Planning and booking a holiday can be challenge enough, but for many pet owners the biggest planning headache is what to do with Fido and Fluffy. Unless you have a ready supply of willing and able friends and relatives willing to pet-sit, you're going to have to consider a commercial pet care service.
We look at options including boarding facilities and the increasingly popular online services which allow you to search for sitters to mind your pets in their home or yours.
Boarding services include kennels, catteries and care provided by some veterinary practices. Some are better than others in terms of the amount of attention given, individual space and opportunity for exercise.
How much does pet boarding cost?
It's important to shop around – price isn't always an indicator of quality, and can vary according to:
- location (city versus country)
- timing (peak vs off-peak holiday season)
- duration (some have relatively high minimum payments for short stays)
- extras (medication, exercise, bathing)
- number of animals (some offers discounts for more than one pet).
A good kennel will have your dog returning from their holiday happy and healthy, having perhaps enjoyed romps in the countryside and playing with other dogs. For other dogs – and their owners – it can be nightmare. Incidents can range from relatively minor to more serious: stress, kennel cough, untreated injuries and worse.
Lack of exercise can also be a problem – it's not always clear that exercise time may be an optional extra, for which you pay. 'Play' could mean one-on-one time with one of the carers, getting lots of attention and affection, or simply access to an exercise area alone or with one (or up to 20) other dogs.
Joint boarding, or 'dog stacking', is where the kennel owner puts two or more unfamiliar dogs into the one run. Sometimes it's sold to you as giving your dog a 'fun playmate'. Sometimes you're not told at all – they just do it. It's more likely to occur during peak periods, when demand for places is higher.
Signs that a kennel may use joint boarding include not letting you inspect the kennels during peak period, or not accepting large or aggressive dogs, or dogs that haven't been desexed because they're less suitable for joint boarding.
While it may suit some dogs, if you're concerned you should ask directly about dog stacking: "Will my dog have his own run, or will he share it with another dog?"
Cats don't get quite as good a deal as dogs when it comes to boarding. Perhaps it's reasoned that cats are smaller and less active than dogs, sleeping much of the day, and therefore need less space. They tend to end up in fairly small, often multi-level cages.
The environment can be fairly dull, or even stressful if your cat doesn't like the close company of other cats. On the other hand, they're less likely to end up sharing their space with a stranger.
While some vets provide boarding facilities, the cages may be quite small – designed for animals recuperating from illness or surgery rather than for longer term stays.
It's worth checking how much time they'll spend out of the cage. While they may not get the attention and play space available elsewhere, at least you should be confident their basic needs will be met.
Things to consider when boarding your pet
Where to start
- Try word of mouth – ask your work colleagues, vet, the breeder who sold you your pet, fellow dog-walkers.
- Look at several different places well in advance, and book early, especially for peak periods.
- Kennel runs should offer protection from wind and rain, a partially enclosed area for sheltered sleeping with a bed raised off the ground, shaded areas and ventilation.
- Cats should have bedding provided, as well as toys, scratching posts and other positive forms of stimulation.
- Pens should look and smell clean. Concrete may not look very cosy and comfortable, but it's easy to keep clean.
- Views to the outside world can help prevent boredom, particularly for cats.
- Is the cattery adjacent to kennels? Some cats might find the constant barking of dogs stressful.
Health and veterinary care
- Kennels should check your dog has been fully vaccinated (C5 minimum) and is up to date with heartworm, gastrointestinal worm and flea prophylactics. Cats should be fully vaccinated against feline enteritis and the viruses that cause feline respiratory disease (F3 minimum).
- What arrangements are in place if your pet becomes ill? Do you want your own vet to be consulted if any treatment has to be given by the boarding facility's vet? Decide your preferences well in advance and make them known.
- What sort of food is your pet given? Are you happy with the type and quality of food? Are special dietary requirements catered for?
- If your pet goes off their food, due to stress or loneliness, will staff tempt them with some favourites?
Staffing and carers
- Try to meet the people responsible for handling and caring for the animals, not just the office staff. Use the opportunity to see how they relate to your pet, and vice versa. Try to gauge whether they're in it for the love of animals or just the money. If they seem annoyed by your requests, such as dietary requirements, they may not carry them out.
- Is there someone on the premises after hours? If not, what are the arrangements for after-hours care and supervision?
- Owners assume – and are often assured – that their pets will get plenty of pats and cuddles, but it's a good idea to establish how much individual time they're devoted each day.
- Don't just assume your dog will be exercised. Make sure you know what 'exercise' and 'play' involve, as well as how long and at what (extra) cost.
- Are dogs of all types and sizes allowed in the yard at one time? How many? Are they supervised? If cats are given access to an exercise area, for how long, is it individual time or shared with other cats, and is it supervised?
There are several online platforms and other agencies offering to match up pet owners with pet sitters who look after your pet in your home (either living there, or visiting once or twice a day) or in their home.
Service providers include:
These online services vary in their vetting of the sitters, and there have been stories of animals not being looked after properly and reviews being falsified, so you'll need to use your judgement.
Fees and cancellation
Fees vary widely, depending on location, services offered and qualifications. If you've paid and have to cancel, you may be entitled to a full or partial refund, depending on the sitter and how much notice you give.
If things go wrong
By paying for the service through one of these agencies, you, the sitter and your pet are covered by one or more types of insurance, which may include public liability insurance, covering damage or injury caused by your pet to third parties, and professional indemnity insurance, covering accident or injury to your pet under certain circumstances.
Insurance typically doesn't cover:
- damage to host property
- injury caused by the pet to the host, host family or host pet
- claims arising from the care of designated dangerous dogs, or guest pets that have previously attacked another animal or human requiring medical attention
- breach of professional conduct – for example, walking the animal off-leash in an on-leash area, or otherwise disregarding the agency's house rules
- pre-existing medical conditions, illness or old age
- reduction in potential show or stud value.
Having someone stay in your home is especially useful for cat owners or those with multiple pets, and for those with fish, hens, and other birds or caged pets which don't lend themselves to being transported elsewhere.
This means having someone live in your house for the duration of your absence, or visiting once or twice a day to look after your pets and otherwise keep an eye on the house.
While house sitters are one option, there are also pet sitters who house-sit specifically for pet owners. The latter position themselves primarily as pet carers and are likely to charge for the service, but house sitters may also be happy to care for your pet and do it for free. One way to find potential pet sitters is through the pet sitting agencies described above.
The potential benefits are that your pet stays in a comfortable, familiar environment, your garden and pot plants can also be cared for, and your home can look lived-in for better security.
Potential drawbacks include lack of privacy, damage and neglect to your home and possessions, and putting your faith in someone who may let you – and your animals – down. If you're using a home visit service, or even a house sitter who works long days, your pet might become bored and lonely, and get up to mischief.
Tips for care in your home
- For what it's worth, get a police check, and ask for (and follow up) references. However, these don't really mean that much: people don't report unwatered plants, unwalked dogs, overflowing letterboxes and a messy house to the police, references can be faked and referees may be friends who've been suitably briefed. There have been reports of faked ratings for online pet sitting agencies, so you need to exercise due diligence with potential sitters.
- When you meet potential pet minders, see how they interact with your pet – and your pet with them. If you have a large or lively dog can they handle them?
- Provide the carer with a map of preferred walks and parks, and provide any details about on- and off-leash parts of walks and any local friends or enemies that may be encountered on the way.
- Make sure you let the carer know the house rules (sitting on furniture, sleeping arrangements), how pets are disciplined and a list of words and commands the animal knows and responds to (for toileting, bed, walks etc.).
- Apart from leaving your vet's details, it's also useful to leave the contact details for a friend or relative who can make decisions about your pet's welfare and general household matters (especially if you're not easily contactable) and lend a helping hand if necessary. It may also be useful to give that person a spare set of keys.
- Establish up front who pays for what – if you're not paying the house sitter, you may agree to pay the bills. You should also negotiate some kind of bond, paid in advance, to cover damages (there may be some coverage through insurance if using a pet sitting agency).
- Leave some money to cover food and any small unexpected expenses, such as medications, for your pet, and negotiate how you'll settle larger expenses such as a plumbing emergency. Arrange with your vet to settle accounts on your return.
- Be very clear about the importance of having fresh water available for your pets, especially if the minders aren't pet owners themselves.
If you'd rather not have someone living in your home, an increasingly popular alternative is having someone look after the pet in their home, as part of their family. It's better suited to dogs and small, caged pets, rather than cats – though some people will take them.
The minders tend to be people who love animals but don't want the commitment of owning one, or already have pets of their own and are happy to help others out and earn a little extra cash.
Having met the sitter and been satisfied they're able to care for your pet, the main things to check are that the home is suitable (space, outdoor access and fencing) and that your pet gets along with theirs, if they have any. Also check if they're going to be minding other pets as well as yours – if your pet isn't very social it might not work out.
Tips for care in the home of others
- For online match-up services, first meet the minder in a neutral place – for example a park near their home (Don't Fret Pet has already met and verified minders).
- If that goes well, visit the home and make sure it's suitable – check fencing is escape-proof, there are no open windows your cat can escape through, a shoe rack too tempting for your shoe-chewing dog, breakables within reach, etc.
- There have been reports of faked ratings for online pet sitting agencies, so you need to exercise due diligence with potential sitters.
- Take your dog or cat with you and make sure they get along with the host (it's probably not so important for birds or mice!). Spend a decent amount of time there so it's a familiar place when you drop your pet off for a stay.
- If the minder has other pets, make sure they get on with yours.
- Discuss dietary, exercising, grooming and other care needs (flea treatment and medication) and what's included in the daily fee. Provide this information in writing as well.
- Establish rules and expectations regarding where the pet is allowed (inside, on beds, on sofas etc.) and how likely your pet is to abide by these.
- Consider a trial night or weekend to make sure your pet and the minder are happy with the arrangement – you don't want to be a few days into your African odyssey and learn things aren't working out.
- Apart from leaving your vet's details, it's also useful to leave the contact details for a friend or relative who can make decisions about your pet's welfare and general household matters (especially if you're not easily contactable) and lend a helping hand if necessary. It might also be useful to give that person a spare set of keys.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.