Shaftesbury paramedics Paul and Rhonda Tubbs have made a life-changing decision. For the past 25 years, the couple have worked day and night, saving lives. Now, to improve their own quality of life, they’ve opened their own cattery at their West Melbury home.
Keri Jones of ThisIsAlfred met the pair and heard how they’ll apply some ambulance crew skills to caring for people’s cats
I rang the reception doorbell at the new Catnap Hotel on Pitts Lane. The sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel path instantly told me that Paul and Rhonda were on their way. There’s a separate reception building for check-in, which gives the cattery a holiday resort type feel.
“We just wanted to take a cattery up to the next level,” said Paul. “We wanted to move away from the concrete cages that were prevalent twenty, thirty or forty years ago and offer a friendly, homely and warm environment where people feel that their cats are safe and in a nice place.”
Up to 38 individual cats, or 19 pairs of cats, can be accommodated in the single story L-shaped building that the couple have built alongside a gravel courtyard. The flat-roofed structure is fashioned from wood, stained black giving it a stylish, ‘Grand Designs’ appearance.
The cats’ rooms are accessed from a central corridor and each individual door is painted either green, fuschia or lilac. Every space is personalised with different artwork depicting cats. It’s all very bright and modern. And the design has been considered with cats’ comfort in mind.
“Each level has to be a certain height because cats relax at a certain height. They’re comfortable when they’ve got a little ‘hidey hole’, or they’re ‘up high’. And then they’ve all got little ladders because some elderly cats can’t jump so high or get down so well. You’ve got to supply them with easy access to levels,” said Rhonda.
“Every surface inside is wipeable, so you can contain and control any chances of infection,” added Rhonda. “Where we’ve got a reception, we have a little isolation booth on the other side of that. If we do get a poorly cat, then we can closely monitor them and isolate them from the other cats. We’ve got a good connection with our local vet, so we can take them straight down to the vets. That’s all covered with our insurance.”
It soon became clear that the couple are passionate about cats. They decided not to offer dog kennel services because, as cat owners, Paul and Rhonda know that barking does unsettle cats. Starting a cattery has been their long-term ambition and they’ve thrown everything behind the business.
“We looked very hard for the property that we thought would be unique for our developing business. We knew this was the one because it’s so easy to get back into town,” said Paul.
The pair felt that Pitts Lane was perfect for their project. “Just to get to this stage has taken over three years of our lives, from selling a house to obtaining planning permission to build our cattery. We had to cut down some trees, all the groundwork, the building work and we’ve spent hundreds of hours this summer cutting plastic to line all the pens,” said Paul.
In the autumn, animal welfare rules were tightened and the couple have had to meet the new, specific requirements. “The Animal Welfare Act has introduced more regulation. Every single detail you can possibly think of, from the size of a cat’s litter tray, to how high a cat has to sleep, to how many times a day you have to check a cat,” Paul continued.
The couple are still working for the ambulance service but they’ve reduced their hours. Caring for people’s pets is a responsibility that they don’t take lightly. “They’re trusting you to look after members of their family. They talk to them. They buy them presents. They are family members. The people are entrusting something that’s very precious to you,” said Paul.
Currently, the pair work shifts, so they’re used to the early starts and late nights required when running a cattery. “We’re constantly out there feeding, playing, checking the heating. It’s a full day and it doesn’t stop until 10 o’clock at night when we do our final checks. And then it starts again at six o’clock when we’re doing the morning checks,” said Paul. “It’s a seven-day-a-week job. But we’re committed. We’ve committed a lot of our finances, a lot of our time and we sold our house and bought this one with this sole intention. So we are driven. This is what we want to do for the next fifteen or twenty years of our lives.”
The couple decided to change their career focus after Rhonda had a bad experience while working. “I got injured at work a few years ago,” said Rhonda. “And we weren’t sure whether I was going to be able to remain committed full time as a paramedic. So we sat down and decided what could we do, what would we enjoy doing?”
The couple wanted to work from home and spend more time with their children. “So that was our driving force. And then we started looking into it, to see if it was actually viable, whether there was a gap in the market so we could make it work,” Rhonda said.
If you think that starting a cattery is as straightforward as just building the accommodation, you’d be wrong. There’s a lot more paperwork and procedures to comply with. Paul told me that inspectors expect guest cats to be stimulated during their stay.
“All animals now going into kennels or a cattery have to have their lives enriched. So you have to provide them with toys, you have to exercise their minds as well as their bodies. It’s not just the general day-to-day stuff. You’ve got to make it enjoyable for the cats as well as providing for their daily needs, their basic needs of eating, drinking and toilets,” said Paul.
“We leave the radio on because that makes it a relaxed environment. We bought a selection of varied toys,” said Rhonda. “They’re all plastic so they can all be disinfected between each cat using them. We chop and change so they’ve got different things just to stimulate their natural cat instincts. Cats like to hunt and they like to play so you’ve got to stimulate those kinds of responses within the cats. That’s their normal behaviour. You have to provide scratching posts and you have to provide platforms at different levels for them to sit on and fresh air,” added Paul.
The couple have had to study cat psychology. “You have to have government recognised qualifications. I have done a level three course in cattery management. My wife has done a level three course in cattery psychology and animal behaviour,” said Paul. “Similar to the ambulance service, they expect you to have continuing professional development and you have to evidence the fact that you’re continually learning. You can’t set your cattery up and sit still. So it’s very similar to the job we do already. You don’t just qualify as a paramedic, you’re constantly developing and that’s the same in the cattery, really.”
Paul added that he has learned a lot about dealing with cats following his studies. And he says he’s found similarities with dealing with people.“How to settle them into a cattery, how to give them space, how to read their body language. They have very similar responses to ourselves in that when they’re frightened, it stimulates our sympathetic nervous system. So you’re looking for changes in respiratory rate and dilated pupils. A lot of the observations we’ve used as paramedics can kind of cross over into the cat world because our anatomy and physiology of our sympathetic nervous systems work in the same way. We all are stimulated by our fight or flight responses, whether we’re a cat or a person.”
And that training is helpful in dealing with difficult feline guests. Rhonda says that she’s already had to placate a challenging pet. “When that owner dropped their cat off, the only one who could go near the cat was the husband. It hissed at his wife. The cat took time to settle. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t drink,” said Rhonda. “They are like people. You have to change your approach and your behaviour to adapt to their personalities. Some cats are going to be overly friendly. Some cats are going to be more reclusive and withdrawn. It’s not much different to dealing with patients really. People are different and so are cats.”
Paul and Rhonda haven’t applied any of their new cat psychology skills to their ambulance service work. We joked about giving patients cat treats like ‘Dreamies’ when they get stressed. “We’ve got intravenous morphine. That always cheers people up,” Paul joked.
A new ratings system is being used to help owners compare catteries. Paul is pleased that the Catnap Hotel has been highly rated. “Now all kennels and catteries will be rated in the same way that hotels are rated, with stars – from one through five stars, depending on how many of the highest standards they reach. We were very proud that we’ve achieved all of the highest standards and we’ve been given four stars in our fledgling year. Because we have no history, we weren’t allowed to get the fifth star although the Council did want to give it to us.”
The cattery’s website states ‘if cats could speak, they’d be booking themselves in for a holiday.’ So if your cat could work a PC, they’d grab their mouse and visit TheCatnapHotel.com.