Your first look at the market is probably googling for "catteries for sale". Some years there's a hundred all over the country, sometimes less, but what's clear is that any cattery that comes onto the market comes with an accompanying house … and those houses are predominantly in the two to three times the national average range.
Rural farmers are notorious for opening kennels in old farm buildings because they have paddocks for dog-walking and room to spare - They deal with animals all their lives and view looking after domestic pets in the same light - a way to enjoy life and make money. Opening a cattery or kennels in the grounds of large houses with outbuildings has been incredibly popular over the last few decades as people need reasons to stay where they are and boost their income as they grow older rather than downsize. That leaves only one other category, the larger detatched house with enough land to build a cattery in the garden.
The upshot is that an existing rural cattery in the south of the UK will cost you at least £500,000 (in 2015) just to buy the house and whatever the business is worth on top … Or at the lower end, starting from scratch with a £350,000 (in 2015) large detached house and £30,000 to build a cattery and enough money to last you two years while you build your business up to breaking even.
The main problem with the large town house is there's no possibility for expansion once the garden's full … and the second problem is local authority planners often impose restrictive operating hours in suburban areas ... however, working from home is a lovely way to spend your life as many office workers discovered during Covid. Of course if you bought your large house in the 1980's, it's comparatively cheap to open a cattery or kennels. Though after 15 years of running a cattery, you'll be in the same mess as everyone else trying to sell a big ticket house with an attached business. There will be too few older buyers who can buy a huge house outright and even less younger people who will be able to switch careers or replace their regular income with the more seasonal income from a cattery. Before you turn over your life and home to cats, if you really need to launch a relatively safe commercial venture, think about converting the outbuilding into an annexe or a holiday let or a place for the children to visit!
Anyway, something to make clear is that while there is a financial aspect, and a huge investment, for most people running a cattery is a vocation, not a business venture: That's not to say you can't generate a healthy income by running a large cattery, but it will always need to be busy. You'll need volunteers or employees at 20 cats a day, and once you get to 40, there's no joy left in the job as feeding, cleaning and washing takes the entire day and will leave no time to spend with the cats.
Catteries seem to disappear without warning, but very few appear these days because of the high cost of starting one - At least four in a 25 mile radius closed around here in the past decade and only one small one opened - Then during Covid another three were closed, dismantled and not made available to the market and then in 2022 after the annual inspection by a licensing officer cited one of DEFRA's new regulations to deduct two stars from someone with almost 2 decades of experience, a 37 room cattery just outside of the City of Wells decided that she'd had enough.
There's many reasons for sudden closures and in no particular order are:
The most important thing to remember is that if you need to attract cats to your cattery year round, or you'll need other income streams. Every cattery in the country will be full in July & August. We could fill ours 5 times over on every weekend, but there's little point in paying for help or heating a 20 pen cattery over winter if you only have one booking a day from October to Christmas and New Year's Day until March when the price of electricity has gone through the roof. This year's Summer period has been even worse than last year. Some days I've been answering between 10 and 20 calls and emails a day. Some in hours, some that start with "Sorry, to ring you so late, but we booked our holiday and forgot about the cat …" Our usual cattery is booked up..." which are the signs that the season is kicking off and everyone's googled 'cattery' and started ringing around because everyone is full.
If you're reading this you might already be thinking "wow, I hate my job, love cats" and imagine running your own cattery - I have the same conversation several times a year during the summer months, and this is the reason I decided to write this article: Every viewing and every drop-off or collection prevents you from doing your job, makes your day longer and tires you out to the point of exhaustion - but without the time and effort needed to exchange a few words with your customers, there's no personal service and they'll happily go somewhere else.
Much of the time we can predict the booking times and patterns from the previous years' diary. But this year, the first since the Covid restrictions has produced an entirely new pattern which has meant that we've had to introduce between five and ten new customers and cats to the cattery every week between June and September. So we must find out if:
This is important to find out because you're going to need repeat business to survive, so you need to establish a relationship with the cat and the customer - so for the sake of your business, no matter how tired you are, you have to make time to make your guests happy and your customers comfortable before they leave their cat with you if you're to see them again.
But there's another far more important reason to take a positive interest in your customers because running a cattery is about experience not qualifications - For every cat in your care you need to establish a baseline because the cat's welfare might depend on you knowing how the cat behaves in the cattery.
For example, when a cat arrives:
This is essential knowledge for running a cattery because you can't know if something's wrong if you have no idea what the baseline behaviour is and the only way to know that is making sure that you get repeat business.
It's because we've worked in so many places that we've seen people with no idea that every cat is an individual and they get bitten or scratched because before working with any cat a baseline has to be established - We've learned not to drag frightened cats out of their carriers but to have patience, vary their food when they're not ready to eat and during their stay not to force them to interact and almost always allow the cats take the lead. It's important to educate all your helpers to treat every cat as potentially dangerous and just like school, treat them all as individuals, because without this discipline your cats wont get what they need and your cattery will be a kitty borstal not a holiday and your customers will always know when their cats have not had a good time.
The truth is, while it doesn’t appear to be an extremely complex and nuanced business, running a cattery will be everything and nothing that you imagined and despite having to deal with difficult people, you'll experience a fantastically meaningful and rewarding lifestyle … but you'll never work so hard for so little money or have so little time to spend it.
When I google "How to start a cattery" all I find are people trying to part you from your money. Lots of 'Happy Talk' and very little reality. Obviously, people wanting to sell you PVCu catteries aren't in the business of warning you of the pitfalls because their income is dependant on facilitating your dream. Whatever happens to you after you pay them, is immaterial. Their business is only selling you glass and plastic in the form of high priced double glazed units.
If you buy a PVCu cattery installation, you'll never see that 20 or 30k until you sell the business - If you plan to stay in the family home after you retire, then there's no business to sell and the money is gone. You'd be far better off selling up and buying a failing cattery and turning it into the best in the area. It'll be a way cheaper investment, and if you're successful you wont have invested 30k and you'll have a business to sell at retirement if you wish to move somewhere else.
It's going to be almost impossible to pay a mortgage from the proceeds of a cattery even if you're full outside of the peak Summer & Christmas periods. So if there's two of you, the chances are that one of you will have to work a 'normal' job until the business can support you both.
If you're starting a new cattery, for Bast's sake use google to find out how many catteries are in your area before you try to put one in your back garden - Stupidity can't really explain it, but someone opened a new cattery less than 8 miles away - Not only was this too close in catchment terms, but they called it the same name as our cattery! It cost us a lot of time and energy to rebrand ourselves but we're so glad we did. If you're buying a dilapidated or failing cattery, make sure you find out why it failed. If it's something that can be overcome, then it's the most cost-effective place to start.
Your cattery needs to be on or accessible from a main road. If you're in a rural or suburban environment, you need to be seen. You need parking, turning areas and you don't want to cause problems for your neighbours. The worst possible place to open a rural cattery is on a rented farm down a single track that's either muddied by farm vehicles or snowed in over winter … Or in a suburban cul de sac that is difficult to turn in, has nowhere to park and you have to carry the cats through the house to the garden. If you're going to start a cattery in your own garden, don't worry about the planning permissions or trading restrictions and getting your license - If you can't manage multiple cars arriving or leaving simultaneously it's not a suitable place for a cattery and to get around this you'll have to arrange your collections and drop-offs by appointment only - and then no one will arrive at the allotted time and you'll be left seething every time anyone is late because you'll have work to do that can't be done while you're waiting in the cattery.
A 6 double-pen cattery that could cost you 20k - Then, if your business ever reaches full capacity, your maximum income during the peak season without any single cats occupying any room would be almost £100 per day with the possibility of dropping to zero in the low season. And once you average the best to the worst income levels across the entire year without taking a break your turnover would reach 18K when the average wage in 2022 is 25K. But out of your money you'll have to pay for the cat's food, liability insurance, building insurance, national insurance, advertising, social media, maintain a website presence, pay for office supplies, accountant fees, licensing fees, maintenance costs, consumables, cleaning supplies, chemicals, electricity, water, replacing white goods and tons of cat litter that will need to be bought, stored and disposed of. And once this is factored in would put you below the rate where you need to pay income tax. And more importantly for your 40 hour work week your business could only afford to pay you approximately £5 per hour for your lifestyle and everything you eat.
It's difficult to see when a cattery becomes financially feasible because no circumstances or needs and dependencies are the same. But I can extrapolate figures from experience, one person working in a 12 pen cattery could do an 8 hour day over a 60 hour week at peak season and between the shifts keep the rest of your life in tact. If you reach the next level of having 15 - 20 occupied rooms full averaged throughout the year, it will certainly keep two people busy doing 10 hour days over a 70 hour week and when all the costs are taken out, there would not be enough income to pay a very small mortgage off!
The advantage of a pre-loved cattery is there's a current client list that you can build upon - Starting a new cattery will be financially devastating - You've already spent £30k on the buildings, and you won't have a single cat staying until the advertising kicks in.
Do NOT rely on "word of mouth" - Word of mouth only works if there's something good to be said about your cattery. If you're starting one, what can people be saying apart from "it's clean and new"? If it's an established cattery you'll have to overcome God knows what kind of reputation a previous owner has managed to create in the area. Either way, to get any sort of ball rolling, you'll need a significant advertising budget and web presence - At least with yellow pages' final print version in 2017, you'll no longer need to find a grand or two for a decent sized listing every year.
Replacing soft furnishings, painting woodwork, getting the floors renewed are all there in general maintenance budgets, but …
Where does all the used cat litter go? You can't put used litter out for the normal refuse collectors if you're a business. Some catteries are lucky to have it collected. And there are entire Counties without a collection service at all. Some catteries use paper litter so it can be incinerated on site and some can be buried in a quiet area of the farm and some catteries are so small that the litter can be hidden in with the municipal waste. Our cat litter is currently classed as noxious waste. After two separate companies had started collections they were bought out and the contracts were altered to triple the prices we bought a trailer got our waste carrier's licence and take it to the dump half a ton at a time - and even then Viridor doubled the cost to us in 2017 and then raised the costs again in 2019 and then added 40 miles to the journey and in 2022 sold the contract and the new owners raised the price again.
Insurance. Don't mess this up by trying to save money. Building insurance, veterinary insurance, employee liability insurance - Even volunteers and visitors have to be insured. Don't skimp!
Get an accountant if your turnover is over £15,000. A good accountant might save you enough to pay for their services!
There are ways to cut down on the cattery loads, but it all depends on your set-up and what you ask your customers to provide, but if you provide the furnishings you'll need to replace your washing machines regularly because yours will be running 6 loads a day at peak times and then find time for your cattery clothing and the clothing you wear in the house or garden. You'll need dryers too because if you're busy you'll rarely have time to let anything dry naturally in the sun. During the winter, nothing will dry outside. If you can separate these machines from your living area, do it because the constant mechanical noise will be difficult to live with.
Your premises are all part of the business. Gardening is almost a full time job at Tiger Barn Cattery, and if you don't find the time, you'll have to pay someone to keep everything tidy … and you'll be paying a gardener a higher hourly rate than you can earn yourself from the cattery so use the time in the garden to reset your psyche.
Develop a uniform or dress code. We have trousers and grey tops - Light grey doesn't show cat hair and work uniforms are tax deductible.
If you find yourself without any cats coming in or leaving on any day, it's not a kennels where dogs have to be walked, and this will be your chance to either do nothing or get out and take a walk.
Running your own cattery is the most enjoyable and rewarding job in the world … however, it's a service industry. To do it well, you'll need to be as resilient as an Ox, have the personal skills of a hotelier and the stamina and dedication of a long distance runner.
The practical side of running a cattery is unforeseeable - My wife and I have both run our own businesses so we're used to conversing with people - We'd both worked hard before, we'd both worked in just about every kind of cat welfare program out there, but we never quite realised just how time consuming running our own cattery actually is … While we were building up the business we didn't manage more than a couple of days off for 4 years and boy, by that time we were making mistakes and exhibiting signs of serious exhaustion.
Without help, with 20+ pens you'll have to work 10 hour days, 7 days a week, never have a lie in and never get a day off - There is no time to rest or recover from illness because the cats will need interaction, cleaning or feeding come rain or shine.
Responsibility. You will be responsible for every cat in your care from the day they arrive til the day they leave - You will need to monitor them for any signs of illness and take them to the veterinary surgery if you suspect anything is wrong. Food, water and poo, checked every day - No one's going to be happy to hear that their pet died unexpectedly on your watch because you acted too slowly.
Working split shifts is unusual, it means you can't find staff to come in for a few hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon for the main feeding and cleaning. And you probably can't afford to pay anyone for an entire day either and can't train someone to do all the jobs you do when you're closed. But just because you're only open 4 hours a day to the public doesn't mean you'll have the time to be cat-napping - The reason catteries have restricted hours is so you can do everything else. You'll be interrupted all day long with phone calls and surprise viewings or people trying to collect their cats out of hours - You'll still need to go shopping, do the books and cook your meals - Once the business is turning a profit, there's little chance of eating anything more complicated than a ready real between June and October.
Running a cattery is not about lying back and watching the money roll in, it's hard work, year round. If you’d have spent your building costs on an apartment on a Greek island and rented it out for 3 months of the year it would outperform the income from a year's work in a cattery … and while a cattery is a seasonal income, you’ll need enough people going on holiday throughout the year to give you an income that you can live on.
There's no time to be ill - One serious illness cancels everyone's holidays and puts you out of business.
You'll have no social life because you're not allowed to leave the premises unattended. If you have other "normal" priorities like shopping or looking after grandchildren, then DEFRA's regulations and ludicrous restrictions means you can't ever be given a 5-star rating.
If you need a break, realistically, you're restricted to Mid-January to February or Mid-November to early December and you'll probably need to use one of those for essential maintenance on your home, garden or cattery. The only options to stay open and get a break is to pay someone to live onsite or have someone you've trained up from a volunteer to take over - You can't close down for a fortnight in summer, your clients will go to nother cattery and you might never see them again because you failed to provide them with the service they wanted.
The following exposé would be better entitled "Don't start a cattery in the UK until you've read this."
Because it explains how this industry became toxic and why so many people have given up running catteries and kennels over the last few years.
To have survived the last three years in this industry you needed luck and financial resilience:
If I recorded only a small fraction of the issues and incidents we know about it would suggest that if you're thinking of opening a dream hotel for cats, the current advice would be to leave the dream where it is.
The following highlights how this industry sector has become toxic because a government department with no relavent experience of the tourism industry decided to rewrite our regulations without any practical knowledge of the industry and without consultation with anyone in the industry.
In more hyperbolic terms, a tiny group of ill-advised and ill-educated London based pen-pushers turned a vital sector of the UK's tourism supply chain into a country-wide shitshow - Not because it was needed, but because they could - and following this decision, turned all catteries and kennels from private businesses into the fiefdoms of semi-literate council employees to impose a rating system that was unfit for purpose.
DEFRA gave local authorities the power to demand structural changes to buildings, administration and staffing levels without providing any funding subsidies, sufficient timescales or appeals process. And they closed down catteries and kennels without providing compensation or alternatives for holiday-makers already booked in and didn't even consider that many of the self-employed or their families rely on income to pay mortgages.
The fact is that DEFRA enforced their ill-considered regulations using untrained and uneducated council sociopaths who have no relevant experience in tourism, business or animal welfare - and whose only qualification is a generic licensing course that provides none of the necessary insight, skills or knowledge to apply DEFRA's incomprehensible and overreaching regulations with any accuracy or consistency.
These regulations were imposed on this industry without any consultation with this industry and without any peer-review.
DEFRA introduced mandatory animal cruelty, demanded everyone adopt the sort of pointless and inefficient working practices that every resource wasting government department exists for - and then demanded damaging financial inputs to pay for unnecessary refits and refurbishments that have no scientific backing or industry support.
When all's said and done all these people needed to do to correct their mistakes was listen to the experts and act.
And despite holding direct talks with those responsible for creating this mess, almost nothing has changed and no one has been fired. No one from the vicious little thugs employed by local authorites to mete out sanctions and threaten closures to the over-paid cabinet ministers barely aware of their own briefs have taken any steps to address their responsibilities, failures or the consequences.
Once you get into the details, we find that no one involved has the basic human decency to accept what they did was indefensible or acknowledge why it went wrong - the royal patronage and tax-exempted advisors on the CFSG wont talk to our industry representatives because they know that they failed to represent this indutry's interests - the writers of the regulations refuse to accept responsibility for their incompetence or the consequences - and the usual local authority clown show of lies and denials to protect officials who've interpreted our regulations to mean anything they want delegitimises the entire process.
No council employee should have the authority to decide when or how a private boarding establishment can operate - especially when their subjective judgements include inconsequential and irrelavent regulations such as whether a room is a cm too small or a degree too cold or not having a scratching post the right shape and position - councils have no appeals process in place to rectify their ignorance or mistakes and we're forced to use legal channels to deal with them and all they do is misuse more tax revenues to cover up their mistakes and incompetence.
I don't want this to be an excoriation of every buraucratic system ever devised, but it's hard to ignore the fact that this industry had been focussed solely on looking after animals for people for decades without any major interference - And within minutes of DEFRA's involvement, the entire sector was thrown into one crisis after another.
No government can impose new regulations without consultation.
Businesses create a necessary and accountable internal bureaucracy that is meant to oil the wheels and improve efficiency of the productive staff - But people who thrive in government bureaucracies are not motivated to do a good job because they risk nothing and still receive a guaranteed income.
The quality of their work will never improve because there is no profit motive and their productivity is measured in how much paperwork that they can create - And so government bureacracies breed the most ineffectual, inefficient, irresponsible, intransigent, unproductive and wasteful people in any workforce. But even if that wasn't true in every case, these bureaucracies wrote and imposed wholly impractical, unpoliceable, non-universal regulations on a business sector that they failed to consult - So they had to imagine the outcome of all their theoretic regulations and imagine that everything they wrote was going to improve animal welfare - But they didn't have any relavent working experience, practical knowledge, data or foresight and so ended up replacing more of the limited time we can spent on animal welfare with mindless and meaningless buraucracy.
To sum up the enforcement situation, DEFRA wrote a thoroughly discredited 26 page document chock full of of unworkable, incoherent and contradictory rules and standards - and coucil employees were given the authority to close down, bankrupt or destroy the reputation of a 30 year old business for any inconsequential infraction ... and now no one is responsible for anything they did, their own decisions or the consequences of their actions.