Championing the cat population in Dallas, and beyond, Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 Feline Friend Retailer of the Year is truly an advocate of the furry feline set.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a coincidence as, “The occurrence of events that happen at the same time by accident, but seem to have some connection.” Errin West and Priscilla Rodriguez, co-owners of The Cat Connection in Dallas, know firsthand how serendipity and a seized opportunity can merge to create a flourishing enterprise.
The pair crossed paths in 2005, when West, a one-time horse trainer, newlywed and recent Dallas transplant, responded to an ad for kennel help at The Cat Connection. Once on board, she met fellow employee and cat lover Rodriguez, who had recently left behind a position grooming dogs at a big-box pet retailer to tidy and fluff cats.
In 2012, the endeavor, established in 1985, became available, and the colleagues joined forces to become the owners of a business focused almost entirely on cats.
“Priscilla and I put our dollars and our lives on the line,” West says. “Everything we do here is for the well-being of the cat.”
The location in North Dallas comprises four storefronts situated in an off-the-beaten-path setting.
“We are not necessarily the most convenient place, but we do have better parking than a traditional shopping center,” West says. “We also provide carry-outs for our customers.”
Shoppers are greeted by a full line of cat foods and supplies, along with a limited inventory of fare for the canine set. Feline grooming and boarding services are also in the mix.
The ambience is functional.
“It’s not the prettiest, but you don’t need pretty to do it right; it’s not going to improve the quality of the products,” West says. “Our core value is to get it done.”
Besides a robust brick-and-mortar business, The Cat Connection’s online store provides supplies and foods worldwide. Approximately 30 to 40 orders per day are shipped from 2,000 square feet of warehouse space devoted to these sales.
“Many of the products that we offer online are not found elsewhere, so a lot of these customers are searching brands, and that’s how they find us,” West says. “We also have a pretty decent advertising budget.”
Sustenance is at the heart of The Cat Connection’s “whole cat” philosophy, and biologically appropriate nourishment is spotlighted.
“We are big proponents of raw feeding and more natural foods, the less processed the better—we don’t sell a lot of kibble here,” West says, adding that they are sticklers for nutrition.
For this reason, local veterinary clinics often refer their clients to The Cat Connection for consultations and recommendations.
When a staff member is assisting a customer in a food selection, budget and time constraints are taken into consideration.
“We do not benefit from sending someone home with a product they can’t feed consistently,” West says. “We really try to break it down, because if a customer goes home with a container of raw and can’t commit to defrosting it properly or taking it out in a timely manner, no one will gain.”
Cat lovers wishing to check out the latest goodies appreciate the Purrpetual Bliss subscription service, launched in 2016. Eager felines sample four to six unique and enticing toys and treats per month, along with a bag of catnip and a scratcher, all shipped in a box that cats love to nestle in.
“It’s a monthly box of recommended products, all of which are available in our store,” West says.
Exclusive to The Cat Connection, Jerry Kurlz cat toys are named in honor of Jerry, one of West’s cats. The catnip-marinated toys are designed as a fun and safe alternative to rubber bands and hair ties.
“Cats can bat them around and chase them, but they are made with organic paper, so if one is accidentally ingested, it’s not a big deal,” West says.
A Study in Body Language
Cat grooming is a distinctive amenity at The Cat Connection, and with two groomers, including Rodriguez, and one assistant, it’s a busy place.
“We have always offered this service, and our groomers have the scars to show they work with cats,” West says. “Cat grooming is definitely not for the faint of heart.”
Cats awaiting a little sudsy TLC relaxation in individual condos with access to a litterbox, water and food—should the owner wish to provide it.
“They are not usually here long enough to make food necessary,” West says.
More frequent furry patrons include geriatric cats or those with health conditions that prohibit them from self-grooming.
“We keep them maintained,” she said.
A soothing grooming environment is the objective and generally achieved; however, cats are not known for social consistency, and life at the salon can, occasionally, get a little delicate.
“A cat that is great at home may not have ever left the house or been around, say, 12 cats at once,” West says.
However, slow, gentle comb-outs, mini massages and a relaxing fluff-dry serve to calm even the most reluctant kitty, and each is approached on an individual basis.
“The bathing is the easiest part of the process; usually, it’s the brushings and nail trims that can be a little tricky,” West says. “We have a lot of customers who think because their cat is declawed, it can’t do any damage, but teeth often cause the most harm.”
Firmly against declawing, the owners of The Cat Connection encourage nail trims or Soft Paws as alternatives to the procedure.
A severely anxious cat will be referred to a veterinarian.
“If a cat is stressed out, he isn’t going to enjoy the process, and we don’t want to take them to the next level; they don’t need a bath that badly,” she says.
A Feline Sleepover
Boarding has been available at The Cat Connection since 1985, and, currently, the facilities will accommodate 100 cats in 3,000 square feet of space.
The unique requirements of each charge are easily taken care of with the several kennel sizes available. However, West noted that the majority of cats are most at ease in a small space, and the standard cat condo is a 3-foot cube.
“Cats don’t need a big expanse in a strange place,” she says. “They are really most comfortable when surrounded on all sides by walls.”
Energetic cats and kittens can stretch their legs in the more-spacious deluxe units. To promote further activity, three custom-built playrooms are utilized for this purpose, and furry guests enjoy taking a turn in these spaces on their own or with other feline family members.
“We do not mix families in the play area,” she says. “Cats don’t like new friends.”
Besides having an ardor for cats, the innate ability to read kitty body language and assess personality is a must for members of the kennel staff.
“This is critical,” West says. “Just like grooming, you can get hurt in a hurry.”
The Cat Connection strives to meet the needs of furry, four-legged customers and their owners. In this regard, a knowledgeable, well-trained staff of cat lovers must also possess the ability to communicate with pet owners.
“There’s no book for this,” West says. “It’s not something that can be taught.”
With many long-term associates on staff, several of which are former customers, one-on-one mentoring is the primary training tool.
“Everyone here is a cat specialist,” she says.
A Place to Call Home
Assisting homeless cats in search of a forever family is another fundamental component to The Cat Connection ideology, although adoption days do not normally take place.
“Since we are not centrally located, we have not experienced big turnouts,” she says.
Instead, locally rescued felines are fostered in-store, where they examine a potential family from the comfort of their very own interim abode.
“The cats have a full run that goes around the top of our food section, as well as a spot in the front of the store,” West says. “They can go up and down between the two.”
To promote further awareness, Cat Café events present an irresistible combination of java and kitties.
“We held our first Cat Café in 2015 as a rescue fundraiser, hired baristas and 600 people came through,” she says.
A one-time storage room was converted for the cafés and today serves as a community event space.
“There are now a couple of nearly full-time cafés in the area, so we are not holding them as often, but we got in pretty early on, and there was lots of media [attention],” West says.
In-store promotions also serve to raise funds for animals in need, such as 2017 hurricane victims. The online site features an additional fundraising component, with a percentage of donations earmarked for the signed-up group.
“We will donate 10 percent of our sales during a designated timeframe,” she says.
Cat Behavior 101
The repurposed storage room also serves as a venue for educational workshops. For instance, pet CPR classes are held on a regular basis.
“We actually trade services, and for every event the CPR trainer conducts here, one of our employees gets certified,” West says.
For 2018, additional general pet education classes for customers are in the works.
Cats enjoy front and center celebrity in marketing and advertising materials, starring on weekly coupons, social media postings and other promotional materials.
“I have eight cats, Priscilla has seven; our staff members also have multiple cats,” West says. “We are surrounded, and if an item doesn’t make it with our own pets, we don’t need to sell it.
“A lot of our advertising pictures are taken in our homes,” she adds. “You are seeing how we live, and people can relate to that.”
Cool Cats Love that Old Time Rock and Roll
If you ask seven-year-old Elle Maul what she wants to be when she grows up, the answer is immediate—a rock star and a veterinarian.
It’s likely that the rockin’ inspiration comes from home; indeed, the Maul family pets answer to musical monikers, including a cat named Jackson, after Michael Jackson, and Seger, a Bernese mountain dog, for Bob Seger.
The role models for Elle’s veterinary ambitions, however, just might be the owners and staff members of The Cat Connection, where her parents, Jennifer and Adam Maul, have been shopping for the past 18 years.
The couple discovered The Cat Connection when Jennifer, then a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, found herself adopted by a cat and promptly christened him Britney, for pop singer Britney Spears.
“We didn’t know anything about cats; we thought he was a she,” Adam Maul says.
The once feral cat had most certainly never been groomed, and the couple sought to ensure a calming, enjoyable experience for their new charge.
“We wanted to take him to the best groomer in Dallas, and The Cat Connection was recommended,” he says. “We met with the previous owner, learned of more-nutritious food options, and the rest is history.”
While Britney has since passed away, Jackson continues the pampering tradition, relishing his visits with Priscilla Rodriguez, co-owner of The Cat Connection, for the occasional spa-day indulgence.
“When Jackson comes home from a grooming appointment, he walks out of his carrier and just lounges on the floor, totally relaxed,” Maul says.
The whole family values the atmosphere, the knowledge and “cats first” gospel of The Cat Connection. This feline caring manifests in many forms, and is a quality that keeps the Mauls coming back.
“Errin and her staff do a great job in providing nutritional education, or information about issues such as declawing or scratching behavior,” he says. “I’ve seen them send people home with sample cans of a better cat food to try. They are really all about making sure the cats are well taken care of.”
The focus may be cats; however, the same level of concern applies to canine customers.
“Seger is allergic to fowl, and Errin put together a package of three different food selection recommendations, which we shared with our animal allergist,” Maul says.
The store maintains a supply of Seger’s food, and the Mauls appreciate the comfort of knowing his special fare will always be in stock.
This pet-first credo extends to critters in need. For example, when the Dallas area experienced flooding in 2015, The Cat Connection flung open its doors to victims of the deluge.
“Local rescues were able to bring their cats and dogs to The Cat Connection for a safe harbor from the flood,” Maul says.
The facilities also stood at the ready for animals displaced when Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, he adds.
Young Elle loves to visit the in-store cat adoption facilities. However, the youngster hits her future-veterinarian stride and hones her bedside manner at the Cat Cafés.
“She unofficially helped out at the Cat Cafés,” he says. “She came to play with the cats, but if she noticed a guest eyeing a certain cat, she’d approach and say, ‘That would be the perfect cat for you, he’s so kind,’ or, to another, ‘You should come over here and see Snowball!’”
The Mauls’ affinity for The Cat Connection runs deeper than the idea of supporting a local business or the knowledgeable, helpful and friendly staff. It’s also about watching their young daughter interact with cats and the staff of her favorite establishment.
“Elle is a real force of nature and just loves to drop by The Cat Connection,” Maul says.