Knowing what to do with your cats when you go away on holiday can be tough.
I’m just about to head to the South of France for a short trip and I know from past experience that no matter how bewitching the foreign location, how hot the sun or delicious the food, it’ll be just a matter of hours before Kevin and I start asking each other… “I wonder what Lola and Lyra are doing now?!”.
This is usually followed by a few moments tormenting ourselves with fanciful visions of them pining for us, and gnawing our slippers in despair. I’m sure we’re just building our part, and they just throw a big party the moment we go away, but still, it feels strange being separated from them!
Recently I’ve been wondering if our current option – daily visits from a pet sitter (the lovely Brett for any South Londoners reading) is the best option for our cats. Would they be better off in a ‘cat hotel’? Or staying with a friend where they’ll get human contact for more of the day?
In this Sunday Read I wanted to see if I could find some answers.
OPTION 1: LIVE-IN CAT SITTER
In a study in 2015, a team of scientists made a surprising discovery. They found that contrary to what Kevin and I have been imagining – and unlike dogs or human babies - cats don’t suffer from full blown separation anxiety when they’re left by their humans. Instead, they tend to rely on familiar places, rather than people, to feel safe.
That’s not to say they don’t miss us! They almost certainly do. It just means that our cats derive their feelings of safety and security from their environment, rather than from us.
The experiment tells us that all things being equal, an option that allows your cat to stay in its familiar home environment is preferable to one that will transplant them to an unfamiliar location.
The very best option is finding someone to move into your house full-time to look after your cats. It's a solution that allows your cats to enjoy the best of both worlds - staying in a familiar environment, as well as getting lots of loving human contact. But of course, this really does rely on your having a trusted friend or family member who is willing to move into your house for the duration of your trip – or finding a professional cat sitter that is willing to live-in.
- Lets your cat or cats stay in their familiar home territory with all of its reassuring hidey holes and smells
- Ensures your cat will have human companionship, play time and care
- You’ll be able to make sure that your cat’s feeding schedule isn’t disrupted. For instance if you feed twice a day at specific times, you can ask your cat sitter to do the same.
- A live-in cat sitter is more likely to spot and solve problems as they emerge, e.g. a cat urinating in the house because they’re anxious or fighting between cats because their usual equilibrium has been disrupted.
- A live-in cat sitter doubles as a house sitter, so you'll have peace of mind about the safety of your house too.
- It’s a fairly big ask of a friend or family member (although for someone between houses, for example, it could be a very handy stop-gap).
- The choice of cat sitter is important. If they’re a friend rather than a professional, are they likely to play loud music, or invite friends round? All of these things could be alarming if you have a particularly nervous cat. Do they have a job that requires them to travel at short notice? That wouldn't work if they'd be forced to abandon kitty!
- If you’re paying a professional cat sitter, this can be a fairly expensive option – in London prices for overnight or live-in cat sitting tend to be about 4x the price of a non live-in service.
OPTION 2: DAILY CAT SITTER
This is the option I use when I’m away, and I must say the cats seem pretty contented with it. It’s important you choose a reliable and experienced cat sitter, whether that’s a professional who you pay or friends or family who live nearby.
Ideally, the cat sitter should visit twice a day – to ensure that your cats are kept in a regular feeding schedule and don’t go for long stretches of time without any human contact.
- Lets your cat or cats stay in their familiar home territory
- If you use the same cat sitter for a while, your cats will get to know them and feel comfortable with having them around
- The cat sitter will be able to pick up mail and check on your home, giving a degree of security while you are away.
- Between visits, your cat might still be alone for long stretches of time. If they become unwell it might be some time before the cat sitter is able to spot the subtle signs and take them to the vet. Or if your cats have an uneasy relationship, those tensions could boil over into all-out fights because they are anxious or bored.
- Unless your friends or family live very close by, twice daily visits can be very onerous. You’ll need to check that they really have the time, or go with the paid cat sitter option.
- While your cat is unattended in the home, there is the possibility of them getting into trouble e.g. getting trapped in a room if they accidentally close the door, or getting caught on blind cords etc. (it’s a very good idea to tie these out of the way before you go away).
- Although professional live-out cat sitters are cheaper than live-in ones, this is still a fairly pricey option, and the costs can mount up if you’re away for a significant period of time.
OPTION 3: Boarding Cattery or Cat Hotel
I haven’t ever used a boarding cattery or cat hotel, but the general consensus is that there are good and bad ones so do plan ahead and make sure you conduct a recce to check the quality of the service.
A single room is always best, but above and beyond that research has found that the size of a cat’s room in the cattery makes a big difference to their levels of anxiety. Ideally, you’re looking for a room that has over 0.7m2 of floor space – anything under this has been shown in studies to contribute to your cat’s anxiety (Kessler, M. & Turner, D. C. 1999).
A really good cat ‘room’ will have scratching posts, hidey holes and elevated shelves which they can use to get up high.
Other things to think about are the noise levels in the cattery – it should be quiet, and if there are dogs housed at the same site, you want to ensure that their barking isn’t audible from the cat areas.
It’s also important that the cat enclosures or rooms don’t face onto each other, as that has been shown to contribute to cat anxiety.
Finally, have a think about your cat’s temperament and experience of other cats. Are they outgoing? Do they like other cats? How do they feel about humans?
Research has shown that cats that are well socialised with other cats (e.g. they live in multi-cat households) cope with staying in catteries much better than those that have always been an ‘only cat’.
For cats that have little experience of humans (e.g. they are a very young kitten, or are semi-feral), staying in a cattery is strongly advised against because the chances are high that they will find the human presence there alarming and difficult to get used to. In these cases it really is best to make alternative arrangements, ideally in the home. (Kessler, M. R. & Turner, D. C., 1999)
- Your cat will be in the care of professionals who are experienced in cat care.
- In a good cattery your cat will be given playtime and stimulation to keep them from getting bored.
- There is no risk of your cat getting into trouble around the home, e.g. getting caught on things or trapped in a room.
- Your home will be taken out of the equation, so you won’t get any of the security benefits of having a cat sitter attending while you’re away.
- Your cat will be taken away from the reassurance and safety of their home environment.
- All cats respond to catteries differently. Your cat may take to it like a duck to water, for others it takes them a while to adjust, and there are some cats whose anxiety levels never go down. If your cat falls into the latter category a cattery isn’t a good idea for them. There are ways of predicting which cat will have which experience – based on their temperament and levels of socialisation (as described above), but sadly the only way to find out for certain is to give it a go.
OPTION 4: Staying over at a friend or family member’s house
If you're lucky enough to have a friend or family member who is willing to let your cat 'sleep over' at theirs - is that a good option?
The answer is that it certainly can be - but it all depends on what their new home will be like and who will be looking after them.
Avoid sending your kitty to stay in a home which already has other pets in. For a minority of gregarious and outgoing cats this wouldn't be an issue, but for the vast majority the presence of other animals will add to their stress and stack the odds against them feeling safe and relaxed in their new temporary home.
The other things to check are how often there will be somebody around. If it's grandma who stays home all day, then your cat will benefit from constant care and attention. But if it's someone who is at work all day, has evening engagements and a busy social life, your cat may not get the care it needs - in which case a professional cat sitter or cattery might be a better option.
- If your host spends a lot of time at home, your cat will have access to playtime and care around the clock.
- Your host should be able to spot and solve problems as they emerge.
- You’ll be able to make sure that your cat’s feeding schedule isn’t disrupted. For instance if you feed twice a day at specific times, you can ask your host to do the same.
- Your host might not be quite so pleased about having your cat come to stay when they claw the furniture / urinate on the bed! Make sure you have this discussion with them in advance, and help them out with strategies to avoid these scenarios (e.g. taking plenty of scratching posts and litter trays with you).
- The choice of host is important. Is their house particularly noisy? Do they have a lot of visitors? You want to make sure the environment matches what your cat is used to as closely as possible.
- It's important that the host house is safe for cats, and does not present opportunities for escape. For instance - are they having building work that means the front door will be left open all day? Do they have windows that they prefer to keep open? It's essential to minimise the risk of your cat escaping in what will be a very unfamiliar environment.
- Your home will be taken out of the equation, so you won’t get any of the security benefits of having a cat sitter checking on your property while you’re away.
OPTION 5: Going with you
Well now, that’s the dream isn’t it? It’s certainly mine, not having to wave goodbye to the cats when I set off on my travels!
I’m still formulating my thoughts about this, and doing lots of research - especially because there are quite strong conflicting views about how much cats can cope with travel.
Once I've reached a conclusion I promise I'll tackle this question in a future Sunday Read. In the meantime, here are some fantastic blog posts which do look at the subject of travelling with your cats. If you do take your cat away with you on holiday I’d love to hear your thoughts, tips and experiences. Just send a note in the comments below, or get in touch on Instagram or Facebook (both @supakitstore)!
iCatCare - Travelling with your cat