This article was originally published in Pet Boarding and Daycare Magazine. While the article was written for operators of cat boarding and grooming establishments, the tips I provided can also help cat guardians in choosing a good boarding facility for cats.
Cats have a reputation for being independent, which often leads people to believe that they’ll do just fine on their own when their guardians have to go away for a few days. As long as someone comes in and leaves fresh food and water, that’s all they need, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. Accidents happen. Cats could stop eating while their guardians are away, or become ill. Cats need more than just food and water to thrive – they need human interaction, and a chance to play.
Generally, there are two options cat owners who have to travel: having a friend, neighbor or professional pet sitter come to the house, or boarding the cat at a boarding facility. Since cats dislike change, boarding can be a stressful experience. Boarding facilities who wish to attract cat owners need to be aware of cats’ unique needs, and take measures to reduce stress for their feline guests.
Select a boarding facility designed for cats
Providing a low-stress environment for cats starts with the selection of the actual boarding kennel. When Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, designed the boarding section of her cat clinics in Chico, CA and Portland, OR, she made sure that all design decision and selections were made with cats’ needs in mind. “We have a large boarding room with sleeping benches in each enclosure, and a view of the garden from the back of each enclosure,” says Colleran.
Cat kennels or condos should be spacious enough to accommodate separate areas for the cat’s litter box, food, and lounging areas. In order to minimize noise as well as stress, cat boarding areas should be separate from dog boarding kennels. Most cats will find the sound of barking dogs distressing. Cat boarding areas should also be kept away from the main traffic flow of the facility. Cats should not be able to see other cats from their cage or condo. Since cats are territorial animals, the sight of another cat can be stressful and cause aggression toward kennel staff and other cats in the facility.
Environmental enrichment features
Enriching the kennel with features such as resting boards, cardboard hiding boxes, bedding and toys can go a long way toward making cats more comfortable. Offering a view of the outside can be an added bonus: “Bird TV” can keep cats entertained during the day. Playing soft music throughout the day can provide a “white noise” effect. Studies have shown that classical music, or music specifically designed to calm pets, can have beneficial effects on cats’ stress levels.
Pheromone sprays and plug ins can help reduce anxiety in kennel areas. Cages and bedding should be sprayed every day. The use of pheromone plug ins in all areas of the kennel where cats will be housed can help keep feline boarders calm. Holistic remedies such as Rescue Remedy or Spirit Essences Stress Stopper can be beneficial as well.
Common social areas – yes or no?
If a boarding facility provides common social areas for cats, it is critical to only allow cats from the same family into the area at the same time, and only if prior approval is obtained from the cat’s owner. Common areas, as well as individual cages, need to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between cats to minimize the potential for exposure to spread illness Even seemingly healthy cats can be carriers of feline viruses without exhibiting signs of disease. “There is a balance between cleanliness/disinfection and the elaborateness of the enclosures and common areas,” says Dr. Colleran. “I chose to keep them very simple so that we would never have a problem with viruses.”
Give cats time to acclimate
A boarding facility can be frightening for cats, especially those who have not been away from home before. Cats will need time to acclimate to a new environment. Most cats will adjust with two or three days. They may not eat much during the adjustment period, and it is critical that food intake is monitored closely. A cat who doesn’t eat for more than 24-48 hours is at risk for hepatic lipidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Staff needs to be trained in proper handling of cats
Staff should be trained in proper handling of cats and in how to read a cat’s body language to avoid inadvertently stressing cats. “We watch for the behaviors we know indicate that cats are settling in,” explains Dr. Colleran, “especially how soon they eat, where they sit in the enclosure and how willing they are to curl up and sleep.”
Cats are highly sensitive to energy. A study conducted at the Ohio State University School of Veterinary Medicine demonstrated a connection between stress and illness in cats. Researchers found that they had to manage their own stress levels when they were around the cats. “I had to be careful if I was having a bad day so it didn’t rub off on the cats,” says Judi Stella, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher at Purdue University, who participated in the study. Staff should approach cats slowly and speak in soft voices. They should understand that forcing human contact does not accelerate a cat’s acclimation period. Cats need to be allowed to relax at their own pace.
Personal belongings with the scent of home
Allow cat owners to bring their cat’s personal belongings. “We invite people to bring familiar bedding and familiar toys, food or treats,” says Dr. Colleran. A blanket, article of clothing with the owner’s scent on it or a favorite toy may go a long way toward making a cat feel more secure.
Consider installing web cameras in cat boarding areas so clients can monitor their cats while they’re away. Webcams are easy to set up and allow cat owners to watch live streaming video of their feline family members on the boarding facility’s website. Most pet parents love being able to see their cat while they’re away from. “The web cams give me the opportunity to check on my cat Smoky 24/7,’ says Maureen Carnevale, who boards her cat at Olde Town Pet Resort in Springfield, VA. “Additionally, I can also observe the staff and the care Smoky receives in my absence. This gives me a lot of comfort and peace of mind.”
Boarding facilities can greatly reduce stress for their feline clients by keeping cats’ unique needs in mind during facility design and when developing operating procedures.
Photo by Rocky Mountain Cat Rescue, Flickr Creative Commons