“Why I’m spending lockdown alone with 19 cats and a shrine to my late kitten”

As a little girl, Rita Reimers was obsessed with cats. She dressed up as one every Halloween and fell upon her friends’ kitties with great joy, but was never allowed one of her own because of her dad’s allergies.

But – meowzers! – has she made up for it now.

The former IT worker – who has degrees in computer science and business – first began cat sitting 30 years ago.

She quit her well-paid yet unfulfilling day job in 2006 to forge a career out of her passion.

She has since devoted her life to helping hundreds of people understand what makes their moggies tick.

She has also written books and runs her own business, advising owners how to live in harmony with their pets.

Now Rita, 58, who’s divorced, shares her own four-bedroom home in Charlotte, North Carolina with her 19 rescue cats.

‘They are all my babies and of course I spoil them,’ she smiles. ‘Every morning I talk to them to check they’re OK.’

There’s Bella, Boo-Boo, Brownie, Cupcake, Dash, Gigi, Hope, Lovey, Oliver, Peanut, Picasso, Pinky, Rosie, Simba, Simon Says, Smokey, Smoochie, Sonny and Sweetie Pie. ‘All the cats know their names.

Some came named already, but others showed me their personalities first, like Simba, my big orange tabby, named after The Lion King. Sweetie Pie was just seven weeks old when I got her and it stuck.’

Rita’s felines are indoor-only creatures and caring for them can be time-consuming.

They have dry food available all day then, split between breakfast and dinner, Rita gets through 16 cans of wet food daily.

‘Meal times can be an ordeal because some cats only like pâté, others like gravy, some like shredded. I have to put it out on different plates,’ she explains. ‘I don’t like feeding them additives, only the best will do.

‘After breakfast I soak their plates and scoop all 17 of the litter boxes. I keep them all clean and use an odour eliminator to make sure the house never smells. I repeat the procedure at night-time, and in between there’s time for play and cuddles, which all cats need.’

The moggies are allowed the run of the house, including a large, dedicated room over the garage with two sofas and cat trees for them to exercise on.

‘I want to create a proper cardio playroom with a “catio”. I keep them indoors because it’s safer. Outside there are wild animals, cars and bad people. You see these missing cat photos and no one is really bothered. I don’t need that stress. They’re happy indoors.’

At night-time, the pussies take it in turns to curl up on Rita’s king-size bed.

‘I usually have eight to 10 cats on my bed any one night and they rotate themselves. I am so used to them being there I sleep in funny positions now not to squash them. They do get jealous and want my attention.

‘But the cats take their cue from me now and do what I do. Last week I wasn’t well and they let me sleep until 3pm before they nagged for food.’

Rita is so close to her animals they can read her mood. Like when Sadie, a cat Rita was especially devoted to, passed away in 2009. She credits her other pets for helping her cope.

‘It‘s inevitable we have to say goodbye to our beloved cat children, but no less devastating,’ she admits. ‘With Sadie, that grief was all-consuming.

‘The other cats took it in turns to snuggle up to me in the night. When I am upset about something they know to give me special cuddles to comfort me. Cats are such empaths.’

Sadie’s ashes now sit in a small wooden box hidden behind a gold-framed photo of her as a sunny little kitten, playing with her toys. All the felines who have passed have their own little boxes, but Rita doesn’t hold funerals as it would be ‘too painful’.

Currently single, Rita insists her cats come before any potential lovers. ‘It’s not that I’m not open to a new relationship, but it doesn’t sit well with my lifestyle,’ she says. ‘Helping people with their cat behaviour problems is my life.

‘It really takes a special partner to put up with one of us cat ladies. And if they didn’t like cats, it would definitely rule them out.’

Accumulating 19 cats was a happy accident. ‘I never go looking, but whenever I am told a cat is about to be euthanised or sent to a shelter because of their behaviour, then I can’t resist.

‘I have never taken on a cat and not managed to settle them. Never. Though neglected and abused cats take longer to trust me and the other cats.

‘They have to all get on. If you got married, and your new husband already had kids and they didn’t get on with yours, you wouldn’t segregate them would you? You’d teach them how to live together.’

Rita finds helping challenging cats truly fulfilling. ‘I helped a couple recently who were going to send their cat to a shelter because, after many years of happily living together, the cat suddenly started peeing on their bed.

‘After ruling out health issues, because a UTI can make it painful for them to wee and they start associating the tray with pain, I asked if they had recently changed litter types. They had, swapping to a new kind that was lighter to carry. I told them to switch back immediately and the cat stopped peeing on the bed. It obviously hurt his feet or he just didn’t like it.

‘Another issue is when a cat doesn’t like your spouse. One couple adopted this cat and the wife wanted to keep him, but the cat kept attacking the husband.

‘After watching them I saw the hubby kind of treating the cat like people used to treat dogs, with the rolled up newspaper, playfully smacking it over the head. That had to stop!

‘Then we made the husband do the feeding, he became the one giving treats and talking to the cat gently. Slowly but surely they forged a relationship.

‘It’s not so much about training the cat as teaching the owner how to understand them. Cats don’t know good behaviours from bad, they just follow their instincts. I understand their subtle ways of letting us know what they want.’

After helping other people’s cats all day, does Rita ever want a break from her own? ‘Some days I crave five minutes to myself. When we were all cooped up together in lockdown, I wished one was a person I could have a conversation with.

‘But I wouldn’t trade living with my 19 cats for anything in this world, even if often there is no room on my bed for me!’

What if your cat uses your bed as a toilet?
Rita advises taking these steps to fix the problem:

Are they ill? IBS, cancer or parasites can lead cats to associate the litter box with pain, so they avoid it. Also, in a multi-cat household they may instinctively poo elsewhere to keep illness away from the others.

Is the litter tray OK? Litter needs to be kept spotless and soft on their paws. Some cats prefer lidded and others like open. But it always needs to be placed somewhere quiet and accessible, offering privacy.

Are they stressed? Cats are sensitive to change. One cat I met pooped on the bed every time the owner returned from a business trip – letting them know the absence was felt and not appreciated.

Playtime is crucial Do they get enough one to one with you? Do you need a cat tree to let them exercise and scratch? New cats need plenty of time to settle in.

Make your bed unappealing Scents like peppermint, orange or some VapoRub will put your cat off, as will a sound-producing scat mat.

Bribery! Praise kitty and offer treats whenever they use the litter tray.

How to identify a cat’s mood
Happy: Standing up, the posture is relaxed, ears are in a natural position, tail is held upright with the tip of the tail curved, eyes are normal shape, mouth is closed. When lying down, the belly is exposed, the body is stretched out, eyes may be partly closed, mouth is closed. When sitting, the tail is held loosely from the body, eyes are a normal shape, mouth is closed.

Anxious: In a crouched position, muscles are tense, body is held tightly, tail is tucked tightly into body, ears are slightly swivelled sideways, head is slightly lowered and tucked into the body, pupils are dilated, mild tension shows in face. They may hide.

Angry: When lying down, the body is flattened, ears are flattened to the head, pupils are dilated, tail is held tightly into the body, limbs are held tight and close to the body, mouth is open and tense, teeth are showing. When standing, their back is arched, body held sideways, hair is raised, front paw is slightly lifted off the ground (ready to swipe), ears are lowered and pointing out to the side. The mouth is open and tense, teeth are showing, tail is tense.