My husband and I are growing up. We finally planned a vacation where we'll arrive by plane instead of by car, and sleep in a bed instead of a friend's futon. The kids are happy, my husband's ecstatic--everyone is on board...except the family pets. Four dogs, three cats, a bunny, a lizard, and one stately goldfish will be left at the threshold. As a mother to all our creatures, whether they walk on four legs or two, I know how displaced our pets will feel.
As a professional dog trainer, vacation-season guarantees an inbox jammed with the usually queries. Do I know a good kennel? Could I recommend a house sitter? Do I ever board-and-train? While holiday rarely spells joy for the family pet, it doesn't have to be a four-letter word either.
My clients routinely ask my opinion--not only for their dogs, but for their entourage of other pets as well. My answer is always tailored their individual situation. First consideration? The pets themselves: their age, disposition, and daily demands weigh heavily on the decision.
Cage-bound critters can be easily cared for or re-located. Outline a "needs chart," detailing feeding and water, temperature control, and cleaning schedules. If you're re-locating your pet, remember to pack familiar bedding, dishes, heated surfaces, and embellishments. Even rodents and herps (reptiles and amphibians) can be disoriented and their health compromised if lifestyle changes occur too suddenly.
Would your pet be considered live bait living in the wild? If you're planning to rehome your bunny, ferret, guinea pig, etc., during your respite, choose a place that mirrors the activity level of your home. A sweet, gentle bunny can be overwrought by the sudden intrusiveness of young kids or the predatory interest of an over-zealous canine.
Similarly, birds need security, consistency, and attention to thrive--especially in your absence. Social and interactive, they will become stressed and confused if thrust into a setting that is unfamiliar or chaotic. To insure your bird doesn't stress-pluck himself featherless while you're away, find a sitter to stay in your home or someone who is bird-savvy and loving to take your bird in during your vacation.
Cats are also rooted in the constancies of everyday life. Like butterflies and bees, cats have a homing instinct and can become distressed and restless if relocated. Left free to roam in an unfamiliar location, most cats will try to escape and return to their home.
When possible, find a respected pet sitter to stop by during the day (or twice if your cat demands affection) or board your cat in a professional kennel.
Dogs are another story altogether. Similar in brain capacity to a human toddler, few dogs see the point in vacating their sanctuary and familiar routine. But vacation you must, so consider your options and chose the one best suited for your dog's breed, age, and lifestyle.
Kennels Some dogs view the kennel experience like summer camp. They love the social factor, the freedom to do just as they please, and, believe it or not, the permeating smell of all things K-9. These adventurous dog types acclimate to the daily routine shortly after their arrival. Most kennels offer playtimes with staff and other dogs, and many will accommodate special diets. Ask around for a good kennel and check it out. Is the staff welcoming? Do the runs look clean and the resident dogs well cared for? Book your spot!
Not all dogs view the kennel so fondly, however. We once left our rescue-shepherd Balderdash at a "doggie spa" overnight, and I'm convinced he thought we'd abandoned him. He didn't eat or drink during his stay and had a weeklong bout of stress incontinence. My rugs never recovered. Generally speaking, protective/territorial breeds, and dogs that cringe from social experiences will stress in any place that separates him from the safety and predictability of home and family.
Home Boarding Some individuals offer boarding in their home for a small number of dogs, and often group the dogs to allow off leash socialization throughout the day. This can be a nice option for high energy, friendly dogs who welcome new experiences and the camaraderie of other dogs. Ask local veterinarians and other pet care facilities for a referral, and check it out ahead of time.
Pet-sitters Pet sitters come in two varieties: those who stay in your home, and others who drop by throughout the day. While other pets can cope with one or two visits, dogs need a limit of 3-6 visits a day depending on their age and disposition. I prefer sitters who can live in my home while I'm away. If you have multiple pets that will be further stressed if separated, or a dog who prefers the constancies of home, a pet sitter can be a great option. Invite your pet sitter in to walk your dog ahead of time so he/she is a welcomed face before your sudden departure. Ask around for referrals or seek certified sitters on line.
Board-and-train A word of caution: many board and train facilities use electronic collars, also known as shock collars, to train their students. Theses devices issue an electronic shock to a dog's neck at the touch of a button. The purpose? Behavior management through "varied levels of electronic stimulation." While the dog is shocked for bad behavior, such as jumping, little effort is put into providing appropriate displacement activities for normal excitement. Positive reinforcement--the hallmark of any good dog-training regime, doesn't even come into the picture. I have too many good dogs traumatized by this approach. If you are tempted by this option, find a program, such as the one I used to offer, where a small number of dogs are welcomed into a home environment and are trained with positive reinforcement.
Leave with Family or Friend Before leaving your dog with a friend, consider your dog and your friendship! Young puppies are demanding and destructive. If you're still housetraining, your friend may or may not keep up the regime. However, as dogs mature, they settle into their routines, and can be a pleasure to host. My eldest dog, Whoopsie Daisy, is a highly coveted pet-sitting assignment. But Whoopsie is an adaptor: "Here? Good. There? Good. Good, good, good. Let's eat then take a nap."
Not all dogs transfer households so seamlessly. For homebodies who are more attached to family, structure and routine will not thrive in an unfamiliar household.
Take-Along Of course, when possible, you might choose to bring your dogs along. Is this the ideal option? Maybe...maybe not. Depending on your dog's level of socialization, breed, and temperament, travel can be very stressful. Car rides are fun for many dogs, but a ten-hour marathon drive may test his mettle. And if you think airplane seats are uncomfortable, try flying in the cargo hold! Consider your dog's schedule once you arrive, as it takes a dog a few days to settle into a new routine. If your vacation will spell out long periods of isolation, it's often better to leave him home.
No matter where you travel, or who you leave behind, the end goal is to make your pet's day consistent and routine. Select an option that will give you the greatest peace of mind. Now pack up, unplug, and enjoy yourself. Bone voyage!