Ah! The holidays. That time of year when we ask, in the words of The Clash (so apt), should I stay or should I go — find a pet sitter? Or more to the point, should my cats stay or should they go with me? And if my cats stay, how do I find a pet sitter or do I even need one?
Our Holiday Cat Travel Questions
The first question is “Will my cat be welcome?”
If I’d invested a US$1 for every time I heard “X is allergic to cats” my retirement would be secure. Not only are there questions about allergies to cats, but issues like:
- the presence of dogs and small children,
- potentially hazardous plants or chemicals,
- other safety issues such as the possibility of escaping or falling from a balcony or window,
- and the prospect of a cat causing damage by scratching furniture or inappropriate peeing or pooping.
(And wouldn’t it be nice if all dog people worried about whether their dogs were welcome everywhere? Especially the dogs that aren’t well trained. Just asking.)
The second question is “Do my cats like to travel?”
Let’s be honest, the usual answer is no. Cats are not really fond of changes in their routines. They prefer staying in their well-appointed homes — with staff. Often, we (the staff) are the ones who want them with us. It’s not for the entertainment and comfort of our cats, it’s for our entertainment and comfort. In my entire life, I’ve had a total of 2 cats who actually liked to travel. (And 2 who have tolerated it well.)
So are we destined to spend our lives hosting the family holiday gatherings?
Holiday Cat Care Options: What Was the Middle One?
No. We have many options. First, it’s a great excuse to avoid that awkward dinner with certain family members and in-laws. “I’m sorry but our pet sitter flaked out on us so I need to stay home.” You get to eat what you want (none of Aunt Sally’s overcooked green bean casserole made with watery mushroom soup and soggy fried onion rings), kick back with a glass of good wine or beer (for a change), and watch “Pride and Prejudice” (without unwanted commentary or judgement) with a happy cat on your lap.
If you must or choose to travel, the question is whether to board your cat or have in-home visits. Some cats don’t like travel but settle in quickly and easily at a cat kennel. These tend to be socialized cats who interact with your visitors at home. Maybe they nap at the vet’s office. Cats with the chill, laid back demeanor of a pot store employee testing the latest batch of goods. If your cat is mellow and doesn’t find new environments alarming, boarding your cat is an excellent option.
Cat Boarding Options
Many veterinarians offer boarding services, a great option for cats needing medications or monitoring. It can also be a good time to get kitty’s annual “well cat” checkup and shots. However, check the conditions, some simply place the cats in a cage with food, water, and litter. You may want to at least bring kitty’s bed and favorite toys.
There are also some independent cat boarding services. Many offer luxury accommodations including private “suites” with cat furniture, catios, and playtimes. Ask your vet for recommendations, google for cat boarding near you or check online pet sitter referral services (see below). Boarding in the USA, either at the vet’s or with an independent service, averages between US$15-45/night. Many offer discounts for multiple cats sharing accommodations or for extended stays.
In-Home Cat Care Option 1: A Pet Sitter
If your cat becomes anxious in new environments (or you’re concerned about leaving your home empty), consider a pet sitter. Perhaps you have a friend or coworker who would love a long weekend of peace, quiet, and privacy in exchange for cat care. Someone you trust with access to your medicine cabinet, liquor cabinet, and file cabinet.
You can hire a professional pet sitter service. Pet sitters will offer to come once or twice a day to feed your cat, scoop litter, play with your cat (assuming it isn’t hiding under the sofa), bring in the mail, and in general keep an eye on things. The prices vary by location, the number of times visited per day, and what’s required. On average, in the USA, prices range between US$20-40/day. Overnight pet sitting is more, averaging between US$75-85/day.
However, finding a reliable, dependable, and thoughtful pet sitter can be a trial — with many errors. If you find one, treat a great pet sitter like a queen! Prepare for their arrival, pay promptly — and tip for superior service! (Yes, tip. Remember, you need them more than they need you. There is always work for any superior service provider.)
Stories From the Department of ” I Couldn’t Make This Up”
I’d once come home to a heavily soiled rug and a cheerily worded note from the pet sitter (who shall remain nameless) informing me that one of my cats had “a problem” while I was gone and I should probably clean it up soon… Then there was the overnight pet sitter who called the night before my departure to say her boyfriend didn’t want to drive her that far and fix his own dinner so she wouldn’t be coming… And let’s not forget the “pet sitter” who didn’t clean the litter boxes for 4 days because she “couldn’t find the trash bags…” (They were under the kitchen sink in a box marked “Trash Bags” that she’d been shown on the walkthrough.)
Alas, I’ll never find a replacement for Uta, my paragon of pet sitters in the Olympic Peninsula. Uta arrived one day to find a small lake in my driveway and no water from my taps. Uta did not panic. She did not abandon my cats. Instead, Uta called me for permission to contact the city since the problem appeared at the meter. She also requested authorization to call a plumber if it wasn’t a city problem. An hour later, she called to reassure me it was the city’s problem. But the city would need to cut off the water for at least two days. Uta laid in a supply of bottled water to refill the cat water bowls. She took the dirty cat food plates home to wash each night. She also confirmed the extra charges for the water (receipt available) and extra time. Uta got a hefty bonus!
So In Closing
Ask questions, go over everything you expect in detail, prepare an emergency contact and emergency veterinary care release, and contact your vet to let them know you authorize emergency care. Be sure to download my Cat Travel Checklist.
How to Find a Reliable Pet Sitter — Anywhere
There are several ways to find a pet sitter in your area.
First, check with your vet. Many veterinarians keep a list of pet sitters in the area. Often, vet technicians or assistants do pet sitting for extra income.
Second, check with your friends, family, and neighbors. Especially those with pets who like to travel or take cruises. They can give reviews and warnings as well as recommendations.
Third, search online for pet sitters in your area. This can be frustrating. Many listings are either no longer in business, only handle dogs, or are booked for the holidays. I prefer the ones who look professional with a good website or Google My Business listing.
Finally, check the online pet sitter referral services: Rover.com, Fetch! Pet Care, or Care.com. This works much better in urban versus rural areas. Rover.com is the largest but is very dog-centric. Fetch! has more limited service areas. Care.com offers everything from personal caregivers to pets, so you need to do a little drilling down. They all have their strengths and limitations. And they all do varying degrees of vetting their subcontractors.
So read the reviews (with a grain of salt), ask questions, and if you feel uncomfortable for any reason, listen to your gut feelings.
In-Home Cat Care Option 2: Home Alone
And here is where I’m liable to get a lot of negative comments. Frankly, one of the reasons I have cats instead of dogs is because they don’t need as much care. I can be gone all day or overnight and not worry. As long as they have food, water, and a litter box, cats are pretty independent. Dogs are like toddlers: “Mommy! Mommy! Look at me! Mommy! Mommy! Feed me! Mommy! Mommy! I gotta go potty! Mommy! Mommy! Do you love me?” Cats are like teenagers: “Hey! You provide my food, my shelter, and my health care. But don’t even think you can tell me what to do! And I’ll tell you when I want affection. Uh, could you pet me?”
So, in my opinion, yes, you can leave your cats home alone for 1-3 nights — under the right conditions. If your cat is mature and healthy, you can leave them alone with peace of mind — assuming you make certain preparations. Obviously, if your cat requires medication or special care (like kittens or very old cats), it can’t be left on its own.
The Home Alone Cat Checklist
Water! There can never be enough water left out for your cat.
Most cats can go for a few days without food but not without water. Dehydration is a serious concern for cats. So I always leave at least an extra liter of water per cat per day I’m gone. That may be overdoing it but I always worry about being in an accident and no one checking on the cats until I come out of my coma. (My childhood came with an extra dose of guilt.) I also worry that cats romping and racing might knock over the water bowl. That’s why I scatter the extra water around the house in various rooms and locations. (I also worry about a cat getting accidentally shut in a room while I’m gone.)
Food! For each day you will be gone, leave at least as much food as you’d normally serve.
Again, because I worry about being delayed on my return trip, I leave at least two extra days worth. If the weather forecast looks dicey, I’ll leave an extra 3-4 days worth. (I’ve been stuck in airports and cities for days due to weather delays.) See below for my tips on dealing with cats who are gluttons, wolfers, and bolters.
Litter! Clean, fresh litter and plenty of it.
Since I provide one litter box per cat anyway, I use the rule of 1.5x as many litter boxes when I’m gone for a long weekend. (So if I normally have 4 litter boxes in the house, I have 6 for leaving the cats home alone for a long weekend.) And, of course, I completely clean out the boxes and replace the old litter with fresh litter before heading off. It’s also a good idea to place the litter boxes in various locations — just in case someone gets trapped in a room. (Trust me. It happens. Cats battling on the opposite sides of the door and then, oops! The door has been pushed closed with one cat on the wrong side…) You may want to stock up on cat litter before you go since you’ll probably want to simply empty the litter boxes and refill them when you return. (That’s a LOT of scooping!)
Police and “cat proof” the house before heading out the door.
Bored cats often become destructive cats. Consider closing off at least one room and placing things like plants, fragile bric-a-brac, cushions, or electronics in it before you go. Also, be on the lookout for anything like narrow ribbon or twine, small objects or change, and such since many cats will play with — and potentially swallow — anything. (I’m looking at you, Elfego.)
Don’t forget to unplug heated cat beds or blankets while you’re gone. Turn up the thermostat if you’re worried about dropping temperatures but avoid potential fire hazards. It’s not a bad idea to unplug appliances and electronics, too. Not only are you being environmentally conscious but you can relax knowing a game of chase won’t end in an expensive crash. Or your cat doesn’t get a shock playing with that enticing cord.
Provide entertainment while you are gone.
And speaking of play now is a good time to break out some different cat toys and environmental enrichment. Take out those new toys or the ones you’ve been refreshing in catnip and scatter them about. Pick up some of the old tired ones and put them in the catnip jar for refreshment. Consider getting your cat a new interactive toy, especially the ones where you can tuck in treats. Your cat can have a scavenger hunt while you’re gone.
And how about putting out a bird feeder for the cats to observe? There are some designed to attached to the window as well as many with pole systems. I call mine Kitty Cinema Verité (ask your film buff friends about New Wave French films). My cats sit for hours fussing at the birds. (They particularly hate the jays.) You help the birds survive the winter and your cats don’t need their own iPad. If you have any questions, check out your nearest Wild Birds Unlimited.
Before leaving the house, do one final check and headcount.
Nothing’s worse then hearing your final boarding call and your spouse asks, “Did you see [insert cat’s name] before we left the house?” Or wondering if you remembered to fill the feeder as your grandmother is saying grace.
Tools and Tips for Travelers
Tools for Regulating Food
I currently have a glutton and wolfer who bolts down as much as she can — and then throws it up everywhere! Another rescue kitty glutton would eat and eat and eat until she became seriously obese. I found two very useful devices for slowing things down and regulating the amounts consumed.
The Catit Senses 2.0 Food Tree (affiliate link) limits the amount of available food at any one moment and provides “interactive environment enrichment” (in other words, the cat has to work for the food). This was very successful in retraining my current rescues to realize that food would always be available and they didn’t have to eat it all now.
I used a programmable feeder (affiliate link) to reduce the weight of my obese cat and to dole out the food when I traveled. The worst mistake I ever made was donating the programmable feeder when I moved and didn’t have room for it in the car. I should have dumped the iron and kept the feeder! On the plus side, the new programmable feeders are better and offer new features, including phone app control and monitoring. (The uses of “nannycams” and baby monitors will be covered in another post.)
Be sure to check the programmable feeder features and fine print. I like the ones that have back-up batteries as well as USB or electric outlet power so you don’t have to worry about a power outage while you are away. And read the reviews about the stability and washability of the feeder. Also, check that you are getting one that can handle the kibble size you use.
Tools to Reduce Odors (and Dander)
An air purifier and ionizer (also called ionic air purifiers) may be a good investment. Frankly, I was skeptical when I first heard about these because the friend who recommended one is a little flaky. But when I helped another friend scoop the 4 massive litter boxes kept in a single, small closet for her 7 (!) rescue cats (long story), I became a convert! I expected to need a gas mask since she’d been on her back for several days but instead the closet was nearly odor-free. When asked, she told me about her tiny ionizer, purchased on the recommendation of her Cal Tech graduate and physicist son. Whenever I have to shut up the house because of cold temperatures, I plug mine in and it does make a big difference.
Word of warning, though. Check if your ionizer includes an ozone generator. While negative ions are natural and safe (and some studies indicate they can elevate mood), ozone generators can damage lungs, especially if used in a small, confined space like an RV or closed room. So ionic air purifiers, yes. Ozone generators, no.
Cat Toys and Ideas to Keep Your Cat Entertained
And finally, the holidays may be a good time to buy some interactive cat toys and furniture. (I’ll be doing a post elsewhere on things to look for during your Black Friday shopping.) Here are a few of my cats’ recommendations:
Whew! That was longer than intended. Maybe staying home alone with your cat, Lord Darcy, and that glass of wine is starting to sound pretty good.
Have a happy holiday season and travel safely.