Pet Sitter or Boarding: a Vet's Take on the Choices for Your Pet

Pet sitter feeding puppy

If there’s one thing I love almost as much as my family — two-legged and four-legged both — it’s travel. I’ve been just about everywhere you can get to (more than 70 countries and counting), and the places I haven’t been to are on my list of places to go. Add in a lot of business travel and sometimes it seems as if I’m always on the road.

My wife loves travel as much as I do. We have caretakers on our ranch for the horses, the big dogs and the cats. The little dogs go to a “bed and breakfast” in town. Knowing we don’t have to worry allows us to enjoy our travel fully.

Many people prefer to take their pets along, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes your pet isn’t welcome (here’s more on that problem), and sometimes she’s the kind who’s better off at home. Here’s my take on choices for your pet when you travel.

In-Home Pet-Sitting

From a professional service to a good friend to a neighbor’s kid, pet-sitting has always been popular. Having your pet stay in your own home means he is in familiar surroundings while you are away. One of the best ways to find a professional pet sitter is by asking friends, family, co-workers or your veterinarian for a referral; you can also check local online business rankings and professional trade groups to find a sitter.

There are two kinds of in-home pet sitters: those who drop by a few times a day to walk, feed and play with your pup, and those who stay overnight. The biggest drawback to the former is that your pet will be alone most of the time, but if you work outside your home your pet is already used to that. Overnight pet sitters are more expensive, but they are the best scenario: Your pet stays in the environment he is comfortable and he is not alone at night. These types of sitters will usually take in the mail and newspapers, too.

All reputable pet-sitting services will find out as much as possible about your pet before you leave and will be prepared for any problem that comes up.

Informal pet-sitting arrangements can be trickier unless you’re absolutely sure the person you’ve hired is reliable and trustworthy. Should a pet sitter flake, your pet will be in trouble. A casual agreement between friends may mean your sitter isn’t as well-prepared for an emergency as a professional. I’m not saying these arrangements don’t work out — many do — but you will need to be more careful.

Few of us are out of contact for very long, thanks to smartphones and email, so make arrangements to have your sitter check in daily with updates and pictures. They may make you homesick for that fuzzy face, but at least you’ll know he’s just fine while you’re gone.

Boarding (Traditional and New)

Boarding kennels have been a mainstay of the away-stay business for generations, but if you haven’t looked into them lately, you may be surprised by what you'll find. Though operations with banks of side-by-side chain-link runs still exist — and a lot of dogs are happy with these — other kennels are more like resorts.

In many of today's kennels, your pet can have her own room, group play, daily hikes, a training refresher, massage and swimming, and in some cases can even sleep on a caretaker’s bed at night. Many of these new-style boarding facilities also offer day care, which means your dog could be boarded at a place she already knows.

Visit well in advance — unannounced is best — to see the facilities. Be sure to check references, too, especially veterinary ones. I especially like that many facilities have webcams so you can look in online as often as you like. And be sure to ask if the kennel is staffed at night. Most are not, but emergencies can happen after-hours and it's a definite plus if you can find one that is.

In-Home Boarding

Rather than leave your pet home alone or in a kennel, you may be able to find someone to care for him in her home while you are away. As with informal pet-sitting arrangements, you’ll need to be very careful if you’re not dealing with professionals. Many well-meaning friends may not be as prepared to take care of your pet’s needs, such as giving medication, or may not pay close enough attention to prevent escape. Be sure that any sitter who cares for your pet in her own home is ready to take on the responsibility and make your pet safe and comfortable while you're gone.

There is no right or wrong choice overall — only what’s best for your pet. Cats are generally (but not always) happier staying at home, while many (but not all) dogs enjoy the more social atmosphere of boarding. Once you determine where your pet will be happier, check out any pet sitter or boarding facility you’re considering as if your pet’s life depends on it. Because it does.

Some final thoughts: No boarding kennel or pet sitter should overrule your veterinarian’s recommendation for your pet’s preventive care. Talk to your veterinarian about what vaccinations are best for your pet, and at what intervals, before you leave your pet in anyone else’s care. Your veterinarian should be on your emergency contacts list as well, and be sure everyone knows where to reach you for any critical care decisions that may need to be made.


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