Leaving your animal companion safe and comfortable at home while you travel doesn’t have to mean checking your loved one into a kennel, cattery, or veterinarian’s office, where animals often become stressed, frightened, ill, or even hurt or lost. Ideally, “safe at home” means finding the right companion-animal sitter.
Your best bet is to select someone you know personally and trust, such as a relative, close friend, coworker, or neighbor. It’s best to stick with adults, since even well-intentioned youngsters can forget to come by when they are supposed to. Be sure that the person you choose likes and is comfortable around companion animals. It’s best to have the person come to your house at least once prior to your trip so that he or she can meet and get acquainted with your animal friends.
If you have never been to the home of the person you are planning to have watch your animals, now is the time to pay a visit. Watching them interact with their own animals can give you an idea of how they will interact with yours.
Some people feel more comfortable having the person who is taking care of their animals stay at their home. This is especially appreciated when the animals are older or have health problems and can provide extra security for your animals in the event that they become ill or injure themselves during the night. However, only allow a responsible adult to stay at your home, and make it clear that you don’t want the sitter to entertain visitors who are unknown to you—you don’t want your animals to be harmed by a stranger or to slip out unnoticed during a wild party.
Another option is to hire a professional sitter, but you must be very careful to screen potential sitters, even those who are bonded, licensed, and insured. If you use a professional sitter, here are some basic rules to follow:
1. Ask for multiple references (including at least one from a veterinarian) and check them. Better yet, ask someone you know who takes excellent care of their animals to recommend a sitter they have experience with and trust. The National Association of Profession Pet Sitters (1-800-296-PETS) and Pet Sitters International (336-983-9222) can provide referrals for sitters in your area who have completed animal-care courses and adhere to certain guidelines (these sitters should still be asked to provide references, however).
2. Call the Better Business Bureau, your local Chamber of Commerce, and animal protection organizations within 30 miles to ask if they have ever had a complaint about the sitter.
3. Meet the sitter in advance and ask questions about prior training and experience with companion animals and their care.
4. Sign a contract that spells out the sitter’s precise duties but not one that exempts the sitter from liability in the case of your animal’s illness, accident, or death.
5. Make sure that the sitter agrees to check in with you every day, no matter where you are.
6. Leave your telephone numbers, numbers of people to contact in the event of an emergency, and the numbers of your vet and emergency vets taped to the telephone.
7. Have a back-up caretaker lined up in the event that the sitter is unable to get to your house. Leave a spare key with that person and leave his or her phone number with the sitter (and vice versa). Leave out multiple bowls of water in case some disaster prevents anyone from being able to get to your animals. (Dehydration poses a greater threat to animals than starvation.)
If Boarding Is Your Only Option
If finding a responsible, caring sitter is not an option and you must board your dog or cat, please visit the facility beforehand, while there’s still time to find another kennel if it doesn’t appear to have a safe and friendly environment. Take a tour. Is the facility clean? Are the staff members gentle and kind? Is the kennel air-conditioned? Are the dog runs made of cement? (If so, will your dog be comfortable urinating and defecating there, or will he or she “hold it,” becoming extremely uncomfortable, for fear of breaking the rules?) Are the cat condos spacious enough for the cats to move around freely, with different levels to climb and sit on? How many times a day are litter boxes cleaned?
Speak with staff about any concerns that you may have. Ask questions. How many times a day are animals given fresh water and food? Are dogs taken for walks? What about emergency veterinary care? Can a friend drop by to snuggle with your cat or take your pup for a romp at the dog park? How many times a day are the dogs allowed to relieve themselves outdoors?
For a few extra dollars, some kennels offer extras like one-on-one TLC sessions, doggie daycare, or “deluxe” suites with beds, couches, and cat trees.
Look for a kennel that offers lots of space, stimulation such as wildlife documentaries on TV screens, safe toys, supervised play groups for socialized dogs, and, most importantly, caring, responsible employees to make your animal’s stay as comfortable as possible.