Boarding Houses for Victorian Cats: Holiday Care for the Family Feline

“It is during the summer months, when house holders leave town for their holidays, that poor pussy is forsaken and forgotten, and no provision being made for her, she is forced to take to the streets, where she seeks in vain to stalk the wily London sparrow or pick up any scraps from the gutter.”  The Book of the Cat, 1903.

Smoke and Orange Persians, Book of the Cat, 1903.

In the late 19th century, Victorian families embarking on their summer holidays often chose to leave their pet cat behind unattended.  This decision—likely motivated by the belief that, when left to their own devices, all cats will hunt for their supper—resulted in a profusion of half-starved cats wandering the streets in search of a handout.  The sight of so many cats in distress compelled some to take drastic action.  One lady in the west of England even went so far as to offer a holiday feline euthanasia service.  As a June 24, 1889 edition of the Gloucester Citizen reports:

“In a large town in the west of England there resides a lady executioner—for cats.  She announces to all her friends, and others whom it may concern, that at her hands poor pussies will meet with a speedy and painless death by chloroform.  Persons who are going away for the summer, leaving empty houses, are urged to send their cats to her, as a more merciful plan than leaving them to be half-starved during their absence.”

Admittedly, having a pet cat euthanized simply because one was leaving on vacation does seem rather extreme.  Wouldn’t it have been easier for Victorians to have paid a neighbor to stop in once a day and feed their cat?  In some cases, they did just that.  Alternatively, a caretaker hired to look after the house for the summer would also be tasked with looking after the family feline.  But these sorts of arrangements were not always successful.  In her 2013 book Beastly London, author Hanna Velten cites the observations of Victorian RSPCA secretary John Colam in explaining that:

“…feeding dependent cats was not included in servant’s ‘board wages’ (reduced pay when the owners were away), that cats were kicked out of the house when the owners left, and that servants and housemaids kept cats’ food for themselves, or forgot to feed them.”

The Battersea Cats' House, Strand Magazine, 1891.

The Battersea Cats’ House,
Strand Magazine, 1891.

Fortunately, by the 1880s, there was another option for conscientious cat owners: the boarding house for cats.  In 1883, the Dogs’ Home at Battersea began accepting both stray cats and cats for boarding.  An 1884 edition of the Pall Mall Budget reports:

“The cats are taken en pension at a uniform rate of 1s. 6d. a week.  This charge would hardly be an appreciable addition to the cost of a holiday tour, but to the cats it would make all the difference between comfort and starvation.  Those who are not leaving London should specially petition their neighbors to avail themselves of the Home at Battersea, for prowling and starving cats are not a pleasurable addition to London in August.”

England was not alone in facing a seasonal epidemic of abandoned cats.  Americans were dealing with starving cats in the summer as well.  For them, cat boarding houses were an equally satisfactory solution.  An 1889 edition of Our Dumb Animals (published by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) states:

“‘What shall be done with ‘Tabby?’ is a serious question in many households.  Puss cannot be taken to the summer resort, because the hotel men will not have her around.  She cannot be locked up in the house, because she would starve to death.  A cat boarding house is the only recourse, and there Tabby is consigned.”

Book of the Cat by Frances Simpson, 1903.

Cat boarding houses of the late 19th century were not always as structured as pet hotels or cat boarding facilities today.  In some, there were no individual cages or pens.  Instead, cats were kept communally inside of houses that had been converted to the purpose.  For example, Our Dumb Animals describes the cat boarding house in 1889 Boston as being situated inside of what was once an “aristocratic old mansion.”  As for the rest of the interior:

“The furniture and carpets are stored away in the garret, and rows of shelves, about eighteen inches in width, are arranged around the rooms for the accommodation of the pussies.  The cats are allowed the freedom of the entire house, but they cannot go out to meet their friends on the back fence.  Every possible convenience is made for the cats, the shelves they sleep on being covered with rugs and mats.  There are three rows of these shelves, and it is a case of first come, first served.”

Blue and Cream Persians Cats, Book of the Cat, 1903.

Blue and Cream Persians Cats, Book of the Cat, 1903.

A similar cat’s boarding house existed in Paris in the 1890s.  A writer for the 1896 edition of the Temple Bar was obliged to leave his kitten, Czarina, there for two months when called away from Paris for the summer.  He describes his experience, writing:

“To take this timid, vivacious creature travelling was not to be thought of.  With many regrets and misgivings she was left at a cats’ boarding-house, where I paid for her at the rate of a St. Bernard dog, who would have had to be taken a walk daily, besides consuming pounds of meat, ‘because,’ I was told, ‘kittens are so difficult to manage.’  I heard that she pined at first, but having playmates and a tree to climb she consoled herself.”

In many cases, cat boarding was provided as an additional service at cat rescue homes.  In addition to the Cats’ Home at Battersea, there was the Home for Starving and Forsaken Cats at Gordon Cottage, Hammersmith (est. 1895) and the Royal Institution for Starving Cats in Camden Town (est. 1896), both of which offered cat boarding for a moderate fee.

Book of the Cat by Frances Simpson, 1903.

Book of the Cat by Frances Simpson, 1903.

By the end of the century, cat boarding houses were becoming quite popular.  Unfortunately, the sight of a half-starved pet cat haunting the summer streets was still fairly common.  Describing London in the off-season, a lady’s column in an 1892 issue of the Freeman’s Journal states:

“A thin cat follows any stray pedestrian, craving attention in the homeless loneliness of the months when the family is out of town.  Let us hope that the days are past in which pussy was left to starve.  Most people arrange that the poor thing shall have food to eat, either in the silent kitchen, where there is now no company save that of the caretaker, or in one of the cat boarding houses that are becoming a feature of the age.”

Today, cat boarding houses and cat hotels are everywhere.  Nevertheless, there are some who still believe that a cat abandoned to her own devices for a few months will fend for herself.  In case it’s not clear from the article above, this belief is false.

Cats' Boarding House at Battersea, The World Today, 1904.

The Battersea Cats’ House, The World Today, 1904.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are going on holiday this summer—or anytime—I urge you to make suitable arrangements for your pets.  If you would like to adopt a pet or if you are interested in donating your time or money to a rescue organization, I encourage you to contact your local animal rescue foundation or city animal shelter.  The below links may also be useful as resources:

The Humane Society of the United States (USA)

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (UK)

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in January 2018). She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her articles have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated weekly at Bust Magazine.

Sources

“A Cats’ Boarding House.”  The Pall Mall Budget.  Vol. XXXII.  London: 1884.

“Cats’ Boarding Houses.”  Journal of Zohophily.  Vol. 12-13.  Philadelphia: American Anti-Vivisection Society & PSPCA, 1903.

“Cats and Their Affections.”  Temple Bar: A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers.  Vol. 107.  London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1896.

“The Home for Lost Dogs.”  The Strand Magazine.  Vol. I.  London: Burleigh Street, 1891.

“A Lady Cat Killer.”  Gloucester Citizen.  June 24, 1889.

“Our Ladies Letter.”  Freeman’s Journal.  August 20, 1892.

“London’s Home for Lost and Starving Dogs.”  The World Today.  Vol. 7-8.  New York: Hearst’s International Magazine, Co., 1904.

Simpson, Frances.  The Book of the Cat.  London: Cassell and Co., 1903.

“Summer Boarding House for Cats.”  Our Dumb Animals.  Vol. 22.  Boston: Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1889.

Velton, Hannah.  Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City.  London: Reaktion Books, 2013.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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18 thoughts on “Boarding Houses for Victorian Cats: Holiday Care for the Family Feline

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very sad, Sarah. I used to see this sort of thing all the time when I was volunteering heavily in animal rescue. Cats would be left during holidays or abandoned in fields/wilderness areas because people believed they would “learn to hunt.” It’s all very grim and disheartening.

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      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Stupid as it is I can’t help thinking how heartbroken the family will be on returning to find their lovely 8 month old baby boy has been murdered by animal services just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time
        Yes, this is why I got out of working in a shelter. I couldn’t handle it.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Vickie says:

    Thank you Mimi for highlighting this despicable practice in history. Hopefully you have educated some current cat owners about the care and feeding plans for kitty while the family vacations and reminded people that just putting kitty outside does NOT make them successful hunters. Love your animal articles!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I have a friend who runs a small service in which she goes into the homes of people on holiday and feeds their animals [and waters plants] while they are away. It means the cats aren’t stressed in a kennels but the owners know they will be fed. She charges extra to empty litter boxes; most of her clients are places their cats can go in and out a cat flap. It’s the next stage forward …. though I suppose the stage after that is the computerised feeding station that delivers a measured feed every 8 hours or so

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Oh yes, a petsitter is the best way to go. Whenever my family is on vacation, we hire a sitter to come in. That way there is a human you can call everyday to check in from wherever you are in the world. Also, much less stress for dogs and cats–especially the elderly ones!

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  2. Amber MV says:

    I absolutely love cats. I have two cats and I love them like they are my children. I always thought that cats didn’t get babied like this till the last few decades, but come to think of it, some of the Victorians totally would baby their kitties 🙂 at least the ones who invented boarding houses. I’m glad that Royal London made an institution for Lost and Starving kitties: somebody cared enough to love those boops. On a related note, I have heard that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals actually came before any Child Protection Services, back in the late 1800s. In fact, people had to turn to the animal shelters to help rescue an abused human child. Strange.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks for your comment, Amber 🙂 I think that, at least in this respect, it wasn’t so much babying as fulfilling basic needs for food and shelter. Animals had it pretty rough in the 19th century. Among other things, vivisection wasn’t even regulated until the late 1870s. Children and the poor had it rough as well, but you can’t compare the treatment of the two even today. In legal terms, an animal was considered little more than property while a human had certain rights and protections an animal would never have. As for a Victorian child being helped by an animal shelter, I haven’t heard of this before. Shelters back then weren’t that luxurious. At many, animals were euthanized by the hundreds. It was all pretty grim!

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  3. Pam Shropshire says:

    As you mention, far too many cats are still abandoned. My next door neighbor divorced from his wife who had several cats. I don’t know why she didn’t take them when she moved away, but my neighbor does nothing to care for them, neither neutering nor spaying or even providing food. The ensuing generations cats are completely feral. I have taken in 3 kittens (at different times) and they are now dearly loved and spoiled. I put cat food outside for the feral ones to eat – one of those, a young tortoiseshell female, has finally warmed up enough that she will let me pet her. Sadly, she is pregnant; soon after as she delivers this litter, I’m going to have her spayed. Cats – and dogs, too – are intelligent beings with emotions and personalities and I am constantly appalled by the inhumanity of humans. I know I can’t save them all, but I can save some! Thank you for all you do in raising awareness!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Pam. The story of your neighbor is, unfortunately, all too common. It becomes overwhelming for those of us who are trying to do the right thing. Good for you for doing what you can! I hope that eventually more people will understand that cats cannot be left to fend for themselves anymore than dogs can.

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