#1340: “I sat for my friends’ cats for years, but they won’t return the favor now:” Friendship, Favors, and Reciprocity

Dear Captain Awkward,

Can you jolt me out of my feelings of sadness and worry with some wisdom about friendship and favours?

Over the years I’ve helped out a bunch of friends by catsitting for their fur babies while they were on vacation. I’ve taken care of cats on more than one occasion for no fewer than seven different friends during my 20s. And sure it was fun and I got to play with their kitties and stay in their houses when I was poor and living in shared housing the rest of the time. It was, however, still a favour. I took long train rides to cities where I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t afford to go out. I filled other people’s cupboards with food because they didn’t leave me anything to eat, despite the fact that they weren’t paying me. I lugged my laptop across town and made four-hour return trips to collect forgotten textbooks. I followed very specific cat-care instructions anxiously and accurately. I once had to pay over two hundred dollars for a locksmith because of a misunderstanding with an owner.

And now it’s ten years down the line, I share my partner’s flat and I finally adopted my own cat. I adore her, but she’s had a hard time and is simultaneously painfully timid and starving for affection and attention. She cries and sometimes wets the sofa when left alone for more than a few hours and follows me absolutely everywhere. We’ve booked a weekend away six weeks from now and I emailed around to see if anyone could look after her for three nights (half as long as most of the gigs I did for them in the past). Crickets. I finally heard back from one friend suggesting I book a paid service that’s organized like Airbnb, i.e. a stranger would come stay in the flat and look after her. There don’t seem to be that many checks involved in this service. Captain, I’m so worried about what to do with my anxious, loving little cat and I’m so upset and frankly angry that nobody is willing to help me in the way I helped them. They’re not young, hungry for space and single, sure, but even though I was those things when I looked after their pets, I was also going to quite a lot of trouble and inconvenience to help them out. None of them has kids and some of them are married couples, meaning surely one of them could spend a weekend staying in the flat (which is extremely comfortable and in a really nice area of one of the world’s most popular cities for tourists) taking care of my beloved cat? How should I feel and what should I do?

Thank you,

My cat is sad and so am I!

Hello My Cat Is Sad,

I’m glad you asked for a jolt, because otherwise, I do not think you would necessarily love what I have to say.

In my 20s, when I or one of my friends needed to move apartments, lots of friends would get together and help the person move. We’d carry boxes and furniture, load and unload the truck, and eat pizza and beer, assuming that the labor and effort would be paid back, or forward, someday, somehow.

Starting sometime in my 30s, if I need to move, I hire movers. If friends are moving and need help, I might help with collecting cardboard boxes for them, and even with packing or unpacking as I can, and I might kick in money for movers if the person needed funds, but my days of carrying other people’s futons up and down stairs – and asking friends to do the same for me – are over. Bodies and expectations have changed, where, even if I wanted to move heavy objects, I physically can’t. Life is different now.

Expectations about what constitutes a pleasant getaway are also different with age. (Youth Hostels in my 20s: I can sleep literally anywhere! Adventure! Instant, incandescent, temporary friendships! Making out with the continent of Australia, one horny backpacker at a time! Youth Hostels now: AHAHAHAHA NO, also I’m 47, so I would be the one making it weird if I tried to stay in one.) The kind of cat sitting you’re asking for isn’t the “Neighbor, can you drop by once a day and make sure the bowls are full and the box isn’t gross?” sort, which is an easy favor to trade now and then. You’re asking someone to move into your place for three nights to look after a continuously crying cat who pisses on the furniture if her person leaves for more than a few hours. [sarcasm]Sounds relaxing! What a great way to take advantage of nearby tourist attractions in between bulk applications of noise-cancelling headphones and Nature’s Miracle on one of the precious long weekends of summer! [/sarcasm] You may have been willing to do this kind of thing in your 20s, and you can certainly ask if anyone would be willing to do it for you now, but if your friends tell you they are unwilling, your best bet is to believe them about that and make another plan.

Fortunately, you have options, and here are five off the top of my head:

1) Call your vet and see if they will board her for the weekend for a fee (this can be especially useful for pets who need regular medication).

2) Call your vet and see if they can recommend a pet sitter or service, sometimes vet clinic front office staff do pet-sitting as a side gig or know people who do. Just, generally, call your vet and tell them what’s happening, they can probably help with both the separation anxiety issue and the litter box rebellion.

3) Investigate the service your friend recommended for you and its competitors, read reviews, and find one with a good professional track record that gives you the ability to screen people to your comfort levels. Perhaps a willing, conveniently-located stranger who is being paid (and who might be in their 20s and psyched for a weekend away from housemates) is a better option than an unwilling friend (who is also a complete stranger…to your cat).

4) Change your vacation lodgings to a pet-friendly place and bring a disposable litter box and food with you.

5) Or, postpone your trip until you and your cat have worked on the separation anxiety a bit more and/or you find reliable, trustworthy cat care. Welcome to having a pet! Your new vacation-planning order of operations is “figure out pet care, THEN book expensive/non-refundable things” as long as this wee beastie is in your life.

It’s understandable that you’re somewhat disappointed, it sounds like you did do a lot of cat-related favors back in the day. Verily, this whole thing might make you re-evaluate how willing you are to do inconvenient favors for certain people in the future, which sounds to me like an extremely healthy impulse for you overall.  It’s normal and good to want reciprocal friendships, but “I never set boundaries before, so you are a bad friend if you have them now” isn’t the way to get there. In future, if you’re only doing a friend a favor because you expect a quid pro quo, then negotiate that outright: “I can do x for you, and in exchange, someday, and that day may never come, I may ask you to do some cat-sitting for me.” If, as with Letter Writer #1339, what started out as a favor needs some adjustment, then either re-negotiate it until it feels like a favor or stop doing it. Otherwise, treat favors like any other gift: Something you gave away because you wanted to, something that isn’t yours anymore.

Even if something is technically owed, people just generally respond poorly to guilt trips and self-martyrdom. If you enthusiastically agreed or volunteered to do favors for people, and neither mentioned all the snags and extra costs incurred nor set clearer expectations at the time (“I’d be glad to, but can you cover my train fare and food during the stay?”), then offering decade-old hassles now up in a friendship expense report or lien for back friendship taxes isn’t going to make a persuasive case. You don’t get credit for all the stuff you could have said or asked for but didn’t. Even the credit monitoring bureaus have a seven year cutoff for holding old debts against people. 

I also strongly advise against pointing out that your friends “could” do it now if they really wanted to by virtue of not having kids. I don’t have children, it doesn’t mean that my free time is free to other people until proven otherwise, and that doesn’t change even if I like them very much and if they’ve done nice things for me in the past. If you didn’t want to do all that stuff back then, you could have said no, just like your friends did now, because the important part, the actionable part, is the part where they don’t want to, and there’s just no way that pushing past that in the way you’ve described plays out well. Imagine actually having the following conversation:

You: “Can you watch the cat from ___ to ____?” Them: “Sorry, no.” You: “But I spent $200 on a locksmith in 2013 and never told you about it.” Them: “Oof, really? I had no idea. Why didn’t you say something then?” You: “So can you watch the cat?” Them: “Sorry, still no. Do you want the name of a service?” You: “But I journeyed for many hours to take care of your cat, and had to go back when I forgot textbooks.” Them: “That was really nice of you! But if you hadn’t wanted to do it I would have found someone else.” You: “So you’ll watch her?” Them: “Was I not clear? I’m not going to watch her, but good luck finding someone who can!” You: “But you could if you wanted to, it’s not like you have kids or anything.” Them: “I don’t have kids, but if I did, and you didn’t want to babysit them, I’d find someone who did. So again, sorry, can’t help, but here’s a service that might!”

Your friends aren’t doing what you wish they would do, but they are sticking to pretty reasonable boundaries and giving you timely, honest information so that you can make the best possible plan. I hope you can find a reliable solution, have an excellent vacation, and find a happier and much drier co-existence with your tiny pee terrorist.

For a hot second I was almost tempted to open comments to see whether the “Child-free people aren’t your TaskRabbits” outrage or pet care optimization advice (what Nicole Cliffe correctly calls “the third rail of the internet”) would melt it all down sooner, but no, comments are extra closed, and please also refrain from emailing me tips about coping with litter box problems, cat anxiety, recommendations for Feliway and calming treats, pet sitting recs, and other highly specialized, extremely localized, and easily-searchable cat care tips. “But urinating outside the litter box could indicate a serious medical problem!” Yes, which is why it is the first thing that comes up in literally any search engine about the subject, and why I used the words “call your vet” repeatedly in the post. We don’t diagnose strange people via the Internet, we’re definitely not making exceptions for pets we’ve never met, and I will not pass on any tips to the Letter Writer, no matter how well-meaning.

Thank you, I love you, please enjoy some recent photos of Henrietta Kim Wexler Pussycat and Daniel Jason Mendoza Striped Tiger, who are three years old as of last month: