We’re coming into that time of year when people start making their holiday travel plans. Whether it’s that eight-hour drive to spend Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house, or the flight planned in order to spend Christmas back home with your parents, you’ll also need to make arrangements for your cat. For some people, kitty will go where they go and for others, reservations are made at the local boarding kennel. If your cat could make the choice though, I’d bet she’d prefer to stay in her own home while you go traveling off to various parts of the globe. Your cat, being a territorial creature of habit, is just as happy to sit out the holidays as long as it means she gets to sleep in her own bed and her dinner schedule doesn’t get interrupted.
Unless your cat has been well socialized to people, travel and new experiences, the best option is to have a pet sitter or a trusted friend/neighbor come in and care for your cat. Don’t believe the things you may have read that cats can do just fine by staying home alone as long as you’ve filled up a mountain of food and a big bowl of water. Things can go wrong in a house with an animal left alone – whether it’s a major medical emergency, fire, flood, electrical failure or just a minor medical problem, you wouldn’t want your cat suffering because no one checked on her during your weekend spent out of town. Additionally, it can be very stressful for a cat to find herself completely alone in a quiet home when she has been used to you returning each day at a certain hour and also being in the routine of interacting with you several times a day. If you work from home or if there are multiple family members in the household then to have the house suddenly become empty and quiet can cause lots of confusion and anxiety.
Too many people view cats as low maintenance and get them mainly because of the perceived convenience of not having to interrupt their lives too much. These cats are left alone for anywhere from just one night to four-five days. Imagine the risk these cat parents are taking with their cats’ health and safety. Now also imagine the anxiety these cats endure. Cats aren’t low maintenance substitutes for dogs and their health and welfare shouldn’t be compromised just so we can spend the weekend at the beach or off skiing.
There are good ones, great ones and terrible ones. If you choose to place your cat in a boarding kennel, go there yourself and take a tour. For a cat, being placed in a cage, surrounded by unfamiliar animals, sounds, smells and sights, can cause the stress-o-meter to go over the top. Facilities that have condos with hiding places and elevated areas inside each cat’s area can make a big difference in how secure your cat feels. Keep in mind how sensitive your cat’s senses are and inspect the kennel from your cat’s point of view.
- How does it smell?
- How loud is the environment?
- Are cages facing each other? This can be very stressful.
- Is the cage/condo big enough so that the food bowl isn’t right next to the litter box?
- What type of staff interaction is there?
- Do the cats get played with, petted and held?
- What is done to help reduce anxiety and fear?
- Is there a veterinarian on-call for emergencies?
- How is the facility monitored at night?
Some boarding facilities have great enrichment protocols and others are stark and depressing.
The Comforts of Home
Hiring a pet sitter or having a friend come over to care for your cat is a great way for you to have the security of knowing your cat remains the most comfortable in her own surroundings. It’s bad enough that kitty’s family has run off and disappeared without warning but at least she hasn’t lost her territory. Just having that security can make a big difference in whether your cat freaks out during your absence or whether she takes it in stride with minimal stress. For some cats, being placed in a boarding kennel, no matter how well run, is terrifying. Don’t get me wrong, there are some state of the art boarding facilities that look better than many of the hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, but for a cat, nothing beats the familiarity of home. So if it’s in the budget, hire an experienced pet sitter or work out an arrangement with a friend or neighbor.
You have to do your homework when planning to have someone come in to care for your cat. Don’t just ask the kid next door to drop in every day to toss food in the bowl. You need someone who will make sure your cat is safe, clean the litter box, feed the cat, monitor how your cat is eating and using the litter box, interact with your cat (if the cat enjoys this) and try to minimize the stress of your absence. A pet sitter who takes the time to play with the cat or interact in whatever way that particular cat enjoys can make a big difference in keeping that kitty stress-o-meter at a manageable level. The pet caretaker who bolts in the door and is back out in mere minutes isn’t going to notice that your cat maybe hasn’t urinated all day or that she has pulled a patch of hair off her hind leg, is limping or maybe scratched her eye and is squinting in pain. The “drive-by” pet caretaker isn’t much better than you filling up the food and water bowl and taking your chances that nothing bad will happen to the cat. Hire a pet sitter who cares deeply for the welfare of every client or if you’re choosing a friend/neighbor to help you, ask someone who can take the time to ensure your cat’s safety and security.
How Often Should the Pet Sitter Visit?
Ok, so by now you know that my preferred method of caring for a cat while the family is away is by hiring a top-notch pet sitter or using a very trusted friend. Now we come to another question though – how many visits per day are needed? Many people think a single visit to the home is adequate but really, you need at least two visits daily.
If your cat is used scheduled meals, you need to have the pet sitter come at those times to maintain the normal schedule. It can be very stressful for a cat who is used to eating two or three times a day to now have to deal with just one meal on top of the fact that her entire family has up and gone. It’s also not healthy for her digestion to gulp down in one meal what she normally would eat over multiple meals.
It’s also important that what’s happening in the litter is monitored. If there’s any diarrhea, constipation, bloody urine or lack of any evidence of litter box activity whatsoever, it’s better that it’s noticed right away. The twice-daily pet sitter visit will also help ensure good litter box hygiene. If your cat is used to having a sparkly clean box then having to navigate over mounds of soiled litter won’t go over very well.
More than one visit per day also provides activity for your cat which can make a big difference in maintaining minimal stress levels. A visit in the morning to open curtains and do a little playtime in addition to the normal feeding and litter box cleaning and then an evening visit to turn lights on, close curtains and spend some petting or playtime can set kitty up for a nice night. Just having some normal household sounds can provide a sense of security. For example: the television or radio on during one of the visits or hearing the sound of a person’s voice.
Last, but not least, is the fact that if there is any medical issue with your cat, wouldn’t you rather that it not take 24 hours before it got noticed?
When planning for your cat’s care during your vacation or holiday travel, the extra precautions you take to minimize stress and help ensure safety and security can make all the difference in whether this is a positive or negative experience… for everyone.
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Pam is unable to respond to questions or remarks posted in the comment section. If you have a question about cat behavior, you can find many answers in the articles Pam writes for the website as well as in her best-selling books.