Arranging for Pet Care During the Holidays

It’s a worry to leave pets behind when you’re traveling. But if you start planning early, you have the best shot at finding the best care for your pets.

Plan ahead to reduce stress. By: Debora Lichtenberg/Petful
Plan ahead to reduce stress. By: Debora Lichtenberg/Petful

The year-end holiday season can be the Bermuda Triangle of anxiety for your pets, not to mention yourself.

Our furry friends don’t like change, don’t like when their family is gone and often don’t like intruders (relatives) in their own space. Careful planning may reduce your holiday stress and theirs. Whether it’s to grandmother’s house you go, or your relatives and friends are encircling your own hearth, now is the time to plan for the care of Pumpkin the cat and Holly the hound.

It’s a worry to leave pets behind when you’re planning a holiday trip. This anxiety may lead people to procrastinate. You know how it goes: You’re so worried that your pets won’t be okay that you put off trying to plan for it.

This is human nature, but if you research and plan early, you have the best shot at finding the best care for Pumpkin and Holly.

Then you can relax and think about shopping and cleaning and decorating and menus and — STOP! Don’t even look at the living room furniture the cats ruined. Keep the lights low and light some candles. Frayed upholstery is shabby chic now, didn’t you know?

Book Early

Every year, I get a few last-minute frantic phone calls in November or December.

  • “Can you watch Phoebe for me? The kennels are all full.”
  • “I can’t believe our pet sitter is going home for the holidays. Help!”

Kennels are very busy this time of year, and pet sitters have lives (and families) too! They may not be available or may be booked already, particularly if you are looking for the best option, someone reliable to stay in your home.

If you haven’t finalized your pet plans, get on the phone now.

Cat Sitters

Too many people still think that a vat of dry food and a neighborhood kid changing water every couple of days is proper cat sitting. It’s not.

It is true that cats are easier to care for than dogs in many respects. Cats don’t need walking and are generally much more self-sufficient than their frolicking canine buddies. But house cats still require daily visits from a competent person.

The pet sitter should not just scoop poop and refill water and food bowls. They need to see your cats every day and check on their well-being.

If you have a shy cat who hides from all and any strangers, instruct your pet sitter to check for Mr. Scrooge’s favorite hiding places each day and make sure the litter box is being used and the food is being eaten.

It’s imperative to ensure that cats urinate every day, particularly male cats. If your cat is so crafty that he will hide from anyone but you, you should find a pet sitter willing to establish a relationship with him.

Is the 14-year-old kid down the block a qualified cat sitter? Possibly — if you know his mother. Ideally, you should have a discussion with teenybopper Bobby’s mom, no matter how responsible Bobby seems. Make sure that Bobby is watching your cat and that Bobby’s mom is watching Bobby.

Cat Boarding

All our pets, in my opinion, could be poster children for that famous holiday lyric: “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” But if you think your cats would be safer in a kennel, or if they have medical needs, find a cat-friendly kennel.

If cats don’t have some of the comforts of home in their hotel, they will be stressed. No dog barking. Cat-only spaces are the norm today. Comfy beds, some perches, and exercise time relieve their stress if they have to be in a home away from home.

Dog Walkers vs. Dog Sitters

Now that your plans are set for Pumpkin, your precious puss, what to do with Holly, the howling coonhound?

If you are lucky enough to have secured a knowledgeable pet sitter who will also take care of Holly Jolly as well as the Pumpster, go for it. But do your research thoroughly.

A dog sitter carries more responsibility than a dog walker. Think “babysitter” when choosing a pet sitter. You wouldn’t entrust your child with someone only capable of pushing a stroller.

Likewise, caring for your dog means more than walking him around the block. A babysitter is responsible for the entire well-being of the child, and the same holds true for pet sitters and their charges.

Many dog walkers are extremely qualified dog sitters as well, but not all of them.

Start Planning Now, Not Later

Most of this may seem like common sense to many of you. “Why are you writing about stuff we already know, Dr. Deb?”

Well, this article was triggered by the phone calls already coming in from people worried about what to do with sick pets over Christmas, and I still get far too many emergency phone calls from pet sitters, kennels and frantic owners during busy holiday periods. So don’t wait until the turkey is being stuffed or when Santa is approaching the chimney to make your plans.

We get emergency or acute care calls from pet sitters or kennels when:

  • The sitter or kennel staff does not know what “normal” is for a particular animal and misses cues that the pet is “not right.”
  • A debilitated or chronically ill pet is left with a sitter or in a kennel, and the animal is not cared for properly.
  • The stress of people being gone instigates or worsens a medical condition in the pet.

Sometimes people downplay their pet’s debilitated condition so that they won’t be turned down by a sitter or a kennel. On the other hand, some pet sitters need the job and take on a pet whose needs are beyond them.

I have received calls from pet sitters, for example, who are watching a diabetic animal for the first time who are not qualified to administer insulin or aware of what warning signs to watch for in a diabetic pet.

If you have a pet with a serious medical condition and are leaving on holiday, give your vet a head’s up that you are leaving Gandolf the elder with a pet sitter. I already have two pets requiring hospitalization staying with me for Thanksgiving and several letters from pet families telling me where they will be and their wishes in case of an emergency.

Believe me, the stress, the fingerpointing and the guilt are felt on all sides when something goes wrong in a pet sitting situation. Let’s do everything we can this season to leave our pets in capable and loving hands so that the real meaning of the holidays — thankfulness, love and giving — shine through.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.