My clients don’t talk, though we communicate just fine. I read body language, posture and blinking eyes. I interpret moods, stretches and the consumption and digestion of food. It’s all in a day’s work, cat-sitting in New York City.
Cat-sitting might not seem like a viable way of earning income, but the City that Never Sleeps is also the City of Frequent Flyers, and I do all right. It’s a strange way to earn money, but a fun one. It allows me a lot of freedom: I can build my own schedule and I am not cooped up behind a desk all day. I have time to write and, of course, I get to spend time with some amazing cats.
During busy times, especially holidays, I live and breathe cats. I’ve walked as much as ten miles and visited as many as twelve homes in a single day. Manhattan sitters can manage more visits, but Brooklyn, where I work, requires additional travel time. Each visit lasts about a half hour during which I quickly take care of the basics—food, water, and litter scooping—so I can spend the rest of the time with the kitties.
It’s strange to enter people’s homes when they’re not there. It’s strange to be involved in a caregiving job so intimate and yet so disconnected. These people trust me in their homes and with their pets; it’s a solemn trust, and it’s also ridiculous. Some people, people who are not pet owners, ask: why can’t they just leave out enough food for a few days, let the cats fend for themselves? The cats will be fine, they say, but they don’t get it. Cats do like people, but they’re cautious, and winning over a particularly shy cat is always an ego boost.
The cats’ personalities are diverse. I’ve done cat-sitting for shy kitties, snuggly kitties, playful kitties, and kitties who were not particularly interested in having me in their space. I’ve been hissed at, stalked, scratched, rushed, and peed on. One particular cat named Muffy* stands out among the latter.
It’s always a bad sign when the owners say they’ll leave a squirt bottle by the door. At first, Muffy and I had a tentative truce; she would hide in the bedroom and I had the rest of the apartment. One day, while I was in the kitchen preparing her food and meds, the truce ended. Through the open doorway came a low, melodic warble. I froze in the middle of stuffing a half tablet of Muffy’s Prozac into a pill pocket. I slowly turned to see her hunched in the doorway, back arched like a Halloween cat, ears flat against her head. A quick glance confirmed my sick realization: my umbrella, my usual shield against territorial cats, was on the table across the room. Muffy yowled and darted forward.
Instinctively I grabbed the closest available thing I could use as a shield: the kitchen rug. Wielding the rug like a bull-fighter, I kept it between Muffy and my legs while she howled and spat and sank her claws into the pile. After a few passes she decided she’d had enough and slunk back to the bedroom to hide. I tried sitting for Muffy a few more times, but she never got any friendlier, and I eventually had to stop.
As exciting as the bad stories can be, most of my experiences cat-sitting have been wonderful. Contrary to popular belief, cats are actually quite social. They come to greet me when I visit, and I know it’s not just the food. They’ll rub against my legs, hop on my shoulders, and chew on my hair. They hug me when I pick them up. Some are very chatty and fill me in on their day, while others eagerly lead me to their toys so we can play.
One of the best parts of the job is getting to know the cats. They have such distinct personalities. I sat for a beautiful old calico named Ophelia who had a strange habit of sticking out her tongue and nursing whenever someone pet her. Suki plays “soccer,” which involves her going to the top of the stair case with me at the bottom, then I’ll throw a little ball to her on the landing. She will bat it around a few times, then knock it back down the stairs for me so I can throw it again. Nuala will grab a feather toy in her teeth and cart it around the apartment, meowing as loudly as she can. Nuala likes to knock her owner’s toothbrushes into the toilet, too. At least she did, until they learned to put them out of her reach. Reilly has a Q-Tips fetish. Whiskers holds hands. Lucy had the loudest, most demanding meow of any cat I’d ever met. At 20 years old, she was queen of the household, and she let everyone know it.
The hardest part of cat-sitting is when the cats become ill, and especially saying goodbye. Cats do not live forever, and I’ve been cat-sitting long enough that I’ve been there for those times, too. Over the years I’ve learned how to give all kinds of medications, from pills to insulin to eyedrops to subcutaneous fluids. There is a particular kind of sadness that comes when you know you are caring for a cat who won’t be around much longer. I’ve had to say goodbye to many wonderful cats.
Friday, who passed away from cancer, would just sit in my lap the whole visit and purr. Lucy, the girl with the loudest meow, became increasingly thin and frail with old age and chronic kidney problems, but still was demanding as ever. But once she’d been fed and gotten her fluids, she’d sit on the couch behind me and bury her face in my neck.
Then there was Claire, a cantankerous kitty who loved nothing but his people and his little stuffed dinosaur. Me? Well, he tolerated me. Incidentally, Claire was a boy, but had been named when he was young, when they thought he was a she. By the time they figured it out, everyone was used to the name so it stayed. Toward the end of his life, his owners were unable to take off additional time during work to be with him, but they hired me to do so during the afternoons. I got to spend time with Claire during his last few days, petting and talking to him and encouraging him to eat, but he waited to pass until his mom and dad got home.
I have cared for some truly amazing cats over the years, and it’s funny when I realize how I actually know the cats better than their owners. I communicate with the owners through notes, texts and emails. Conversations are always cat-centric: how they’re eating; if they’re being social; if they’re playing, pouting, or getting into trouble. I send them pictures of my adorable charges, and they gush. They miss the little fur-balls. It’s silly, they say; I say it’s not. I understand. I get it.
— originally published at Crixeo.com