A resort and spa for cats?
As unlikely — and unnecessary — as that might seem to some, it's a full-time business for Susan Barr at the Smitten Kitten on County Line Road.
Mimicking what's inviting at resorts that pamper people, the mood is one of relaxation, with pastels of pink, lavender and sky blue against bright white. Each "condo" and "luxury suite" offers five levels for living and dining, appointed with velvety lounging cushions, a darkened area for a worldly escape, an enclosed "bathroom" for privacy, and, by design, all of it bark-free.
Said Barr, a certified pet care technician and owner of what is believed to be the only all-feline boarding business in Hernando County: "There are many boarding places. But cats are just put in the corner because it's mostly a dog place."
The cats at those places are scared and unhappy and thus won't eat, then get sick, said Barr, 52, speaking from prior experience.
So, 10 years ago this month, Barr established the feline haven, which now boasts 3,600 cats in its database.
"Everybody wants a window view," Barr said of her boarders.
Each of six suites, resembling a classy lanai — hugely spacious, furnished with a child-size Adirondack chair and stuffed animal toys — provides a floor to ceiling view. The resort's fenced back yard is home to emus, goats, an alpaca and a miniature donkey.
Among the more economic condos, those with picture windows face flower boxes. Others feature TVs screening animated frames of — what else? — tropical fish.
Barr gives condo boarders daily exercise with free run or roam in a central seating area much like a hotel lobby.
Employing her knowledge of feline behavior, she doesn't open doors indiscriminately. A cat raised with other cats or with dogs will socialize in a play group. A cat raised alone wants release without company. Some want human contact. Others prefer none. All are singularly accommodated.
Many clients bring their cat's favorite food from home. Barr recalls an owner once came carrying frozen shrimp and the directive: three shrimp at 11 a.m. daily.
As for the spa treatment, Barr provides professional grooming.
How does one groom a cat?
"Very carefully," she says.
Grooming includes brushing, cleaning, trimming or shaving the coat of hair, trimming nails and cleaning ears.
The spa is closed for four hours daily, grooming time, so cats won't be spooked by the appearance of a stranger or the ringing of the doorbell.
"It's like working on a bomb," Barr explained. "They blow up. They have weapons of mass destruction."
She can't count the times she has visited an emergency room with a cat bite or clawing.
Minus a blowup, grooming remains a test.
"In Florida, cats shed very fast," Barr said. "Long hair gets matted when they shed."
And brushing puts them in a foul mood. Many owners don't want to upset their pets, so they don't brush them regularly. Some older owners can't physically perform the task. The result: "Most of my (grooming) business is shaving cats."
Barr prefers a "modified lion cut." It leaves a comical lionlike ruff around neck and head, a switch on the end of the tail.
Barr's goal at the resort and spa?
"I think my job is that people can go on vacation and not worry about their cat," she said. "And that's rewarding."
Client Lin Greco of Hudson proves the point.
Calling recently to pick up 13-year-old Katie after a 35-day stay, Greco said, "I just realized I didn't call you once."
Greco said she trusts Barr. Should Katie stop eating, she said, she knows Barr will take her to the veterinarian.
The Smitten Kitten is a frequent home-away-from-home for celebrity cat Cassie, star of the children's book The Cat and the Crow. Owned by Wallace Collito of Spring Hill, Cassie, who befriended a crow, also was the subject of a National Geographic segment on "Unlikely Animal Friends." She has been featured on Animal Planet and appeared on a YouTube video with more than 5 million hits.
Which brings up men and cats.
"Cats you can never train," Barr said. "That's why men don't like cats. They can't control them."
Yet men are the most distraught when leaving a cat, she said.
As for people who say they don't like cats at all, Barr has a message:
"If people say they don't like cats, they haven't met the right one."
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.