Gremlin and Spitfire (cats)
Name: James & Jennifer Hamilton
Boat name: Dirona
Boat model: Nordhavn 52
Years cruising with pet: We’ve cruised with two different cats: Gremlin was 10 years old before we introduced him to boating and Spitfire was a kitten when we brought him aboard several years later. Both have enjoyed being on the boat and have seemed as content afloat as on land. Spitfire now has been cruising with us for nearly 14 years and has gone around the world from Seattle across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans and currently we’re all back in the US moored in Florida.
Spitfire has adapted to living aboard as well as we have. While he may not appreciate the 52’s many amenities, he loves the extra space and is constantly finding new places to perch and check out the surroundings. We love having him aboard and some of the systems we’ve developed help ensure that he has many years of safe, comfortable and relaxed cruising ahead of him.
The main thing Spitfires doesn’t like about being at sea is sliding around when he’s sleeping, so he just adjusts his sleeping position to wedge himself in more securely. At rest or in calm conditions at sea, he’ll sleep pretty much anywhere, often upside-down. In light seas, he’ll brace his paws against a wall. As conditions get rougher he’ll wedge into the pilothouse corner shelf above the master stateroom steps. And in extreme conditions, he curls up into the master stateroom sink where he doesn’t shift an inch.
Advice: In our experience, cats need time to adapt to a new environment. They’ll want to inspect a new area and understand its limits. We’ve read of people who brought their cat aboard for the first time, stuck the animal below, then immediately started the engines and set off. This is not the ideal way to introduce any pet to boating. The animals will likely be frightened and resist further attempts to bring them aboard.
When acclimatizing our cats, we brought them on board to spend a night at the marina first. We wanted to ensure they were comfortable with the new surroundings before doing anything else. For cats, cleaning or using the litter box is a good sign that they feel secure. Once they seem relaxed, we start the engines a couple of times to accustom them to the sound. But we didn’t move the boat. Spitfire finds new sounds terrifying—he bolted from the room when we turned a blender on once. But he eventually got used the engine sound (and the blender.)
We monitor our cat’s location frequently, either underway, at anchor, or at a dock, and keep him inside if we are sleeping or away from the boat. We’ll keep a hatch open overnight only if it has a screen. A collar bell helps in tracking his movements. This is particularly important for kittens. Like people, young cats take more chance, are less careful near the water, and can fall in. They do get smarter and more careful as they mature–Spitfire is a testament to both ends of that spectrum. The collar has a breakaway safety buckle that releases if the cat becomes entangled, reducing the chance of choking. For the most part, neither cat has exercised this safety feature, but we have found Spitfire’s collar dangling on a window latch above an open stairwell. We’re not sure what happened, but were glad he was wearing that kind of collar. In case he does escape our monitoring and become lost ashore, he wears a tag with his name, our cell phone number, and our boat name. And we never sail until we know he is onboard. We’ve never had a problem, but have heard stories of people losing their pets this way.
On the previous boat and in our house, we used a standard-sized covered litter box and regular clay litter. A major disadvantage of clay litter is that the cats tracked it everywhere, along with very dusty paw prints. On the 52 we went with a new system, Tidy Cats Breeze. A special litter box holds non-absorbing pellets and solid waste, while liquid waste drains through to a diaper-like liner in a tray underneath. The liner lasts up to a week with no odor at all. And the pellets, because they aren’t designed to absorb moisture, last several months. The Breeze system has a number of advantages over standard litter systems, particularly on a boat. Cleaning the box is almost trivial–once a week we simply pull out the tray and replace the old liner with a new one. We clean solid waste out daily (we did that before anyway) and change the pellets every 2-3 months (the manufacturer suggests monthly changes, but they last longer in our experience). Spitfire took to the box right away as soon as we’d set it up–we didn’t need to follow the instructions for acclimatizing him. He occasionally kicks a couple of pellets out, but they don’t track and are almost dust-free. Perhaps the best part, however, is how little storage space the refills consume compared to regular litter. In the attached photo, the large bag at the bottom is a 2-3 week supply of standard clay litter. Above it is a 10-month supply of liners and a 12-18-month supply of pellets from the Breeze system.
For traveling outside the U.S. or Canada we highly recommend the book Where There Is No Pet Doctor. We bought it mostly for medical purposes, but it turned out to have an excellent section on preparing your pet for international travel (paperwork, shots, lost & found advice, etc.). For example, from it we learned that the microchips used in the US are US-specific. Some countries like Fiji and New Zealand now have scanners for them, but that is relatively recent. We got Spitfire an international chip to be on the safe side. Every country we’ve visited has wanted to see the paperwork that the book recommended, but so far few have cared to scan the chip. And after a couple of scares with scanner malfunctions though, particularly on arrival into Hawaii, we bought our own scanner (a Datamars Micromax). Good insurance for just over $100.
Worst thing about traveling with pets: Pets are harder to bring into countries than people. And the process, if documented at all, often assumes arrival by plane where the time between departure inspections/treatments and arrival is measured in hours rather than days or weeks. So we’ve spent a lot of time on the phone and in email clarifying the requirements for each country we visited and getting Spitfire tested, treated and inspected. The good news is that the applied rules often are less strict than the official process, particularly for cats who will be kept on board. Ensure you have documentation for any dispensations granted.