While her sibling of the day, Caddy, proudly introduced me to such surprising creatures as ermines and flying squirrels by batting them from the cottage rafters, Wolfe just liked to chatter at birds, making that peculiar predatory vocalization that brings to mind a set of wind-up false teeth. One day, I heard her clacking in a different way, from outside the window. She seemed to have grown extra whiskers, which she was tapping against the glass. From the length of the handful of quills we plucked from her face, we surmised that she’d met a baby porcupine. How she walked away only mildly impaled remains an enduring mystery, but my theory is that Wolfe, the sweetest cat I’ve ever known, just wanted to kiss her prickly pal.
There were worse catastrophes. Caddy got a leg chewed up by a fox or a coyote—that was the vet’s deduction—and hopped around with a trussed-up limb for weeks. Cowboy, my mother in-law’s cat, climbed a giant pine and was marooned there for two days until I engaged a tree cutter with an extendable ladder to come and snatch her down.
The Beast, my polydactyl tabby—a cat with extra toes—had a habit of bestowing baby rabbits. I bottle-fed them and prayed they’d live. None ever did. A tiny graveyard grew behind the cottage, the crosses made from twigs.
Ah, but then there were the happy times. All those walks with various felines trailing me through the woods, even in snow, springing from boot print to boot print. One night, I set out cross-country skiing with my headlamp; when I looked back, there were two cats loping behind, one in each narrow groove.
Even the lake was no deterrent. Roscoe, whose mother was a Turkish water cat, followed me into the canoe one day and on many days thereafter. He would walk the gunwales like a circus performer and extend himself from the prow like a bewhiskered bowsprit. He also swam quite willingly—at least, he didn’t get too worked up when he fell out of the canoe or when we mischievously placed him in the lake. He’d just calmly start cat-paddling toward land.
Michigan, a waif lurking around a Flint dumpster, whom I found on a road trip, turned out to be a canoer too. I’d take him and Roscoe together, and the two would race into scouting position, paws planted against the rails. You’d think, from the intensity of their stance, that we were on some grand whaling mission, though the most we ever spied was a smallmouth bass.
I’ve had companion dogs too and taken them on many adventures. There’s something about a cat in the cottage setting, though, that feels particularly special to me, somehow novel and natural at once—as if they don’t quite belong and yet, with their innate wildness, clearly do. And in being so attuned to their surroundings, not to mention so freakily silent and patient, they become a kind of intermediary, sharpening my own appreciation of the environment.
“Domestic cats definitely seem closer to their wild counterpart than dogs do to wolves,” writes Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson in his book Beasts. “I never, ever feel threatened by Benjy, my yellow Lab. But my cats sometimes give me a peculiar look, and I know better than to try to force them to do something they would rather not.” I know that look, although just as often I interpret it as a kind of primordial intelligence as opposed to simple recalcitrance. It’s as if cats just know something I don’t, possess an insight they can’t be bothered to explain—and won’t have bred or tamed out of them.
After years of letting my cats wander at will, I have come to a point where I’m no longer comfortable with a free-range feline. I have acquainted my current pal, Vinny, a plush Russian blue, with a harness and a retractable leash for outdoor expeditions. When I tap my fingers on the table where I keep this equipment, he leaps up, starts to purr, and waits for me to buckle him in.
And off we go, Vinny first. He doesn’t heel, but neither does he refuse to move. He prowls, as cats are wont to do. And I prowl along in his wake, learning all kinds of new ways to observe, and think about, the world.
How do I take the drama out of the drive?
Cats can be fussy and queasy travellers. They don’t seem to enjoy singalongs, unless you count discordant yowls, and passing scenery can be more frightening to them than soothing. But the most important thing is to make sure that they’re safe and you are too. “You want them to be secure, in a large enough carrier that they can stand up, and with something on the bottom so they’re not sliding around,” says Nicole Baran of the Sudbury Regional Cat Hospital.
Tuck in a favourite blanket or a soft towel for comfort. “Some cats also like the crate covered because the sight of things whipping past can be stressful.” Much as you may want to, you should resist the urge to let kitty out for cuddling, Baran says. “If they get startled, they’re small enough that they can find their way under the driver’s seat, and you don’t want that.” For cats who just can’t seem to relax, there are calming products available. “There’s a pheromone spray that, in my experience, does work,” says Baran. Spritzed on the cat’s carrier or blanket, Feliway mimics the natural facial pheromone of a happy cat. “With my cats, they just fall asleep,” Baran says. “It’s like a sedative.” Think twice about serving breakfast. “Some cats will get motion sickness,” Baran warns, and the meal may prompt a nature call mid-commute. If your trip is long, opt for a crate large enough to accommodate a small litter box.
Should I let my cat outside at the cottage?
You may be tempted to let your cat outdoors, if only to spare your screens, but most vets would vote for containment or at least curtailment. “I’m a big believer in letting cats out, but at the cottage I think you have to be out there with them,” says Margie Scherk, a renowned feline veterinary specialist and an international speaker based in Vancouver. A leash and harness work well for controlled outings, she says, provided the clasp is secure yet “not so big or heavy that it bangs between their shoulder blades.” But the leash needs someone on the other end. “I really cringe when people just stake their cat outside,” says Scherk. “They’re sitting ducks and can’t protect themselves.”
A caged outdoor space—a “catio”—is “probably the safest solution,” Scherk says. If you build it on the ground, the fencing should go underground too, she advises, so that a predator can’t tunnel in, and the cat can’t wiggle out. Identification is important, regardless, in case your cat does slip away. Collars with ID tags should be the breakaway type, to protect the cat from getting hung up on a branch or other object. Scherk recommends secondary ID as well, such as ear tattoos and microchip implants.
What are the dangers my cat could face?
Cats are susceptible to a wide range of predators and diseases in cottage country. A coyote, a fisher, or an owl could target them as food. And rabies is a real concern, even if you keep your cat indoors. “Make sure your cat’s vaccines are up to date, because at the cottage you’re closer to nature, and you may have a bat inside the cottage that you’re not even aware of,” says Baran. Mice may offer entertainment for cats, but, if eaten, can pass on parasites such as tapeworm or roundworm. If the cottager is putting out rodent poison, the cat “can ingest that poison by ingesting the mouse,” the vet warns—though that’s a small health risk compared to the greater danger of the cat eating the poison directly.
Mites, fleas, and ticks can also find their way onto a feline; fortunately, cats are less susceptible than dogs to Lyme disease or mange. There’s no reason why a cat can’t go for a boat ride, but Scherk recommends a feline PFD—yes, they exist —and tacking something textured to the hull’s smooth exterior. “You want to make sure the outside has a carpeted surface,” she says, “so the cats have something to grab on to if they fall in.”
What if my cat’s stuck in a tree?
Don’t get too excited. It got up there, so it can probably get back down. While it’s true that some cats get 10 metres up the tree only to panic when they contemplate the return to terra firma, “stuck” is largely a misnomer. “I’ve only run into a couple of cats who were physically wedged in a tree,” says Dan Kraus, an arborist who has personally fetched more than 980 felines from treetops and publishes catinatreerescue.com, an advice website.
Most cats are just spooked and will shimmy down once hunger or discomfort kicks in. Kraus recommends that you put a bowl of food beneath the tree and be patient. “Give it some time, and don’t freak them out more,” he says. If that fails, consider calling a tree-care company. Arborists are trained to scale trees, and Kraus maintains an online directory of those who specifically advertise as cat rescuers. Contacting your nearest fire station is a long shot. Even if the station has a ladder truck, firefighters generally can’t head out to remote sites in case they’re needed to respond to a fire. Kraus strongly discourages climbing a tree yourself without proper training and safety equipment. “I rescued a cat once, after the husband tried first—and fell and broke his arm,” he says.
Are cats a threat to birds?
A big one. Environment Canada research shows that “the impact of cats on bird mortality is higher than all the other sources of mortality combined,” says Richard Elliot, the director of wildlife research at the time of the four-year study. Scientists concluded that cats kill more than 100 million birds per year nationwide. And that, says Elliot, is a conservative estimate.
In cottage country, birds may be particularly susceptible. “Birds are pretty good at sussing out predation risk, but if the cat isn’t there when they are choosing where to nest, they might be more naive,” says Elliot. Low nesters such as sparrows and juncos can be picked off easily, he says, as can hermit and Swainson’s thrushes and other ground feeders. Steven Price, the president of Bird Studies Canada, cottages with two cats and says the timing of the typical cottage visit also gives felines an unfair edge. “When do we go to the cottage? Those beautiful June, July, and August days, when the young are coming out of the nests.” He keeps his pair of pusses indoors and recommends that other cottagers do the same. Putting a brightly coloured collar or a bell on a cat, he believes, doesn’t effectively warn birds.
“I don’t think we should demonize cats or think a person’s motivation isn’t well-intentioned in having them outdoors,” he says. “But we’re putting cats in an environment where they don’t belong and placing additional pressure on species that are already in decline.” Supervised outings on a leash protect both your cat and the local bird population. For more info on keeping cats and birds safe, visit catsandbirds.ca.