Cats On The Cut

Back in 2002 and early 2003 I picked up a series of anecdotes on boating cats on a canal newsgroup which I reproduce here together with my own for anyone interested:-

From: Ron Gibbs (

I offer this account of our recent experience of cruising with our feline friend.

First, some background. Anna & I currently have a share in Orchid, a 52' Ownerships narrowboat. We acquired our most recent cat while out boating a couple of winters ago. Returning from a stroll to Wormleighton on a frosty morning while moored at Fenny Compton on the Oxford, we discovered her, dishevelled and shivering in a roadside ditch. She gratefully accepted shelter and warmth in Anna's fleece, so we couldn't ignore her. We carried her back to the village and made lengthy door-to-door enquiries, but couldn't locate her owners, and concluded she had either wandered many miles from home or been dumped from a car. To cut a long story short, we eventually took her back to the boat and adopted her, naming her Fenny. She turned out to be possibly the most loveable of the many cats we have had over the years, once we had her breeding parts seen to!

With this background, it seems appropriate to take her with us occasionally on our boating trips, although this is a fairly unusual holiday for a cat. We encounter quite a few liveaboard cats, but few short-term trippers. Dogs of course are omnipresent. So last month she accompanied us during a week out on the GU, despite a few niggling worries for her safety and comfort.

The first problem is to get your cat there by car. Fenny is a relatively good traveller for a cat, and normally curls up happily in a cat basket for short trips. However on this occasion, she was unhappy with this arrangement, and ended up on Anna's lap during the hour-plus drive. Transfer to the boat was painless - back in the basket until everything was on board and the doors were closed.

We spent the first night in the marina, so Fenny had a good chance to explore the boat thoroughly in peace, after a meal. Once we got the stove lit, she seemed content and fairly relaxed, occupying her usual place on my lap. Unfamiliar noises (especially water pump, heavy rain and passing towpath walkers) caused occasional panics, when she took shelter inside one of the chairs. No problems understanding the purpose of the litter tray, and no problems (for her, anyway!) finding a comfortable space on the bed to sleep, once we retired for the night.

We had some worries about her jumping ship, so we resolved to be careful to always keep doors closed. However, once the engine started, she immediately dived for her shelter in the chair, and stayed there until the noise stopped. This pattern continued throughout the week. Maybe she would eventually get used to it - we have seen at least one cat happily wandering about the cabin roof on a cruising boat - but at least we felt secure in the knowledge that she was safely tucked away on board. Once we had moored, she was happy to emerge and join us.

We had brought a cat harness and lead, and it turned out that Fenny was willing to endure this for the sake of fresh air and exercise. We found that a good technique was for one of us to take the lead, and the other to go ahead and make encouraging noises when necessary. In this way, she could be persuaded to go where we wanted to go, rather than just following the most interesting scents. In this way, we managed to get to shops on Sunday morning through quiet streets near the Cape of Good Hope at Warwick, where we were moored.

After a couple of days, she was quite keen to go walkies. This would usually happen after darkness fell, as long as we were moored somewhere quiet. Then she would drag one or other of us for up to half a mile down the towpath, showing a keen interest in everything along the way, including bushes, bridges, buildings and the canal itself. She was also keen to explore the outside of the boat, especially side decks. We had only one uncomfortable encounter with an unleashed dog during one of these torchlight walks, although I think the dog (and its owner) was more confused than dangerous.

Fenny even started to want to go out in the middle of the night , but we wouldn't let her out alone. At home she comes and goes through the cat flap. Maybe this is something we should consider when we get our own boat built next year, although it is an unusual feature (I've never seen one in a new boat). I think it might be possible to fit a flap in a glazed panel in a door, so that only the window would need to be replaced to reverse the modification.

So the trip was quite successful from Fenny's point of view. We found some cat litter that was claimed to last for up to a month, smell-free. This seemed to work well, the only downside was that it comes in the form of small transparent spheres that tended to spread quite widely on the floor. This created more work in cleaning up at the end of the trip, but not as much as the white fur that clung to carpets and chairs! Cleaning, packing up and transferring to car was a bit fraught, as she had to be confined for a couple of hours. Once we got in the car, she was released and spent the journey home happily enough on Anna's lap.

From: River Tramp (

We have had our two cats aboard for weekends/holidays on the Thames since they were 6 weeks old, they're now 13. They too used to hide when the engines were going, now it seems they hide from the kids, but are happy to laze around in the saloon when underway if the kids aren't inside.

We take them away up to 3.5 weeks at a time, to boat rallies etc, they tend not to go out when other people are around, and will come back aboard to use the litter box. Both have fallen in, and can swim. A couple at Henley living on a Dutch barge recently got a kitten, they had to get a landing net in readiness for when it fell in.

Both cats seem to prefer boating to being at home, they are obviously very intelligent!

From: Paul Hetherington (

We also take our cat Cleo on trips of up to three weeks. Be assured, that like Cleo, Fenny will get use to the engine noises. When she first came on the boat, she spent all her time under the duvet whilst underway, but now she is quite happy to make use of the whole boat below decks - she still likes it under the cover, but through choice now.

If your cat does happen to go missing, don't panic, particularly if you are convinced she hasn't got off. Cats can get into amazingly small spaces. Cleo once disappeared for nearly two hours by getting behind the gas cooker via the tray space beside it.

We also do not generally let her out on her own, but use a harness. This is fine, but after two weeks she becomes very twitchy and will attempt to make a break for it, given half a chance. I do not think she will go far, but I don't want to take a chance.

I would recommend anyone to take their cats with them, there is is nothing like sitting on board, with a glass of something warming and a purring cat on your lap!

From: Jim Storey (

Some 20 years ago or so I used to hang around Braunston quite a lot and was friendly with Balliol and Estelle Fowden who founded Braunston Canal Services Limited. They lived on a boat and had a ginger cat, Alfred if I remember correctly. He was quite used to living on the boat at the yard and having bits of steel clanging onto the ground and sounds of angle grinders. Quite blase (cannot do the accent, sorry) about it.

Balliol and Estelle went on holiday on the Oxford, an only too rare event for a boatbuilder as they tend to get tied to the business, and on their way back they tied overnight at Fenny Compton. Some time after departing in the morning on the final leg back to Braunston they noticed that Alfred was missing and when they got home they drove back to Fenny Compton, but all their calling and searching was in vain. No sign of Alfred. They presumably went back on other days but eventually had to give up.

Some six months later their friends Andy and Chris, on Vixen, also stopped at Fenny. Alfred must have recognised them and calmly jumped onto Vixen to be taken home!

Recommendations from Felis Catus II

(1) The younger the cat is when you first take them to the boat, the quicker they will acclimatise.

(2) A young cat will acclimatise quicker if in the company of an older cat who's already used to boating.

(3) All our cats over the years have been neuters, but we find that ex-shes take to boating better than ex-toms, as the latter seem to need a greater territorial range and so go walkabout for longer.

(4) Once the cats have got used to the boat as an environment (they know where their food bowl is, where their litter tray is, where the comfortable sleeping-places are etc.), provide them with a way of coming and going when you're moored up overnight. Yes, they do come back, especially when accustomed to (5) below. We don't (yet) have a cat-flap in the front cabin doors, so we leave them an open window or side-hatch overnight. We've learnt by experience that this is better than trying to keep them in, which simply challenges them to find a way out through a window that's open just a crack (and might well be impossible for them to get back in). If you do fit a cat-flap, it needs to be lockable: see (7) below.

(5) Get them used to the idea that the first meal of the day happens just after the boat moves off. We've found that all the various cats we've boated with over the years like to go hunting around sunset and dawn. They come back in between and spend most of the time sleeping on the foot of our bunks (with occasional forays outside). Come dawn, they're off hunting, but as soon as they hear us moving about in the cabin, they pop back every few minutes to see if there's any sign of breakfast, so are to hand when the time comes to shut them in the cabin, start the engine, move off and then feed them.

(6) Yes, they will fall in the cut in the middle of the night. But if you've got some rope side-fenders down, they'll manage to climb out again. Just hope your cats aren't like one of ours. Whenever she fell in, she refused all attempts to dry her with a towel, and insisted that the only place she could sit to groom her dripping self was on Wendy's pillow (whether or not Wendy was using it at the time!).

(7) During the day we find they're usually happy to doze around the cabin. Sometimes it's safe to leave as many doors and windows open as the weather indicates. But sometimes the mogs are lively, and it's best to keep doors & windows closed when in a lock, just in case one of them wants to go walkabout at the wrong time.

(8) Towards the end of a long day's cruising a cat will sometime decide they think it's time to stop, and jump off in a bridge-hole. While this can be a bl**dy nuisance, I don't think it's ever delayed us much for more than about half-an-hour. Opening a tin of cat-food near where moggy has gone to ground usually brings them back within picking-up range. But don't be too precipitate and startle them, or they'll run further off.

(9) If you've got the right sort of relationship with your cats, they'll want to be with you, so will only wander off when they're pretty confident you're not going away. Ours know very well that the sound of mallet on mooring pin means we're not going anywhere for a while, so take the opportunity of a walk / hunt / whatever.

(10) When we tie up to go shopping, if the weather's good and the cats are likely to want to go out, one of us stays on board so that (a) we don't have to shut the cats in and (b) they've got company. This does make the shopping take a bit longer than if we went together, but makes it more likely that we'll have the cats on board when we're ready to move on.

(11) No cat likes to be separated from its food bowl for long, and will always know its way back to it.

(12) Cats are great posers. Showing off on the gunnels to the tourists is a great sport. The gunnels in question will probably be those of the much posher boat a couple of places along the moorings. (Cats are snobs.) I remember once when we were moored in Bristol City Docks next to a couple of very expensive sea-going cruisers (real ones, not poser-palaces) and our cats were quite upset that they couldn't get up the ladders needed to pose on the big boats' decks!

(13) If you're at a mooring which is very busy in the daytime and a cat goes walkabout overnight and isn't back in the morning, they'll be most unlikely to come back in the daytime when there are a lot of people about. 3 am next night is the most likely time.

Hence the most important rule of all: (15) Always allow enough slack in your cruising plans to wait for a cat-gone-walkabout.

(16) However well you acclimatise them, things can always go wrong. We once waited 3 days for a cat who never returned. The locals reckoned he'd been had by a fox. There was known to be a vixen with cubs in the vicinity, and that little tom cat (would be a tom, wouldn't it!) was daft enough to have tried to be friendly. But in umpteen years of boating with cats, he's the only one we've lost like that, compared with several killed by cars in the road at home.

(17) Above all, trust the cats.. After all, they're brighter than us.

(18) And enjoy. We find a weekend's boating when we don't bring the cats (because they really hate the journey in their travelling boxes) really lacks something.

POSTSCRIPT Since the above was written, our current cat, Tilly, has forgotten the deal about coming back in time for breakfast, so things don't always work!


In discussion with cats owners on my own travels I have concluded that a wise precaution is to obtain a side fender or two long enough to dip into the water but yet still extend all the way to the gunnel. Mounted on the offside of the boat, such a fender would provide a suitable 'ladder' up which a swimming cat may climb to re-board the boat. Even if such intentional fenders are not deployed one would think that a cat could nevertheless swim around the boat to the bank, haul itself out and leap back onboard. Metal or concrete piling could, however, prevent this; hence the suggestion.