Real Estate

Pet doors: the ins and outs

Who benefits most: cats, dogs or raccoons?

At her owner's request for a demonstration, the energetic pup bounded through the little built-in rectangle escape. She circled the backyard and reappeared at the side door where she barked to get back inside. The pet door works both ways, but Daisy could see people on the couch through the glass door and wanted to join the party.

Despite Daisy's occasional confusion, Sue Purdy Pelosi appreciates the freedom the miniature door allows her pets, who can come and go as they please without needing to ask her for passage outside. Renée Lamborn, a Crescent Park resident, sought the same benefits when installing a pet door for her cats. Both residents have few complaints aside from the sporadic visits from other animals.

The pint-sized door of Pelosi's Palo Alto home has served her pets well for more than a decade. The door was originally built into a wall of the master bathroom for the family's cats: Moses, Chester and Pearl. Moses is 12 years old, and siblings Chester and Pearl are two years his junior. Daisy, the "random American terrier," joined the brood two years ago and is small enough to make use of the door as well.

Home security, weatherproofing and unwanted critters were the main concerns Pelosi contemplated while planning for the custom pet door. A pair of acrylic flaps coupled with a hard plastic partition keeps the cold -- and unwanted guests -- out of the house. With few down sides, the pet door has proven a step up from the chain-locked back door of her previous home.

The pets frequent the portal to the outside during the day, and the family locks it up at night. Perhaps the only negative is the occasional raccoon visit, which Pelosi describes as more comical than anything else. She said she can always tell if raccoons have stopped by because they wash their claws in the water dish, leaving traces of mud and dirt.

"Raccoons came in and stole the food bucket and the bowl, taking it out into the yard," Pelosi said. "I mean I really think they were serving each other -- like pouring cereal. It was really funny."

The size and design of the door guarantees that raccoons are the only bandits that can squeeze into the house. A grown person would have a hard enough time getting his or her head through, let alone anything past the shoulders. Pelosi made sure no door or window handles were close enough to reach through when the door was installed.

The nocturnal critters are only interested in snagging kitty chow and have never hurt the pets or the family. No other wildlife has gained entrance through the door, and keeping it locked deters raccoons at night.

"My husband has had to chase them out, throwing flip flops and stuff," Pelosi said. "I guess if we had gotten the really small cat-sized one we probably wouldn't have had the occasional raccoon problems."

Lamborn has experienced her fair share of nighttime raccoon callers via her pet door as well. As a special education advocate, she is in and out of the house throughout the day. Her cats, Casanova and Zorro, are trained to return home each evening by 6 p.m. so she can slide the door closed until morning.

Prior to the established system, Lamborn left the door open at night and, much like Pelosi, the house was visited by raccoons on several occasions. A family of the critters live in the gutter at the corner down the street from her home, and they roam the neighborhood on the lookout for food to steal.

"I would keep it open all the time and had multiple instances of the raccoons coming into the house looking for cat food, or anything on the counter," Lamborn said. "They are completely, 100 percent not afraid of me at all. They'll just look up at me like, 'What?'"

One night Lamborn arrived home to find a raccoon desperately trying to pull a 20-pound bag of cat food outside -- to no avail. The bag remained lodged in the miniscule door as the raccoon tugged away.

Keeping the entry closed at night keeps the racoons at bay, and multiple locks on the back door does the same for break-ins. The only other visitor is a neighbor's cat who regularly stops by to snack on Casanova and Zorro's food. Thankfully the animals that invite themselves into the house are relatively harmless.

Lamborn has mulled over the idea of a collar-activated door for her house but fears the training it would require of her cats. With these special collars on, pets have to be within a certain vicinity of the door in order for it to open. When she moved in five years ago she opted for a lockable sliding unit built right into the bottom section of her glass panel backdoor, which works well for her pets and for her schedule.

For Pelosi and Lamborn both, the pet doors grant their animals free agency to come and go as they please with few drawbacks -- so long as they remember to lock it up at night.

"It's really nice that the cats can go in and out without constantly asking to go in and out. The dog uses it, too," Pelosi said. "That's probably the easiest thing if I'm not home for awhile."

Small pet doors can be ordered online and range from about $25 for a PetSmart locking cat flap with liner to Home Depot's electronic fully automatic dog and cat door for about $300. One can also buy a pre-fitted door.

Editorial Intern Jennah Feeley can be emailed at

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