Summer is a busy time at my veterinary clinic.
We’re dealing with questions from owners about upcoming vacations, fielding phone calls from worried pet sitters and, frequently, having pets in the hospital for illness or boarding because something went wrong with the pet-sitting planning.
As I see it, advance planning for your pets while you’re away is the key. Today I’m dealing with dogs only.
Here are the most common options regarding a summer vacation for dogs:
- Taking the dog with you. If you’re planning a trip with your dog, the entire trip should be planned with this thought in mind. Don’t stuff BoBo in the back seat as a last resort! (Or put him on the roof of your station wagon.)
- Leaving the Bo-Man with a pet sitter. Choose wisely. My summers are full of emergency calls from pet sitters. Below, I’ll give you a few tips on how to choose and prepare your sitter.
- Neighbors/family as pet sitters. This is a great option if all are in agreement and familiar with the pet.
- Kennels. The pet resort is not necessarily a last resort, particularly for pets with special needs or for those who don’t travel well.
If BoBo Goes…
The decision to take your dog(s) on vacation with you should be the first step in planning your vacation. If the dog is going, every part of that vacation should be planned with pup in mind.
1. Plan an easy car trip whenever possible. Your dog should be a happy and well traveled pooch. If not, think about leaving your panting, pacing, puking pup at home.
Getting ready for a trip can be stressful. The last thing you need is to worry about Bobo “getting there.” When clients call asking for “tranquilizers” for the vacation, my worry button gets turned on. Some people think they can “tranq” the dog for the entire vacation because “Aunt Millie doesn’t really like BoBo at the cottage.”
Medications are useful for true car sickness, but a family vacation is not the time to work on your dog’s travel anxiety or poor house manners. There are helpful training tools to make your dog more comfortable in the car, but if you’re leaving in a week, now is not the time to start on behavior modification.
2. A familiar place, either family-owned or a pet-friendly rental, is ideal. When you are happy with the routine and know what to expect, your dog will be too.
3. What kind of a vacation is this? Is this a heavy sightseeing sort of trip, where Bo will be locked in a strange room most of the time, or is he truly part of the vacation? The quickest way to be thrown out of a hotel or rental is to leave a dog barking in a room or a cabin for 24/7. And you’re probably breaking the rules too. Many “pet friendly” lodgings don’t want your dog left in the room alone. Be prepared for damage charges if Bo’s stress diarrhea stains the carpet or if he chews on the wood cabin as if it was a very big stick.
4. Try to imagine this vacation in advance. Are you going to have a tough time worrying about Bo and what to do with him in Canada, or will you relax in Quebec if Bo is home in Brooklyn? Besides, Bo doesn’t speak French; he speaks Brooklyn.
If you are imagining relaxing hikes and dog-friendly beaches, what a great trip for Bo! But if the kids want to go to Six Flags and water parks and then stop and play miniature golf and get ice cream, where does Bo go? You don’t want to be sitting in the parking lot with Bo because he can’t be in the motel room any longer. And of course you can’t leave him in the hot car!
Pet Sitters – Blessing or Disaster?
My hospital bulletin board gets crowded in the summer: lots of people offering their services as “pet sitters.” Owners, beware!
Check out these pet sitters thoroughly. Get references. Ask lots of questions. At least one home visit, preferably more, is essential. See how your dog relates to this person. I like to plan some “trial” half-day pet sitting or outings before a weeklong vacation. A good pet sitter will want to meet your dog and tell you if he/she has any reservations.
You know your dog better than anyone; observe how your dog is reacting to this person. If all goes well, have the person come back in a day or two and see how Bo greets her.
Enter into an actual contract, explicitly determining how many visits a day, walks and cost. Always have all your veterinary information posted for the pet sitter. The most professional pet sitters are bonded and often have liability insurance. There is a National Association of Pet Sitters too.
Here are some pet-sitter horror stories:
- Young pet sitter, a grown daughter of the owner’s friend, “can’t handle” the pressure two days into a seven-day pet-sitting job. There really wasn’t any problem! She brings the dog to me for boarding because she “just doesn’t want the hassle.” The owners are in Italy. My hospital is a hospital for animals with health issues, not a boarding facility. I don’t board. But in this case, I made an exception.
- Pet sitter allows dog to run free as directed by owner (not a good idea). Terrible dog fight ensues. I patch up the dog… And the dog stays with me for the rest of the vacation. Pet sitter got cold feet.
- Dog is a complicated diabetic but stable. Pet sitter is in continual turmoil over the insulin/feeding schedule, even though the owner went over and over this. On Day 1, the pet sitter calls our hospital three to four times a day, and finally gives up and — you guessed it — brings the dog to me for the rest of the vacation.
- Owner is to be away for three weeks. Pet sitter feels that the little Pekingese is too thin. She overfeeds the dog, creates a terrible pancreatitis, and the dog ends up… Not with me! WORSE! In the emergency hospital. (The dog did okay after being detoxed from chicken livers and bacon.)
- I get a legitimate phone call at about 9 p.m. from a very worried pet sitter who finds her charge very sick. Bring the dog over immediately, I say. “Really?” is her response. There’s a lot of commotion on the other end of the phone; some raised voices. Is that a cat screaming? No, it’s an infant. This young mom thought pet sitting was a great way to add some extra income, but she bit off more than she could chew. The dog arrived at my hospital 45 minutes later. There was a baby screaming in a car seat and some unruly siblings. The young mom/pet sitter looked like a dish rag.
I think you’ve got the idea. Unfortunately, many inexperienced people think that just because they love animals, they can pet sit. Often they’re lovely, warm people, easy to trust. But be tough in the interview. Ask scads of questions. Call the references.
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I have a very short list of pet sitters I hand out to clients. Even with that list, I make suggestions that certain pets and sitters might not be the right fit.
Neighbors/Family as Pet Sitters
Most of the time, this works out very well because the dog is familiar with the people and vice versa.
Some common pitfalls:
- The neighbor children may not be adequately supervised. Make sure your pet will always be supervised by an adult. The neighbor kids may think they have a new pet and smother BoBo with unrelenting attention. Your dog might not feel the same way. Bo knows.
- Your parents will overfeed your dog. Scare them with horror stories about bloat, diabetes, heart disease, anything you can think of. I’m kidding, sort of. Try to tell them that BoBo is on a healthy, adequate diet. Providing individual portions in plastic zipper bags is a good idea. Your mother might be insulted, but it’s a good idea!
Parents complain to me all the time when pet sitting, but I know they love it. After all, Bo is a piece of you left behind. (At least you don’t have to vacation with your parents. Hey, suggest they take him for his annual physical while you’re away, and pick up the bill.)
In a good way, kennels have come into the 21st century in style. Of course you still have the old school, where your dog is locked in a small kennel 23 out of 24 hours. Not good. Luckily, pet entrepreneurs have discovered that pet owners are willing to pay for high-quality kennels.
It seems as if there’s a spa on every corner for humans, and a pet resort in every town for pooch. We have entered the era of pet inns, “bed and biscuits,” whatever you want to call them. You can watch your pet on a doggie cam, pay for extra walks, extra TLC. The menu board can be extensive at these places. We’re talking pedis, holistic meal plans and workouts. Canyon Ranch for BoBo!
Make sure all vaccines are up to date, including bordetella (kennel cough).
- Dogs With Medical Issues: If your dog is aging or has a serious medical problem, a good kennel facility with a veterinary hospital attached or a vet nearby is a very good option. A few times a summer, I have clients bring me a thoughtful letter, giving me the right to treat their pet as I see fit in case of an emergency. Or we have an honest discussion about a treatment plan in the event an ailing pet takes a turn for the worse. Of course, I can usually reach owners via email or cell phone.
- Safety of Kennels: If you choose a kennel with an excellent reputation, BoBo is probably extremely safe. He is in a controlled environment, hopefully with lots of perks. He’s not going to run out your front door when the pet sitter opens it and get hit by a car, or get in a dog fight, or rip open his foot while on a nature walk. Pet sitters out there, don’t get your knickers in a twist. Many of you are excellent, responsible and professional. But you know as well as I do that things can happen when you’re watching a pet — things often beyond your control.
- Cost: Upscale kennels can be expensive — good pet sitters too — but it’s worth it. I recently checked out some doggie daycares in Manhattan. It’s more than most people’s rent! I have been known to stand in front of the daycare windows watching for very long periods of time. Guess I don’t get enough animal contact in my day job!
So, enjoy your summer vacation, dog owners. If you’re not going away until August and you don’t have BoBo’s room with a view reserved yet, start now.