Cats and Dogs (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

When Gina Mackinnon, sole proprietor and employee of the New Haven Pet Sitting Company, visits with the owners of a new cat she’s scheduled to petsit, she asks them about hiding places. That way, when she returns sometime later—this time with the owners absent and the cat apparently missing too—she knows where to look. “I don’t have to engage with [the cat],” she says, “but I do need to see them to make sure they’re safe and alive and all that.” She consults her notes to find out which bed to look under. She may then offer a few words of assurance and snap a quick picture of the cat’s dubious face for the owner’s benefit.

When I joined her on an overcast Friday, she had just catsat a client named Nico for the first time. In her tactical resolve to remain invisible and quiet, Mackinnon had entered that house without me tagging along behind her, but described it to me afterward. “For the first 10 minutes, it’s always that introductory period, so I basically just sat on the floor and tried not to engage in too much eye contact, because cats can really find that to be aggressive. And she chose to sort of watch me from her cat tree, which is fine.” In the next few visits, she says, she might start reading to Nico from her smartphone. “I sometimes look for cat stories, sometimes it’s just the New York Times as long as it’s nothing too political… It’s got to be sort of a funny story because I do think that cats pick up on emotion.”

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This was what she had been doing when another of her new cats, Heathcliff, emerged from behind a table weeks earlier. Mackinnon showed me a video she had taken of that moment. The cat crosses the frame in a scooting crouch, trying to be both inconspicuous and expeditious, then abruptly changes his mind and moves solicitously toward Mackinnon’s outstretched hand. What Mackinnon calls the “universal headbutt of approval” is what then makes playtime, the apotheosis of her accumulated visits, possible.

Playtime was indeed on the agenda as Mackinnon made her way from Westville to East Rock. Her standard piece of equipment for this is a fuzzy strip of rainbow-colored fleece suspended from a rod, like a fishing pole if what you’re fishing for is cats. We had just seen a pair of kittens named Guiteau and Han, the latter of whom had achieved liftoff in his attempt to catch the rainbow fleece. For this tantalizing prize, MacKinnon has seen cats jump as high as her shoulder, which is fine, because she’s aiming to tire them out. “There’s nothing more destructive to a household than two kittens who are home alone,” she says, because, thanks to their size and nimbleness, “they have access to everything. So getting their playtime in and their exercise in is important.”

In contrast to the dog-walking side of her business, which is a year-round routine while the owners are at work, the cat-sitting side blossoms on holidays, when the owners are away for days at a time. Unlike workday dogs, holiday cats and European vacation cats are truly home alone, visited only by a person they don’t yet know. Some cats greet her at the door on day one. For others, the substance of her visit will be feeding and litterbox cleaning while they keep tabs on her. Many visits over time amount to a single program of patient diplomacy, a gradually earned feline acquiescence she refers to as “unfolding.” “I had one cat named Wally,” MacKinnon says. “It probably took seeing him 30 to 50 days each year for two years before he really engaged. And he finally engaged through a game that I call Secret Swat”—a single paw springing from underneath the sofa, triggered by a delicately dangled piece of string.

While Mackinnon had almost always shared a household with a dog (and now shares it with two dogs, two cats and a guinea pig), she had to learn about cats on the job. “It is all just trial and error and trying to be sensitive about what cats like or don’t like.” She had been an ophthalmic technician for 20 years prior to moving to New Haven from Burlington, Vermont. “In terms of skills and pay, I was probably at the top of what I was going to be,” and her move, with two teenaged children, was accompanied by a desire to do something else on her own terms. “I didn’t invent the petsitting business model. So I spent a lot of time looking at the mistakes that other people made, and trying to learn from them. Because I figured I could make enough of my own.”

She figured out immediately how important the keys are. Her keychain is an expanding network of rings and tags, fanning out like a chainmail necklace, to which all the keys she needs for a single day are clipped that morning. In her house is a sophisticated filing system of spares. (She demands two sets, with sympathy for owners’ reluctance to part with them.) With up to a dozen clients to visit on an average day, it’s too much lost time to have to go back and retrieve a key she might have left behind.

At the door of a cat pair named Louie and Hermie—one adult, the other a kitten—Mackinnon said, “I don’t know if it’s because this apartment is smaller, but these guys definitely get into more trouble than the pair of kittens we saw earlier. So almost every day I’ll see something out of line.” It is up to Mackinnon to optimize cat households during the budgeted time, which has made her an expert on resolving “litter box boycotts”—in one case substituting a disposable lasagna pan.

A house left to its cat effectively becomes the cat’s house, but Mackinnon is empowered to make modifications where she sees fit. For Hermie and his appetite, she recently placed an automatic feeder on the living room floor, allowing the tiny but growing kitten to get more food when Mackinnon isn’t there. At the home of another cat, Mackinnon keeps an expandable wooden gate, which she then erects as a barrier between them. “I’ve worked with several fear-aggressive cats. And they will literally cut in front of me as I’m walking—zig zag zig zag zig zag—trying to control my direction… So I block off the hallway, keep him in one part of the condo while I prepare his food… Then I let him pass and block him off the other way so I can take care of his litter box. It’s setting expectations, building it into a routine. Now he knows that I’m not going to pass that gate. That if he’s on that side, he is safe.”

With a resolute sigh, she shows me two pictures of this striking creature, his uncompromising gold eyes framed by the gate’s rungs. In the first photo, taken weeks before the other, he hisses like he’s just been solicited on a Sunday. In the second, he merely stares, not affectionately but not indignantly either. A considerable achievement on Mackinnon’s part, it speaks to a condition unique to catsitting: that, once invited, it’s up to the sitter to make herself welcome.

New Haven Pet Sitting Company
(203) 441-PETS (7387) | newhavenpetsittingcompany@gmail.com
www.newhavenpetsittingcompany.com

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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