Boating with cats: Adventures of Tipcat and travel advice

Created on 18/05/2016

Following on from our blog about boating with dogs, this time we take a look at the delights of boating with cats.
After dogs, cats are probably the next most popular pet to be found on board boats, both residential cats living on board boats with their owners, and also those who get taken boating occasionally.  

This blog takes the form of some snippets of advice for those thinking about taking their cat boating, along with some stories about our cat, Tipcat, who came boating with us for many years until he was too old to enjoy it (he’s still with us – now aged 21 and enjoying retirement from boating in a canalside cottage on the Caldon Canal).  

Travelling with a cat

If you don’t live on board but take your cat boating with you when you go, this will often involve long car journeys, and even journeys by public transport.  A good cat basket is essential – secure enough that a cat can’t escape out of it, with a nice comfy blanket or cushion for the cat to sleep on.  On very long journeys, and especially with young cats, you will want to give them access to water occasionally, and sometimes access to a litter tray to avoid smelly accidents!

A sturdy cat basket is a good idea for carrying your cat to from your boat. Photo by Alison Smedley

When you discover that your cute little kitten has grown into a very heavy cat, you can make lugging the cat basket down the towpath to your boat easier by making a carrying stick to go through the handle so that it can be carried between two people.  

Tipcat’s story - When we first acquired our cat, Tipcat, as a kitten in 1995 we lived in London but did most of our boating in the Midlands, so did a lot of travelling by public transport.  As a kitten he loved the fuss and attention he used to get travelling on buses and trains (though he wasn’t so keen on the noisy London underground!) and he must be one of the few cats who has been taken into a train toilet compartment so that he can use a portable litter tray (cat litter and cardboard tray in a plastic bag!).  

Boating with a cat

When first introducing your cat(s) to the boat, let them settle in and get used to their surroundings (with some food and water) before starting up the engine to go boating.  Some cats I know always hide in the wardrobe or under the bed whenever the engine starts up, but some love it and will like to be out on deck as much as possible (although its always a good idea to make sure they are securely in the cabin (or shut in the travelling basket) if you are going through locks, tunnels or over high aqueducts!

This black and white cat enjoys his vantage point over the Grand Union Canal. Photo by Tim Lewis 

Most cats quickly get used to the concept of the bank not necessarily being on the same side of the boat when you moor up at night as it was at the previous mooring, and generally don’t make the mistake of jumping off the wrong side of the boat (I have known dogs and adults who have made that mistake, although usually after several pints of beer in the case of the adults!)

Tipcat enjoying life on board historic narrow boat “Ben”. Photo by Alison Smedley

It’s a good idea to plan your mooring location each night with the cat in mind.  Avoid busy roads, and  you’ll find that rural locations are ideal with plenty of hunting ground.

One important thing to bear in mind is that cats do wander off, and you may need to adjust your schedule to allow time for delays caused by missing cats occasionally.
Tipcat’s story - when we were boating along we would put Tipcat in his travelling basket on the roof of the boat (if not raining or too sunny, in which case he would be inside the cabin) while we were going through flights of locks or across long aqueducts or through tunnels, but the rest of the time he was free to roam around as he liked.  This did cause occasional problems and we did lose him if he decided to jump off as we passed through a bridge hole.  There was only one occasion when we didn’t notice at the time, but only realised a mile or two further on that the cat was no longer on the boat!  Half an hour earlier we had turned left at Norton Junction and had slowed down to see if some friends were at home on board their boat.  That is obviously when he jumped off, because there he was, walking up and down the moored boats looking for “his” boat.  On another occasion, and the only time we seriously lost him, he was missing for 24 hours in a field on the River Thames.  We think he had got disorientated or scared by a herd of cows, and the boat wasn’t visible from the field due to the high banks of the river.  

Life on board

A litter tray is essential for when you are on the move and your cat can’t just jump off to do his business on the bank.  Once moored up, cats will choose where to go anyway!

You can find that nature gets brought to you quite often – we’ve had mice, shrews and even young rabbits brought into the cabin in the early hours of the morning, sometimes alive!

A lockable cat flap with an in only mode is also useful for keeping them in the cabin, particularly for letting them back in after they have been hunting all night, so that you haven’t got to go hunting for them before you can set off boating.  Another trick is to not give them breakfast until after you have set off, as otherwise there is a tendency for them to go off to find a nice place to curl up for the day that might not be on board the boat.

You might want to fit a cat flap to your cabin, and it’s a good idea to make it a lockable one. Photo by Tim Lewis

Tipcat’s story
– Until he was about a year old we would make sure he was shut up in the cabin before we went out to the pub or food shopping, but in later years we would leave him sitting on the roof minding the boat and he would always be there when we returned.  Once or twice he had a few escapades – once, at Langley Mill, we returned from the pub to find him all wet, and a trail of wet paw prints from where he had climbed out of the canal.  On another occasion he followed us to the pub at Trent Lock, where the people sat at another table let their dog off its lead on purpose so it could chase him.  He climbed up a tree and I said “excuse me, that’s my cat your dog has just chased up the tree!”  I think they were a bit embarrassed as they soon left!

There's always something going on at waterway festivals to interest a cat. Photo by Brian McGuigan

Nine lives

Cats can swim – very well, in fact.  They just don’t like it very much!  The important thing is to make sure that they can get out if they do fall in.  Fenders or rope ladders are a good idea, positioned close enough to the water for the cat to climb out (but make sure it doesn’t increase the width of your boat too much, or pull it up out of the way when going through locks and the cat(s) are locked in anyway).

It's just as well that cats have nine lives!  This is Tipcat on his namesake, a Tipcat fender. Photo by Alison Smedley

If boating, or even just moored up, in the ice and snow it’s a good idea to be even more aware than usual of where your cat is and what it’s up to, as falling in the water in winter can be fatal.  

Some people have life jackets for their cat, and I would certainly recommend this on tidal waterways, unless you can be absolutely certain that your cat will not escape from the cabin.

Another problem you may have is when your cat goes off exploring at night and gets into a fight with local cats protecting their territory!  Or even other boat cats.  Or dogs.  If spending any length of time in one area it’s a good idea to find out where the nearest vets are.  It’s also a good idea to make sure they are always up to date with vaccinations.
Identification is important for boating cats, in the event of them getting lost.  It’s a good idea to get your cat microchipped (relatively inexpensive and means anyone finding your cat who realises it’s lost can take it to a vet or pet charity to find out if it is chipped and you will then be contacted).  This does rely on someone realising that the cat is lost, however, so it’s a good idea to also consider a collar with a name tag.  Make sure you go for the type of collar that will break should your cat get it caught in a tree.  If you don’t live on board all the time, you can have two name tags for your cat’s collar, one with your home details on and a second with the boat name and a mobile number.  Ours said “Boating Cat” then the name of boat and mobile number so that local residents would realise he was from a boat.

Tipcat’s story - Tipcat probably fell in the canal a dozen times or so during his boating years.  The only time he nearly didn’t survive was one New Year’s Day moored at Little Venice, when a neighbouring boater returned him to us in the morning having heard him scrabbling about in the water in the early hours – he’d taken him into this boat to warm him up rather than waking us up at the time!  

Other handy tips

If you are thinking about acquiring a cat to take boating, most rescue cats take well to life afloat, although I do think the younger the cat is when he is first introduced to the concept of a moving home, the more adapted he or she will become.

Camouflage Cat – this cat is just the same colouring as the cabin interior with its traditional “scumbling”!

The thing with cats is that they can’t be trained in the same way as dogs, and you can’t really control what they decide to do! However, it is reassuring to know that one can’t be held legally responsible for the actions of a cat.

Double name tags for your cat's collar can be a good idea.  Photo by Tim Lewis

Tipcat’s story
- After five years of boating with us without having a say in it, we moved from London to a rural location with the canal at the bottom of the garden.  On more than one occasion when we set off from home, Tipcat literally chose to come with us by making sure he was on board while all the preparations were going on, and even on one occasion when we didn’t intend him to (as we were only going down to the nearest winding hole and back to turn) he came along for the ride!  So it was good to know that he did enjoy it!  

On several occasions Tipcat would follow us to the pub (or perhaps we would be moored in the pub garden anyway) but on one particular occasion he joined us in the pub!  The pub was called, appropriately enough, the Puss in Boots, and it's in Macclesfield.  The pub is up at road level, with a tall outside fire escape style staircase giving access into the back of the pub.  Up we all went, not realising that Tipcat was following us, and as we went in the door, he came in too and quickly nipped behind the bar.  The bar staff were oblivious, until I had to explain to them that our cat was behind the bar and they might like me to retrieve him!  

If these photos have whetted your appetite, there is a Cats on the Cut Facebook page with lots of photos and stories about boating felines.  

Written by Alison Smedley

Top photo taken by Mark Rowan.

The next blog in this series will look at boating with other furry or feathered friends, with stories about boating hamsters, rabbits and chickens.  If you have any photos or stories about boating with unusual pets, why not let us know so that we can include it. 

Sign up for email updates

Keep up to date with all the latest waterways news. 

first name:

last name:


We will never share your email address with anyone else and you can update your subscription preferences at any time.

Tags: How-to Guides, Boating