |         :_________:_________|   |
                                                         ^   |         |         
                                                        20cm |    w'   |                     60cm     
                                                         v   |         |                     
                                                             |         |___________________    |
                                                         ^   |         :         :         |   |
                                                        20cm |    w''  :         :         |   v
                                                         v   |         :         :         | 
                                                             <- 20cm -><- 20cm -> <- 20cm ->

Assembly instructions:
Pretty much the same as for the T-intersection, but a bit trickier. Make sure you have made all the correct cuts on the A piece (along the horizontal lines and the X's). Fold the entire piece like you did the corridor, and tape a to d. Tape q to c and q' to a''. Fold b' and d' outwards (as in the T-intersection). This will make a lot more sense if you actually do it. Fold B and place it so the the w's align as in the diagram, and lo and behold it all fits wonderfully together. This piece is a good one to test your spacial viewing skills on :)
Fitting the pieces together
You may notice that all the openings are 20cm wide and 20 cm high. This poses a problem when joining together pieces. There are two ways to overcome this:
  1. Your lengths will never turn out to be exactly 20cm x 20cm, and also we're talking about cardboard here, so you can often force one end into another. If not, you can cut a bit off one of the two cardboards and re-tape it together. I hate this solution, as it's not very neat, but if you're really lazy, it'll work. This solution is really annoying when you want to rearrange the pieces into a new maze every few days. So we arrive at solution 2.
  2. Imagine how snugly a 20cm x 20cm cardboard opening would fit inside a 21cm x 21cm opening. Very nicely indeed. So all you have to do is make some of your pieces 20cm x 20cm and some 21cm x 21cm. "Oh no!" You gasp. "But that messes all the measurements up". Once again, it's Footprints to the rescue. I have planned it such that all that you have to do in order to make it 21cm x 21cm is to add the necessary amount of cm to the horizontal length in the drawings of each cardboard piece that you cut. So for example, take the T-intersection: to make the sides 21cm x 21cm, simply make piece A 84cm x 40cm, and piece B 63cm x 60cm. Piece B is then folded so that it makes three 21cm x 60cm rectangles. Easy as pie. "Why does this work?", you ask. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader.
Two more things and you're done
  • You should cut small holes in the roof of some parts of the maze. This is so you can put food or toys in. (Unless you are cat-sized, in which case you can just crawl in). What I did is make latches with a knife - I cut 3 sides of a rectangle, so I can open and close them. I made it about the size of a bottle top, so I can get any small toy and the food in.
  • When you put together loads of pieces, you will find that you have many many exits. Way too many exits, and no dead ends! The whole point of a maze is that you have many dead ends. Or several at least. And these are the interesting places to make the holes in the roof, anyway. Block as many entrances as you want, either by taping a 20cm x 20cm piece of cardboard, or just a piece of newspaper to let some light in. You can also make a door, by taping one side strongly and having some sort of latch, or taping the other side with just a small bit of tape (this is not a door the cat can manipulate, but you can decide what day it's open and what day it's closed).
What to do with your maze
The cat may love the maze, and hang around in it, or may avoid it completely. If he is wary of it, a bit of catnip will probably change his mind. I use the maze as a hiding place for some of my cat's food, and I play with it using the maze. My cat, for some bizarre reason, likes to retrieve objects, so it's a real intellectual challenge for him to find the objects I throw in through the holes. I usually give him some of his food in the maze. Sometimes I make it a game - I put some food in one hole, then, when he's finished, I drop some in another hole. He has to navigate by hearing (or smell?), and he gets it pretty quickly.

A good way to get your cat to understand that when you put things in the hole, he has to go around (a difficult concept for a cat - he will usually try to get to it through the hole), put some holes within sight of an entrance. Then drop something through the hole - when he can both see what you are doing and the object falling inside.

One last note - I have seen very few cat mazes in my life (one), and I'd be interested in knowing how different cats react to cat mazes. I know my cat enjoys playing in it, but he doesn't hang around in it. (He'll sometime run in one side and out another, but not much more). Cats are very different from one another. Some like to hide in dark places, some like to hide in cardboard boxes and leap out at people. If you do go ahead and build your cat a maze, I'd be interested to know how s/he reacts to it.