I was living in a 15-person hostel dorm in early 2017 when I decided to start cat sitting. Since moving to London after graduating five years earlier, I had tried various unconventional ways of living. There was a year in a huge warehouse with 30 others, and eight months on a rented boat, but neither was as cheap as the hostel. For just £350 a month I could live in central London.
By the time I’d set up my own business, Special Guest, hosting events that allow neighbours to meet and become friends, the novelty of climbing on to the third storey of a shaky bunk bed had long worn off. Earplugs were a must, my roommates were total strangers and I once got home to find someone had “hotboxed” the entire dorm with cannabis smoke. I also really needed a quiet space to work. Around that time, a friend asked me to look after his cat while he went on holiday, and I realised the idea had potential on a bigger scale.
For me, cat sitting is about connecting two groups of people who need what the other can offer. I get to stay in a person’s home while they’re on holiday. The owners get free cat sitting. It also means that there is someone to keep an eye on their home, which gives extra peace of mind, especially if they’re away for a while.
I have always loved cats, and their relaxed temperament makes them ideal companions for someone who works from home, alone. It seemed a fairer exchange than just watering plants, but less of a commitment than dogs, who need walking. There are also a lot more cats in London, because they take up less space. I did try live-in dog sitting once, but a snappy chihuahua kept going for my ankles. I’m more of a cat person.
Some cats prefer to mind their own business, but others will come and sit on my feet or my lap. To date I’ve stayed in 25 houses, looked after 30 cats and saved about £10,000 that would have gone on rent. I’m booked 90% of the time, and fill any gaps by crashing at my mum’s in Kent or travelling; I spent last Christmas in Bali.
It can be restrictive; I can’t book a spontaneous weekend away with friends or stay out all night partying. But in exchange I get to live in some amazing places. The best house I’ve stayed in was a beautiful five-bed with a massive garden. I spent five weeks there last summer with two Burmese cats, Mima and Luko, who are super-playful and sweet. Cats have such different personalities, so it’s not surprising that I bond more with some than others. I’ve learned that there is a definitive point when you can tell that you’ve finally won a cat over. An owner once told me not to expect their cat to sit on me, as they had only ever known it happen once to themselves. Four days in, the cat strolled over and sat on my lap. I sent them a photo!
While this works for me right now, it isn’t a magic solution to the housing crisis. It’s a hack I’ve been forced to make. I have female friends who’ve confided they wouldn’t feel comfortable staying in a stranger’s house; I acknowledge that, as a straight white male, I’m lucky.
Cat sitting really helps me with my social anxiety. I was diagnosed in 2016: I’d describe it as self-consciousness multiplied by a million. It’s not that I’m shy; I want to be around people, but sometimes I can’t. When it gets really bad, it stops me leaving the house.
But since becoming a cat sitter, my mental health has improved hugely. Having my own space gives me the power to plan my day. I can be a hermit and recharge when I need to, and I can go out and meet people when I feel well. The cats have really helped, too; sometimes, if people feel too daunting, cats are the next best thing. I haven’t needed talking therapy in more than six months now.
All that said, if I had a choice I would be living in my own one-bed flat by now. I would love to buy in the future, but I don’t have any grand inheritance heading my way. I think I’ve got another few years in me, but if I meet a partner, I might stop sooner. Then I can have a family – and a cat – of my own.
• As told to Grace Holliday
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