dog in suitcase
Summer travel season has begun! But before you pack your bags, you have to face that nagging concern: finding a place where your beloved four-legged friend can stay and have as much fun as you. 

If you’re like many pet owners, leaving your furry family member behind might leave you feeling guilty or worried while you’re trying to relax on vacation. 

You can eliminate some of that stress if you find the right place for your dog or cat. We’ve put together a list of alternatives to help you determine which is best for your family.

But how do you know whether to board, hire a pet sitter, ask a friend or family member to watch your pet or bring your pet along? The answer may vary, says Dr. Wailani Sung, a veterinary animal behaviorist, depending on whether or not the pet has behavioral issues. And cats and dogs have different needs. In addition, pets with medical conditions, such as diabetes, may require a sitter or facility that can manage the condition and provide round-the-clock care, if needed.

Pet Resorts or Kennels

Many kennels these days are not the chain-link-fenced runs of the past. Instead, they’re often more like resorts for your pet, offering amenities including playtime with other dogs, swimming, special treats, multi-level kitty condos and even web cams so you can see how they’re doing for yourself. 

“Most dogs that play well with other dogs can be boarded in typical boarding facilities where they are in individual runs or where they may have access to play with other dogs for part of the day under supervision,” says Dr. Sung. “This would be the ideal situation for most well-adjusted dogs.” 

Cats often find boarding stressful, even under the best conditions, but leaving your feline at home with a caretaker isn’t always an option, leaving you with no choice but to board her. In addition to making sure the boarding facility you choose is clean and well-ventilated and offers cat cages with plenty of space, you might also want to bring a paper bag or high-sided box to place in her cage in case she feels more comfortable with additional privacy. Also, while you’ll want to leave her litterbox at home, you should bring her usual litter to the kennel along with a shirt or blanket that smells like home, all of which will add to her comfort.

There are a few important questions you should ask to make sure you’ve found the best kennel for your cat or dog, writes trainer Mikkel Becker. First, make sure the kennel requires appropriate vaccinations (if you’re not sure which vaccinations should be required, consult your veterinarian). Then, ask for a tour of the facility so you can make sure the animals have protection from the heat and cold and it’s clean and well ventilated. Your pet should also have mental and physical stimulation throughout the day. If playtime with other dogs is offered, the pups should be segregated by size, and many kennels offer one-on-one playtime between staff members and kitties, too. It’s also important to know whether the kennel is staffed at night and how they handle medical emergencies.

Pet Sitters

You can hire an experienced pet sitter to stay overnight in your home or to come and care for your pet (or pets) several times a day while you’re away. The advantage, of course, is that your pet gets to stay in the comfort of her own home. Overnight pet sitters are more expensive, writes Dr. Marty Becker, but you’ll have the comfort of knowing your pet isn’t alone overnight. If you think your pet will be OK being alone at night, you can hire a sitter to drop by a few times a day to walk, feed and interact with your pet. The best way to find someone is often by word-of-mouth from friends, family, neighbors — or even from your veterinarian.  

“Dogs that are fearful, anxious or reactive towards other dogs may do best being boarded by an individual or staying at home being cared for by friends, family or a pet sitter,” says Dr. Sung.

Staying at home is typically the best option for cats. Because cats don’t have to be let outdoors if they are litter-trained, it’s often fine to have someone come in during the day (rather than stay at the house overnight) to check on him, make sure he has food and water and play with him a bit if he’s a social cat. 

Family Member or Friend

More informal pet-sitting arrangements can be made with a family member or friend who can either bring your pet home with them, come to your home to stay or drop by each day. But Dr. Becker warns that you want to be confident that this person is trustworthy and responsible. If they forget, your pet will be in trouble and you may not know it.

Dr. Sung reminds dog owners to be sure to instruct a friend, family member or professional pet sitter on how to appropriately care for the dog in case of exposure to situations your dog is reactive to, such as thunderstorms or fireworks. “I do not automatically assume that the person knows how to handle my pet; I give them very specific instructions,” she says. The same holds true for cats, who can also find unfamiliar sounds alarming and stressful. Anyone watching your pet should be aware of anything that tends to frighten your pet and how you’d like them to handle those situations.

If you bring your kitty to someone else’s home, make sure to bring a hiding place like a crate, as well as his food, medication, litter, favorite toy and bed. 

Bringing Your Pet With You

Sadly, it’s not always possible to bring your pet with you. But many hotels now are dog-friendly and some rental homes allow dogs, so you just might be able to bring your dog along for the fun. Cat-friendly hotels aren’t quite as easy to come by, but they certainly do exist, and if a hotel appears to have any sort of pet policy, it’s worth asking if they allow the feline kind. (It should be noted that most cats aren’t naturally big fans of traveling with you, although, of course, there are exceptions.)

Before taking your pet on a trip with you, Dr. Sung recommends making sure your dog travels well in the car and that your cat has at least learned to tolerate riding in a vehicle, as he may experience motion sickness or anxiety and that’s not something you want to discover the morning of your vacation.

You should pack the comforts of home — including his crate, bed, favorite toys, food, water and treats. As mentioned above, bringing your cat’s usual litter along can help him feel a bit more at home, even when he’s using a temporary litter box on the road. You can prep your cat or dog for travel ahead of time by getting him used to his travel crate. Once you’re on the road or at your destination, consider using a pheromone spray in the crate or carrier and the room itself to help calm your pet’s nerves.

If you stay in a hotel, there are some things to know to be sure you have a successful stay. Make a reservation and confirm the hotel’s pet policy. When you get there, you can allow your pooch to check the place out, although you might want to start out in the bathroom with your cat, allowing her to explore the room once you see that she’s not exhibiting signs of stress.

In the hotel room, create a comfortable space for your dog or cat, put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign and give him a toy or food puzzle to keep him busy when you leave the room. If you leave the hotel, make sure to give the front desk your cell phone number and ask them to contact you if your pet becomes noisy, so you don’t annoy other guests.

Watch for Red Flags

If you decide to board your pet or use a caretaker, it’s important to note any red flags that indicate your pet didn’t have a good experience. For dogs, these include noticing that she’s distressed when you pick her up; any report that the dog appeared anxious, fearful or aggressive; any excessive barking, destructive behavior or aggression directed toward other dogs or people (especially when the pet does not have a prior history of aggressive behavior); and any gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea or vomiting, which can be an indication that your pet was stressed during the stay, says Dr. Sung. “This does not indicate that the pet was mishandled or mistreated but the pet may be less tolerant of being at the facility.”

Hiding is a common sign of stress in cats, and it’s also not unusual for a cat to refuse to eat while his owner is away; however, food refusal is not simply an inconvenience to be noted at the end of the trip! Refusing food can lead to a serious problem, as cats who don’t eat for a period of time often end up with hepatic lipidosis (or fatty liver disease). Caretakers of cats should also take note of whether the cat is using the litterbox daily. If there’s no evidence in the litterbox, the cat may be eliminating elsewhere or, even worse, could be experiencing a urinary blockage and in need of immediate veterinary care.

Also, keep in mind that as your cat or dog gets older, he may not handle change as well as he did when he was younger. “It may be better for them to stay at home and have a caregiver come take care of them,” Dr. Sung says. “However, pets that have been boarded often may still enjoy going to those facilities because they may associate those places with having fun.”

By carefully considering the different options available to you, you may find a great situation for your pet. Dr. Sung recommends doing a “test run” the first time, where you stay close by for one or two days to make sure everything goes well — and will feel confident when you really head off on vacation. 

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