"When you start thinking about dedicating your life to caring for felines, it's difficult to see past the love of cats"
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 catteries are always sold with an accompanying house … and those house are predominantly in the two to three times the national average range.
This causes the cattery business in the UK to be dysfunctional.
Farmers are notorious for opening catteries and kennels in old farm buildings - They deal with animals all their lives and view domestic animals in the same light - a way to 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 and boost their income as they grow older. 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 will cost you at least £500,000 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 large detatched 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 … however, it's a lovely way to spend your life.
Of course if you already have the large house because you've been there since the 80'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 cattery. There will be too few buyers who can buy a huge house outright and even less who will want to replace their regular income with the seasonal income from a cattery.
Before you turn over your life and home to cats, if you want a commercial venture, think about converting the outbuilding into an annexe or a holiday let or to have somewhere for the children to visit!
Anyway, something to make clear is that for most people running a cattery is a vocation, not a business venture - That's not to say you can't generate a large income by running a cattery, but it will need to be busy. You'll need volunteers or employees at 20 cats a day and once you go over 40, it becomes very profitable but entirely unrewarding. - At 40 cats a day, there is no 'hands on' left because you'll spend more time running the business than making sure the cats are happy.
Catteries seem to disappear without warning, but very few appear these days - At least four in a 25 mile radius have closed around here in the last three years and only one opened.
There's many reasons but the main ones in no particular order are:
- Owners lack of business acumen
- Owners lack of experience
- Owners lack of social skills
- Too much competition in the area
- No money saved for re-investment
- Sudden illness
The most important thing to remember is that if you can't attract cats to your cattery year round, you haven't got a business. Every cattery in the country will be full in July & August. We could fill ours 5 times over, but there's little point in heating a 50 pen cattery and only have one cat a day in from October to Christmas and New Year to March.
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 …" Your usual cattery is booked up, so you've googled 'cattery' and started ringing around all the local catteries and everyone is full.
You might be thinking at this point, 'wow, I hate my job, love cats and imagine running your own cattery' - I have this conversation several times a year during the summer months, and this is the reason I decided to write this article.
The truth is, running a cattery will be everything you imagined and 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. Lot's of 'Happy Talk' and very little reality. Obviously, people wanting to sell you PVCu catteries aren't in the business of offering you any practical advice about running a cattery because their income is dependant on convincing you that your dream is sound. What happens to you after you pay them, is immaterial. Their business is only selling you extortionately high priced PVCu pens.
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'll have the first 20k as profit and have a business to sell at retirement if you wish.
It's going to be almost impossible to pay a mortgage from the proceeds of a cattery until you're full every day (which for many catteries is only during the Summer & Christmas periods). So if there's two of you, one will have to work a 'normal' job until the business can support you both.
It's difficult to see when a cattery becomes financially feasible, but in labour terms, one person working a 10 hour day will keep a cattery running purrfectly whenever the occupancy hits 15 cats. If you reach the next level of between 12 and 15 cats averaged throughout the year it's probably enough to keep two people busy and pay a small mortgage off.
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 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 pretty penny to rebrand 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.
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 house, don't worry about the permissions from the Council and getting your license - If you can't manage multiple cars arriving or leaving simultaneously it's not suitable.
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 will 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 got 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 put aside a grand or two for a decent sized listing every year.
Additional costs of running a cattery.
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 it out for the normal refuse collectors. Some catteries are lucky to have it collected. Some use paper litter so it can be incinerated on site or buried in a quiet area of the farm. Our cat litter is currently classed as noxious waste. We take it to the dump half a ton at a time and Viridor doubled the cost to us in 2017.
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 could save you more than you'd pay in tax if you try to do it yourself.
You'll need to replace your washing machines regularly because yours will be running almost all day every day. You'll need dryers too because 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 so as the noise will be difficult to live with.
Your premises are all part of the business. Gardening's 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 from the cattery.
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 your chance to either do nothing or get out and take a walk. You'll need to read your local council's regulations, but the restrictions are generally pretty tough - They either require someone to be on the premises 24/7 or maybe a maximum absence of three hours in daytime hours - If you want to go out, you might need to pay for a cat-sitter.
In a nutshell, the negativity:
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 all the skills of a hotelier combined with the dedication of a professional athlete.
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 and the financial side - 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 both exhibiting signs of exhaustion.
You will 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, because the cats will need exercising, 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 understanding if their pet dies unexpectedly on your watch.
Just because you're only open 4 hours a day 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. Renting your apartment out for 3 months of the year on a Greek island and living off the proceeds doesn't parallel catteries … You need enough people going on holiday throughout the year to give you an income for the other 9 months.
There's no time to be ill - One serious illness puts you out of business.
If you need a break, realistically, you're restricted to February or November and you'll probably need to use one of those for essential maintenance on your home, garden or cattery. The options are that you'll have to pay someone you've trained up from a volunteer or close down - You can't close down for a fortnight in summer, your clients will go to a rival cattery and you might never see them again because you failed to provide them with the service they needed.
The plus sides are:
- You don't have to commute.
- You really are your own boss - The whole business becomes a reflection of who you are.
- The cats don't care if you haven't brushed your hair. You can get up, grab a tea and be out playing with cats 30 minutes after you wake up every day.
- People's cats, even the bitey ones are fantastic and most will want to be your friend.
- Cats make you feel good and the more who purr, the better the day is.
- Being in service to cats is an unbeatable way to survive.
- Unlike other service industries, you will meet hundreds of great people every year.
- The public is almost always happy or excited - They're either going on a well earned break or dying to see their cat again.
As a conclusion:
As dream jobs go, this is the best if you like cats and people.
Find suitable premises in a suitable area with little competition.
Take over an existing cattery rather than trying to start a new one.
This job is best done by people with a vocation. It's full time work with low financial returns, but you'll never go hungry.