I occasionally get asked what it's like living with cats on a sailboat, so I figured I'd put together a bit of a list to cover some of the more common questions I get asked about sailing with some cats on a yacht.
I don't intend for this to become a penultimate 'how-to guide for boating with cats', just a sort of loose rundown of some things that I get asked about and some others that I think might be of interest.
I'm also not encouraging people to take cats on yachts or boats, but if you must, or just can't leave them behind - here is what we did, and how it's worked out for us, so far.
Living with cats on a yacht...
If you're living on a yacht, or want to, and also decide to bring cats into the mix - there's a few things you may want to take into consideration...
Life on the water
Getting your cats used to life on the water, I feel, should be a gradual process...there's a lot of new sounds that happen on a boat that they're probably just not used to, such as the constant sound of water, passing boats, waves, the engine - even just the movement of the boat can take a little getting used to for some cats.
So, before we even left the dock, I gave them about a month to get used to everything.
They spent the first week was spent sniffing around and inspecting everywhere that could be inspected, and by the second week, they were pretty chilled about the new environment having found their 'spots' in various places...
They didn't even want to know about the outside world until the third week.
By the fourth week, they had been introduced to most of the sounds and then the final test of actually going sailing, which they didn't exactly like at first.
Around this time I also used to run the engine for about an hour a day just to get them used to that sound - the first time they heard it they weren't sure what to think of it, but again, they didn't like that too much either.
But after a short time of learning that the engine was a bit loud but essentially harmless and the heeling of the yacht, although tough to walk in, was also harmless - they were fine about life on the water.
Now a few years in, they couldn't care less about all the noises - and are now as 'at home' on the water as they were on the land, but I think gradually introducing them helped them make the transition.
But some cats do take to it right away, but if your cat has any kind of nervous disposition, please consider doing it gradually - Look, once you get your cat onboard - you'll know what kind of cat you have!
Cats need Space
Our yacht is 35ft in length, and with 11.5ft of beam (width) I'd say there's quite a bit of space onboard - this vessel can, technically, sleep 9 people - but I wouldn't like to try it!
Unless your cats sleep together, they're gonna need their own space somewhere onboard - at nights, well, my cats go to the warmth and generally sleep in whatever cabin I sleep in.
But during the day, or when I'm not sleeping - they have their own little spaces they find to claim as their own.
I think its important, that they have a space, or spaces where they're comfortable and relaxed or just a place they can go that they can rely on when they get a little stressed or something has disturbed them, like strange noises from outside the boat...
...plus they need some space for when the 'zoomies' strike!
But extra care should be taken to ensure that they cannot get into anywhere they might come to harm, like into the engine room, or into chemicals or cleaning products. Cats can squeeze themselves through quite small openings like access panels to through-hulls that lead into other potentially dangerous spaces.
This was something I thought I could deal with by brushing them regularly to minimize shedding, and vacuuming regularly. Although brushing them helps - I'm slowly losing the battle.
I think getting a powerful vacuum is essential to get as much of it as possible, but I think even with the best tools at your disposal, you're not going to get it all, over time - it wins.
I have just accepted that there will always be a certain amount of cat hair, and I guess it doesn't really bother me so much anymore - but if it's something that bothers you, then it's something to think about.
Cat box / Litter tray
Onboard, the cats use litter trays and they seem to prefer certain brands. There is a lot of debate around whether to use the crystals or some of the lightweight cat litters - I will not wade into that, as my cats use fullers-earth(clay) cat litter.
I'm glad they like it - it's cheap, widely available - and it sinks.
The fact that it sinks is important. I had used some of that lightweight stuff once as I couldn't get any of their usual stuff - rather than clean the box with the little shovel, I just tipped the contents of their box over the side and a 50ft 'cat litter slick' appeared in the harbour - you don't do that twice. It was all-natural stuff, so it didn't do any harm, but it sure looked a mess!
The downside to clay cat litter is that it's heavy. I don't mind that it's heavy but you have to get it on the yacht - and that usually means carrying it. The longer the pontoon, the longer the haul. Stock up when the shop is nearby!
Keeping it dry can also be an issue depending on your boat, but for us, it's never really been an issue. Also, If you are moving around, you will also need to carry a stock of it - so stock up when you can...the further-flung you go, the less likely you are to be able to buy some. We've had as much as 200kg of cat litter onboard at one time, and try to keep a 'float' of 50kgs - about a month's supply.
Running out of litter is a smelly disaster, and one that's best avoided on a small boat - you've been warned!
If you have picky cats, that prefer a specific special brand of cat food, we recommend stocking up on it wherever possible. buy as much as you can sensibly store. Finding it another store is always possible - and when you do find it - they may only have a small stock of it.
Stocking up will save you the bother, and possibly, a long walk to a store that sells the precious foodstuff that your cat has to have - If I know we're going to be moving around for a while it's not uncommon for us to have 3-5 months of cat food onboard.
It sounds like a lot, but it saves so much bother in the long run, for us anyway...
Sailing with cats on a yacht
Having your cat, or cats, onboard while you're sailing is awesome and terrifying at the same time. Sure, it's nice to have them there, and they're great company - but just the slightest error in judgment can have tragic consequences.
I remember reading that a person in the water, in a bright orange vest, in moderate choppy seas can only be clearly seen at a distance of around 20ft, much further, and they get lost in the chop of the waves and become sporadically visible for a few seconds before being lost to view again by waves. The small or even the largest domestic cat has even less chance, and at night - almost no chance.
With us sailing in the North Sea, that water is cold - that water is death as far as I'm concerned - so I've set things up with that in mind, to minimize the probability of anything or anyone falling overboard...
So how do you keep them safe?
Netting the safety rails
To net, or not to net? Some people don't like having the netting on the rails, whereas others think it looks good, others just appreciate that nothing gets lost over the side.
Whether you are sailing or not, I like the netting as it limits the number of places they could actually fall over the side - so it gives me fewer places to have to keep an eye on, plus I like that it actually makes a bit of a barrier to the outside world when we're in a marina.
We've had instances with dogs, loose on the pontoon. Some dogs are ok and don't bother the cats - but the odd dog will have that instant reaction and try to chase them, but the netting prevents them from boarding. So I like the netting for keeping the cats on, and for keeping intruders off!
Not putting dogs down in any way at all, they're just doing what they do, and are popular sailing pets that aren't always on a lead, so they will be around in certain marinas, it's just another factor to take into account when deciding to net, or not...
We've found netting to be very effective, cheap, and easy to install and would recommend it for sailing vessels - But cats will find the gaps and pop their head out from time to time...
Above or below decks?
I get asked if the cats come on the deck while we're sailing, the truth is both yes and no.
When conditions are glassy calm, sure - I'll let them up on deck, and if it is that calm they want to come up. If conditions are choppier, Phoebe will tend to be in her bunk or near her food bowls, while Chloe will be on my lap in the cockpit.
If conditions are fouler, they are both down below in their bunks where it's safe and warm and have no interest in coming topside, this is both by their choice and my preference. This is, of course, an ideal arrangement that just happens to work for us and also makes the most amount of sense.
Cat Safety Gear
I have seen a lot of different types of life vests for cats, and I don't recommend any of them, there may be some good ones out there - but I haven't seen them. The ones that I have seen seem cumbersome and uncomfy for the cat to wear - and the last neoprene life vests I tried to get my cats to wear, one of them at least, managed to get caught up in a deck fitting!
Both of my cats hate them and end up spending their time trying to get out of them, this being the case I tried harnesses with much more success. They won't help them float, but the harness does allow them to be tethered to the boat, so they can't fall off, and they don't seem to mind wearing them as much.
That being said - they are rarely in their harnesses, it's only the odd occasion when they want to come on the deck while we're sailing. I don't make them wear them when we are tied up in a marina. Although I have seen folk who keep their cats in harnesses and on tethers at all times, and I guess that works for them, luckily our cats are relatively well-behaved and don't tend to go wandering off.
I think most of the stuff you see on the nautical market for sale for cats, as far as I can see, is mostly just for aesthetics or to give 'peace of mind' to the owner, but I feel they do little for the actual safety of the cat.
All I can say is that harnesses worked for us, but I would encourage you to try different methods to see which one works best for your cat, on your boat.
The best tools cats have - is their claws. I would recommend that you don't trim your cat's claws as they will need them onboard for keeping their grip. Get a scratching post so they can keep their nails in tip-top shape!
Do cats get seasick?
Yeah, as I understand it, yes they can. Cats are as susceptible as anything else to seasickness, but as we live on the yacht full time I think we're quite used to the motion of the sea by now - and we've had no instances of feline seasickness, so far...and we've done a good few thousand miles.
I think a gradual introduction helped with this as well, for both the cats and myself - I think just about anyone will get seasick if you just go from land to the open ocean...your body just takes some time to adjust, and I think that's true for cats, dogs, rabbits, or people...
I think if conditions were right, even my seasoned girls would, no doubt, get seasick - as I probably would. No one is immune to seasickness, it's all down to your bodies' acclimation to the sea, but again, if conditions are right - even the most seasoned weather-hardened sailor will eventually succumb to some form of seasickness at some point.
Assuming you are sailing on the sea, salt is something to consider also. We have an elderly cat on board with some health issues and although the amount of salt on the deck itself is probably harmless, over time, prolonged exposure can't be good, right?
Whenever we've been out sailing, I almost always rinse the deck with fresh water before I let the cats out on deck. If you've been out for any real amount of time - a few days or more, all the spray from the bow and every bit of seawater splashed on deck crystalizes and becomes like grit on every surface, and that 'grit' is super salty! in some places it forms like frost.
I only include salt on this list as one day I happened to notice my cats licking their feet and making some faces as they did so...so the salt was def sticking to their feet and was understandably unpleasant to lick! From then on I made it a policy to always rinse down the decks...
The salt, also, if it gets in their fur seems to generate little tufts that can't be brushed out. Phoebe, our elderly cat who has the longest fur seems to be most affected by this and gets little knotty tufts in her belly fur from laying down on an unrinsed salty deck...
Now, this has been a real pain in the ass for us. Our elderly cat, Phoebe, occasionally needs some medication, and as long as we have it - all is well. But running out, and getting more meds from a new vet can be an expensive affair.
I have records for both cats, and even if the issue is well documented they will still want an 'initial consultation fee' plus the cost of the meds, or they might want to re-run tests or scans altogether - all to get the medication that only costs a few dollars. We run everything on a very tight budget and just can't afford to shell out like that each time we need a repeat prescription...
And I'm not talking about anything crazy either, our issues have been centered around antibiotics, and on one occasion, some anti-inflammatory medication...but even something as simple as eye drops can be a hassle.
I understand their policy, and why they do it - but it's a situation that can be avoided with a bit of planning - as it can run into hundreds, if not thousands very quickly.
The best policy would be to get good health insurance for your pet - looking back, I think it probably would have worked out cheaper in the long run for us - but she's a bit old to get a practical plan now, but hindsight is 20/20.. blah blah blah.
Our advice is to talk to your vet and get any medications you need in advance or arrange to have them sent to wherever you are to avoid any additional expenses. I feel it's best to carry what you need - and don't delay in replenishing stock as it's used by your pet.
You never know what unforeseen issues can delay the mail, such as a mail strike or a pandemic - but best to avoid new vets if possible, from a 'cost perspective' that is. stocking up on what you need will save you a lot of time/money and save your pet from having to wait for medication, but again - insurance would possibly alleviate this issue.
These are a no-brainer, get your pet chipped. If they were to get lost or somehow get separated from the boat through any unforeseeable event - that chip is probably the best chance you ever have of getting your pet returned to you.
A lost, or stray animal, upon getting to a shelter is usually scanned for a chip. If your pet has no chip - it just goes into the system like a regular cat, and depending on what kind of shelter your pet has been handed into will decide its fate from there...
Cats on Sailboats
In conclusion, can you live on a sailboat with a cat? Yeah, it's totally possible, but you'll need or want to make a few adjustments to keep them safe. And all of this is in no way all you have to do, all cats are a bit different and have slightly different requirements, you'll have to customize your boat to both the needs of your cat and your own preferences to keep everyone happy...
We've been living and traveling for almost 3 years on this yacht and I have no regrets in taking them with me, and they seem to like it - I definitely get to spend more time with them and it's certainly more interesting than just looking out the window of an apartment.
I had been worried about Phoebe as she was 15 when we moved aboard - and I thought that being an older cat she might have the hardest time adjusting, but she was super casual about the whole affair - I think she's pleased to be spending her twilight years on a yacht.
Sure, they generate a bit of anxiety from time to time, and would it be easier without them - sometimes, but I couldn't have left them behind and am very pleased they were able to make the adjustment.
If you feel there is something important that I've missed out, or something that should be included, or just have a question about sailing with cats, please feel to send us a message through our Facebook page and we'll do our best to get back to you in a timely fashion!