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Shop talk: Lea Wood Cattery – When only the best will do
22nd January 2020

By Sandra Pearce

Liz Burman owns the award-winning Lea Wood Cattery in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire but has recently expanded her business to include dog day care and home boarding. Sandra Pearce pays a visit…


Liz with two of her charges

Most children, when asked what they want to do when they grow up, will reply along the lines of a policeman, teacher, doctor or fireman.
But not Liz Burman. Oh no. She wanted to be either Johnny Morris (British TV presenter famous for narrating the Tales of the Riverbank stories about Hammy the Hamster, Roderick the Rat, GP the Guinea Pig and later Animal Magic) or cartoon character Shaggy of Scooby-Doo. “I also loved Gerald Durrell and admired what he did to raise animal standards,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work with animals, but I was not clever enough to be a vet,” she said.

As a quick aside, Durrell is the British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author and television presenter who founded the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Jersey Zoo on Jersey. One of his books, My Family and Other Animals, became an ITV mini-series, The Durrells.


Entrance to cattery

Despite her passion for animals, for years she followed the ‘normal’ route and found employment at the County Council – which slowly but surely did her head in. Eventually she quit her job and for a while bred and showed Birmans. But a visit to two breeder friends who own a luxury cattery in Sheffield changed her life forever and she decided to start her own best-in-class cattery.


Suites all have personalised bunting. This is from the Hairy Purrtor

As her family own a farmhouse with 3½ acres of land, she initially installed six custom-made cattery units according to Feline Advisory Bureau guidelines, but demand was so high that she added more and more units and now has 19.

Prize among these are her luxury suites – the themed Mew Hefner, Miss Kitty, Purrfectly Beachy and Hairy Purrtor. These include plasma-screen TVs playing DVDs for the cats (Hairy Purrtor plays Harry Potter movies, of course!), themed décor and bespoke beds.


Bespoke cat tree in Hairy Purrtor even has lightning effect engraved into the wood

The high level of care and superior accommodation, coupled with the personal touch, keep her customers returning. Every Christmas, for example, all animals staying each receive a home-made Christmas hamper that includes treats and toys. Liz also mails out Christmas cards to all her customers, addressed to the pet and his/her family! This year she’s got a pile of about 280; postage costs are eye-watering. In 2015, her efforts were rewarded when the cattery nabbed the Pet Industry Federation Award for Cattery of the Year.


Anyone fancy a game of Quidditch on a broomstick?

A recent inspection for her licence under the new regulations saw her receive the top rating of five stars. There was a momentary panic when she realised her cattery units were 0.08cm too short. But her Local Authority reassured her that as the space is measured by all the surface areas a cat has access to, including cat trees and shelves, all they had to do was install an additional shelf for cats to jump up to. Issue solved.


Again, each suite has a bespoke, personalised bed like this Hogwarts Expurress

Mad cat lady? She laughs. “I actually have more of an affinity for dogs,” she said, adding that she has a Lab, a Westie and Birmans. “I have had dogs for 53 years of my life and cats for only 26.”

She chuckles as she recalls reaction to the news that she was starting a new business for dogs. “People were horrified…they said, ‘but you are the cat woman!’”

OUT OF THE BLUE

The middle of January and early February are traditionally on the slow side but, this year, January was ‘as dead as anything’ and only by mid-March did business pick up. She’d never seen anything like this before and it was ‘a shock to the system’. “I had to go and do nursing at night just to keep the cattery going,” she said.


Yes, even the bedding follows the theme

This meant helping to care for elderly patients from 4.30pm until about 10pm at night, and she absolutely hated the job. “It did however put things into perspective. I thought the cattery would always be busy, but this made me realise it might not always be,” she said.



She needed a Plan B. One idea was to open a B&B, but her husband Ian said no, he’d rather deal with more animals. It was a conversation with someone who said her dog walking business was booked solid that prompted Liz to look at dog day care and home boarding as this could fit easily around the cattery.

After much discussion with Ian, they decided to go ahead with Lea Wood Trails and Tails and in July, revamped their house. Literally. Over the course of three months, the two-storey farmhouse was divided into an upstairs-downstairs set-up.


Former dining room has 42in TV screen

Downstairs is now doggie heaven, with the family home now on the first floor. “People arrive and expect to be brought to the back of the house; they are very surprised to be brought in through the front door and then to see all the rooms are for the dogs,” she said.


The personal touch is evident in all rooms

There are four rooms downstairs, though one has been turned into an isolation room in case a dog ‘looks peaky’ so there is no risk of cross-contamination.


Another room has views over the front garden

Heavy-duty linoleum has been laid in all rooms, which have also been freshly painted. Each room has a TV – the former dining room has a 42in screen! – and couch as well as dog beds and other furnishings. Currently licensed for eight home boarders and eight day care visitors, Liz has plans to convert two more rooms upstairs so she will have a total of five rooms plus the isolation room.


Every room has a couch, dog bed and TV

Her charges are in line with what other providers charge in the area – £28 per day per home boarder, £20 per day care, £12 for a half day, with discounts for a second dog from the same family.

It’s important to keep the dogs separate and to have a trial first to assess the dog’s temperament. “I know of many who will keep all the dogs together, but to my mind that is asking for trouble,” she said. “It takes just one dog to kick off and then you potentially have a blood bath. This way each dog is kept separate. Besides, most of my clients also say that they do not want their dogs mixing with other dogs.”

The same philosophy carries across to the dog walks so no more than two are walked together at any one time – and this only when the two are from the same family.

HIGHER STANDARD

Everything in the dog business is done to the higher standards of the new regulations. For instance, though the higher standards specify two walks a day, she offers six, depending on the dog’s mobility. For example, one of her regulars, Dougal, is 17½ years old, almost blind and deaf, and he enjoys his ‘steady plod’.


Dogs have access to this 2.5-acres fenced-in field

There is also a huge field of 2.5 acres that the dogs can play in. However, even though this is fenced-in, Liz insists that the dogs are on either a 20m or 40m leash at all times. “Even when you’re in a fenced-in area, things can go wrong,” she said. “I’ve read some real horror stories on Facebook group sites and it’s just not worth the risk. At least using these long leads I am safe in the knowledge that the dogs are not going to get into trouble. Yet we can still play with rocket launchers and have fun.”

Liz has completed a pet first-aid course run by the Pet Industry Federation and has a keen eye on detail – even the disinfectant she uses is DEFRA-approved. “Many kennels use masking odours, but I don’t. There’s no need to,” she said. “We hoover and mop the floors daily and everything gets washed everyday, including all the towels, toys and bedding. Everything in the rooms can be sprayed and dogs have their own towels. We also have a shower here if the dogs need one. I am OCD in any case!” she laughs. “Here it is cleaner than my own home.”


Nautical theme for Purrfectly Beachy suite

With such an eye for detail, Liz has also ordered in dog coats in every size for when it rains so the dogs do not miss out on their walks. “Well, it’s not something owners might remember to bring with them,” she explained.

Each week, Pawplomas are handed out to the owners. One dog received a Pawploma for walking in the rain for the first time ever. Others have received them for good catching and fetching.

When it came to getting the licence, Liz was quite prepared to see one star with the business being so new, and was gobsmacked to receive four stars.

“We were told it was because of our excellent track record in the cattery and how we met every single higher standard,” she said.


Purrfectly Beachy suite plays DVDs showing what other than fish

“Everyone who comes here says they have never seen anything like this before. When people come here, they are getting as near as possible to home from home, because let’s face it, not every dog can handle kennels.”

Like two other regulars, Dodger and Cooper, who are barkers. Cooper in particular has ‘small dog syndrome’ and barks at everything. “It would drive them bonkers to be in kennels with 40 other dogs. They’d be barking non-stop.”

And geriatric Dougal also needs that one-on-one personal touch at night. “Dougal needs you to be by his side when he falls asleep at night. Once he’s asleep, you can tip-toe from the room and he’ll sleep straight through. If you don’t, he can’t settle,” she said. “We offer a premium quality service and dog owners who come for my service are very discerning. They are happy to pay the price.”

WHY SO NASTY?

“People do vilify home boarders,” said Liz. “There have been some really vicious comments about home boarders, but I think a lot of kennels do need to look at themselves. Instead of making vitriolic comments, look closer to home. If you are happy with yourself, you do not need to make disparaging comments.”

She thinks some kennel owners feel threatened because home boarding is on the rise. “Yes, home boarding is relatively new and I know there are a lot who are not doing it well, but there are also a lot who are doing a very good job. Don’t tar us all with the same brush. It’s very easy to judge somebody without seeing things first for themselves. I know a lot of people will still think what I do is not good enough and I am ready for some backlash.”


Another bespoke cat bed, this time in the shape of a boat

She admits to being appalled when a customer told her of an experience in London. “There was this place where dogs were being taken and charged £25 a day – but they could not see the premises as the dogs were being looked after elsewhere. The owners had no clue where their dog was going! I asked her, how can you be assured that they are licensed? Did you even see the licence where your dog is going? I was appalled, how do they get away with it?
“Surely if you are going to foster out, you should say ‘We are acting as agents, this is where they are, this is where you need to go.

LOOKING AHEAD

At the moment, Liz works 65 to 68 hours a week, seven days a week. Her day starts at 5.15am as she wants to walk the dogs, sort breakfast and have most of the cattery cleaned by 8am. She really wants to have two days a week off, especially as she is soon to become a grandparent for the first time.


Again, total attention to detail in the cattery

Staffing is, however, an issue, and after several not-so-successful staffing encounters, has decided that having an apprentice is probably the best way forward. And if they reached the level of five day care dogs and three home boarders a week, her husband could leave his job and join her full-time.
Ian is also about to become a  certified dog trainer, so next year will in any case offer dog training courses, from foundation right up to advanced. There are also plans to introduce agility and obstacle courses. Oh, and a grooming salon. She said: “The market is saturated with groomers, but good groomers are hard to come by. I want to find the right person and then start this as well.

“I think the dog side will take over the cattery. As it is, two home boarders a week equals nine cats. I love my cats, but the dog side makes better business sense. You know, if you can make money and enjoy what you are doing, you are a very lucky person.


Each of the suites in the cattery also has a TV playing DVDs

“When I started the cattery, I was green, green, green. I made so many mistakes and, if I could go back, I would do things differently. But I have learned over the years with the cattery and I am starting now with the dog day care and boarding with how I mean to go on.

“I found my big girl pants this year…it’s taken 10 years to find them. I am sure in a year’s time there will be other things I will have refined. We will make mistakes, but hopefully they will be little mistakes rather than ‘Oh crap!’.


Cattery has been expanded over the years

“I think home boarding is going to be big and so far everyone who has come here says it is fantastic. It’s the nearest we are going to get to home from home – you are not going to get this from kennels. I want this to be a new concept, an exclusive club for dogs.”

Like her hero Gerald Durrell, Liz is forging a new path for the animals she loves.