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Traveling with Pets

We spend most of our time, here at The Savvy Traveler, talking about great vacation destinations. But today we'd like to consider the things we leave behind...who's going to run the lights on and off in the house? Who'll water the plants or take in the mail? And perhaps most importantly, who'll take care of the family pet? Who'll feed Socks when you trot off to Martha's Vineyard? Well, The Savvy Traveler's Annie Wu has some suggestions.

Traveling with Pets
by Annie Wu

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Guilt: most every pet owner suffers from it...that overwhelming feeling of remorse that you've abandoned a beloved and helpless member of your family when you leave on vacation. For Jamaell Lyles of Washington, D.C., that sense of guilt may never quite go away. She thought she'd left her little Yorkshire Terrier, Simba, with someone she could trust: the veterinarian. But when Lyles returned from her vacation to pick up Simba, the vet said there was a problem.

Yorkshire Terrier

Lyles: "The keeper that was supposed to have been watching the dogs, when he opened the door to clean the kennel, the door got jammed. And my dog got out of the cage before he could close it back, went into a pit bull's cage, and the dog mauled him."

Simba eventually died as a result of the attack, but this kind of tragedy isn't the norm. Experts including the Humane Society's Nancy Peterson says a professional pet sitter or kennel can provide quality care for your pet. Peterson says when it comes to a pet sitter who'll visit your home, you're better off not depending on the kid next door, because he's probably not as reliable as a professional. She suggests that before you hire a sitter, invite him to your home for an interview.

Peterson: "There's lots of questions that you want to ask them, and you definitely want to see how do they interact with your pet. You know, they should be comfortable petting your pet and talking to your pet. Some of the questions you might want to ask are what kind of training have you had? The other things you might want to ask are certainly for some references and some recommendations from them."

Pet Sitter As a bonus, Peterson adds, some sitters will also take in your mail, water the plants and turn the lights on and off. But she warns pet sitters are not licensed or regulated so be sure they have liability insurance. And since they're coming into your home, check that they're bonded too. Now when it comes to a kennel, Peterson says it's a good idea to visit it beforehand.

Peterson: "Certainly, if you have a cat, I would suggest that you look for a kennel where the cats are housed separately from the dogs. You want a place that smells clean, looks clean, is bright and airy. For a cat it's nice if they have a two-level cage where there's a perch so the cat can get up on the perch. They like to do that. If a dog is in a kennel, you know, it's very important to see the area where the dogs will be exercised or toileted. You want to make sure that they're safe areas, that they're escape-proof."

Cat Perch

At Bokhara Kennels in Elk Rapids, Michigan, it's possible to check that your dog is safe, even after you've left on vacation. Log onto www.bokhara.com. Bokhara's owner Richard Smith has set up digital cameras to take pictures of individual dog runs -- he calls them cybersuites -- so vacationing owners can check in on their pets at any time of the day.

Smith: "We had a gentleman, and he had a Labrador retriever. And when he dropped his dog off, he purchased a rawhide chew for it. And he went off to New Orleans. And three days later we get a phone call that he'd been monitoring the dog on a fairly regular basis in the evenings, and he noticed that the rawhide chew was about gone. So he got on the phone, called us, asked us to give the dog another rawhide, and he's sitting there in New Orleans watching us give this dog the brand new rawhide."


The pictures update every 20 seconds and a text box provides information on how the dog's day went. It's a way to put the owner at ease and to put the kennel on display, says Smith.

Smith: "It keeps us on our toes that these animals absolutely have to be in tip-top condition because we don't know who's looking at them and at what time of the day."

But if Internet access isn't an option when you're on vacation, you can always try to ensure that your pet gets a vacation too.

Voice: "Coomba, go get it!"

Coomba is a 90-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever. On this hot summer day, Coomba would rather retrieve fish out of the pond than a stick.

He's one of over 5000 dogs that stay at Shady Spring camp in Maryland every year. That's right, it's a camp for dogs, and Melanie Poff is the head counselor.

Chesapeake Bay Retriever

Poff: "We offer camp reports of how they did at camp which can be as much as chasing a butterfly through the meadow, following the squirrels or the chipmunks, swimming in the pond, rolling in the leaves. All that fun stuff you do at camp.

But not every dog adjusts to a camp or kennel as well as Coomba did. While most pets will be just fine being separated from their owners for a short period, for some it can lead to an anxiety attack, says Peter Borshelt, a doctorate of animal behavior in Brooklyn.

Borshelt: "At the emotional level, they are not all that different from little kids. Have you ever seen a child lost in a supermarket or at a fair? They cry; they frantically run around; they panic; they could eliminate if they're young enough. With dogs the standard problems we see with separation anxiety -- barking, howling, whining or destructive behavior of digging or scratching at the door or window. I've even had a few cases where dogs are so frantic to where they're urinating and defecating in the house."

Cats, on the other hand, tend to adjust much better, says Dr. Borshelt as long as their needs are taken care of. But it's perhaps human anxiety that remains the biggest problem. Experts say if you've carefully picked out your pet's caretaker, chances are good that he'll be just fine. So go ahead and enjoy your vacation, but you might want to send home a postcard. Your pet can sniff it, and know that you're doing okay without him.

In Washington, I'm Annie Wu for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources for Traveling with Pets:

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