When my cat sitters arrive that first morning that I’m leaving, they’re always met by a posse of cats in the kitchen. In unison, the members of the feline tribunal turn their eyes questioningly on the sitters. Once they see that their bowls are being filled, they pretty much ignore the sitters and go about their business.
The cat sitter option works well, on the whole. Felines like having the freedom of movement and the comfort of familiar places. “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,” cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett writes.
I’ve been on both sides. Apart from being a card-carrying ailurophile (cat lover) most of my life, I’ve also been a pet sitter, working both on my own and for various companies. And here’s what I’ve learned.
It’s Not Just a Food Thing
Back in the day, people going away for long weekends used to just leave dry food and water out for their cats. Dogs had to be walked, but cats, the reasoning went, would be fine on their own as long as they had the basics.
We know better now. Cats need visits once or twice a day, depending on their feeding schedule. Litter boxes require daily scooping, or else cats may stop using them in protest. Eyes need de-gooping, and some cats need medicating. A cat can swallow a foreign object or get hung up on his “safety” collar.
Plus, cats may find being without their humans very stressful. “Going off and leaving your cats alone for a few days is inviting trouble,” cat therapist Carole Wilbourn insists. “Because they are stressed, their resistance is low and they cannot function as well on a day-to-day basis.”
Cats are no strangers to separation anxiety. “[I]t 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,” says Johnson-Bennett. “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.”
A Closed-Door Policy
Even if your charges are indoor-outdoor cats, you’re better off keeping them in. Then you know everyone’s safe and sound, even if they’re hiding under beds and bureaus.
I’ve only had 1 exceptional to that rule: Skeeter, who went ballistic whenever his human tried to get him to join the indoor crew. So he had his on-the-porch headquarters, and I simply tended to his food and water.
Be the Cats’ Advocate
If you notice the cats having an issue with anything, tell the guardians.
Sometimes, for instance, one well-meaning guardian would fill the litter box to the brim, making it difficult for the cat to maneuver in it. But my supervisor told me not to mention it because doing so would imply a criticism of said guardian.
When I was working on my own, however, I came across the same situation: Spangles, a large girl, couldn’t get comfortable in the box. In fact, she sometimes ended up wetting outside it.
I mentioned this to her human, who was incredibly relieved — she’d noticed the wetting and was worried that Spangles had a health issue.
This company in L.A. makes sure cats have a swell time when their guardians are away:
Think Like a Cat
Some sitters don’t.
One pet sitter I knew had a regular gig at a multi-cat household. The problem was she was allergic to and a little frightened of cats. One cat got out, and she threw a blanket over her “because that’s what you do with horses.” Well, it backfired with the feline. And, FYI, it doesn’t work with horses, either.
One pet sitting website advises playing with the cats. That’s a good idea — assuming, of course, that the cats want to play. I’ve had some gigs where they’ve come out to greet me and follow me around the house. But I’ve also seen them disappear under furniture immediately.
Most felines take their time getting to know you. Respect that and talk aloud to them while you’re cleaning dishes and sifting litter. Gradually, they get used to your voice and venture out.
You learn as you go along. It’s all about speaking cat.