I love vacations, but my dog Evvie makes them a bit more complicated — and expensive.
If my partner and I want to take her with us, it means we have to drive, because at 50 pounds she’s too big for air travel. That adds time and limits the number of potential destinations. Then there’s the question of where we can stay: Hotels often add a pet surcharge (anywhere from $10 to $100 per night) and many Airbnb rentals don’t allow pets.
We could leave her at home, but there isn’t always a friend available to stay with her, and pet sitters are expensive — ranging anywhere from $35 to $85 if we drop her off at their house (where she’ll probably be with a few other animals), and more if they come to ours. (We live in the high-priced Washington, DC, metro area — rates are likely a bit lower elsewhere.) We could put her at a boarding facility, which cost around $75 per night, but she’d have to spend our holiday in a new, unfamiliar environment without us — and with a bunch of other dogs equally out of their element.
My partner and I always manage to cobble together something, but it adds an additional layer of planning — and often stress — to our vacations because it’s harder to unwind if we’re worried about her well-being. Is she bored? Is she getting enough play time? Was she given meds at the right hour? So on and so on.
If you live in one of the nearly 48 million households with a dog — or one of the 32 million with a cat — you can probably relate. But there’s a lot we can do, and should do, given how frustrated and bored our pets may be even when we’re home. When we go on vacation, which disrupts their routines and likely means they’ll have fewer opportunities for exercise and play, we should be extra mindful to give them a good time.
Evvie wasn’t available for comment, but I spoke with two dog experts, one cat expert, and an experienced housesitter on how to give our companion animals the best life possible while we’re out trying to live ours — and if we think that means including our pet on vacation, how to bring them along for the ride.
How to find a trusted pet sitter
Every animal is different, so what’s good for one may not work for another. But generally speaking, leaving your pet at home with a live-in pet sitter, whether a trusted friend or family member or a professional, is probably the best route.
“My preference is always going to be for my dogs to sleep in their own environment where it’s really comfortable and reduces the stress levels as much as possible,” said Sandy Wei, a dog trainer in British Columbia, Canada.
This allows your dog or cat to keep their routine and avoid the stress of travel and adapting to a new environment, like someone else’s home or a boarding facility. (However, some animals might enjoy a getaway — more on this later).
Cats especially need to stay at home, according to Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist and host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell.
“There are the ones that we call the ‘adventure cats’ — the ones that you harness them up, you take them in the cat backpack, you go hiking with them, take them in the car, and they like it,” Galaxy said. But the majority of cats, he said, “lose their confidence once they leave their house,” so if given the choice, leave them there. And ideally you should have a pet sitter stay overnight. “Keep their routines as intact as you possibly can. ... With cats, routine is everything. They find comfort in ritual.”
Cats may have a reputation for independence, but Galaxy cautioned that doesn’t mean that people can leave their felines alone for a weekend and assume that as long as they have food, water, and fresh kitty litter, they’ll be fine.
“Cats need enrichment,” he said. “You wouldn’t be okay if a dog [sitter] said, ‘I’m not gonna walk them.’ You shouldn’t be okay with someone who doesn’t play with cats — play is crucial.” Just having a friend stop by for 10 minutes a day won’t cut it, either. Ideally, cats have company overnight, or at least much of the day. I’d argue the same goes for other pets, too, like rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles, which should all have plenty of time for exercise and socialization while you’re on vacation (and when you’re not).
For many pet owners, finding a good dog or cat sitter is just as important as finding a good babysitter — ultimately, you’re entrusting someone with the care of a loved one.
Wei said that if she’s hiring a sitter, she’ll ask them a series of questions: Are they licensed and insured? Do they have pet first aid training? Will they send photo updates regularly? Do they understand basic canine (or feline) behavior and employ positive reinforcement training? Can they meet beforehand so the animal gets acquainted with them?
Both Wei and Susan Aceti, owner of Challenging Dogs Boarding and Daycare in Maryland, said that if you ask the sitter what they know about canine behavior and they start talking about aversive training methods — using phrases like dominance theory or alpha-dog training — then run the other way. Aversive training, in which trainers assert dominance over dogs through physical or verbal abuse, is popular in the US thanks to celebrity trainers like Cesar Milan, the “dog whisperer.” But it can increase dogs’ fear, anxiety, and stress.
Wei also said she’ll ask about the sitter’s schedule to ensure her dog will get plenty of time for walks and play — a rough rule is two 30- to 60-minute walks a day, plus short potty breaks as needed and numerous short play breaks throughout the day. If a live-in sitter isn’t available, Wei’s next preferable option is to drop off her dog at a pet sitter’s house. She’ll ask to see the space to ensure it’s clean and safe, and will want to know how many other dogs will be there and whether the sitter has pets of their own and if they get along with others. Aceti also said it’s important to ask how much exercise they’ll get.
Keeping your pet at home with a live-in sitter is costly, as is dropping them off at a sitter’s home. Each can run around $75 to $100 per night for a professional sitter, though that rate will be higher or lower depending on where you live. Galaxy says that usually the easiest way to find a good sitter is to ask around at your local pet store or veterinary office for referrals. It doesn’t hurt to keep a few backups on hand in case your preferred sitter has to cancel at the last minute.
Sitters on apps like Rover, Wag, or Meowtel (specialized for cats) tend to offer much lower rates, though they’re likely to have less experience, and people I know who have used them have mixed reviews. In other words, you get what you pay for.
A free pet sitter — in exchange for letting a stranger crash at your place
For those looking to save a few hundred dollars, there are sites like TrustedHouseSitters.com and Nomador.com that match travelers looking for a free place to crash with vacationers looking for free pet sitting.
Becoming a member — either as a sitter or as a property owner — will set you back $120 per year, about the cost of a single night with a pet sitter. Users must go through a background check and link their social media accounts to their profile. Amanda Cramer, an acquaintance of mine who frequently housesits, said that she often meets up before the person leaves for vacation so she can get acquainted with the human and the animal.
As with apps like Rover, your mileage may vary, since you’re ultimately entrusting a stranger who doesn’t necessarily specialize in animal care with your pet. But I think if the sitter has great reviews and seems to be a responsible animal lover, your pet is probably in good hands.
Should you put your pet in a commercial boarding facility?
Boarding facilities are commercial businesses — sometimes independent, and sometimes part of a veterinary office or pet store — that take care of pets for day care and extended periods. At night, they typically resemble an animal shelter, as dogs and cats are kept in individual kennels with a water bowl and a bed, though they spend much of the daytime in communal areas for play.
It might seem as though boarding facilities are a promising option. After all, these are supposed to be professionals who make their living taking care of pets, and they tend to charge a little less than home boarding options. But the experts I spoke to were much more skeptical. “Generally, I avoid boarding. ... To make any kind of profit, they need to accept as many dogs as possible, and usually that also means there’s not enough staff,” Wei said.
Not all boarding facilities are necessarily bad for animals, but there can be issues of overcrowding, high noise levels, and animal-on-animal conflict, all of which can lead to stress, increased risk of disease, and injury (to be sure, these issues can occur at home boarding businesses too). They often hire college students who won’t have as much experience as someone who’s been working with pets for years, and who may lack any background in animal behavior or science.
Although boarding facilities require vaccinations, it’s not uncommon for “kennel cough” and dog flu outbreaks to be traced back to places where large numbers of dogs congregate, like boarding facilities, dog parks, and animal shelters. It can also be stressful, especially for cats, to live in a new environment for days or weeks.
But Carmen Rustenbeck, CEO of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association, said boarding facilities can be a good fit. “I would not push boarding out the door,” she said. “Boarding has its own value spot in a pet’s life, and it’s just figuring out where you land on that.”
For example, highly social pets will probably adapt to boarding facilities better than others. Some facilities set caps to prevent overcrowding and reduce noise, while some specialize based on a pet’s needs or traits, such as size, age, or temperament. Rustenbeck said that if you do go with a boarding facility, it’s smart to do a “dry run” by boarding them for a few hours of day care and then for a few overnights while you’re in town, to ensure they’ll do well while you’re on vacation.
If you do go with a boarding facility, Rustenbeck said it’s important to ensure staff know pet CPR and first aid, that you get a tour of the facility, that there are staff on-site 24/7, they clean regularly, and they have protocols for natural disasters, fires, and for when pets get sick.
Wei added that she’d want to make sure the boarding facility sends you daily updates on your pet, that there’s a good staff-to-pet ratio (one employee for every six or seven animals), and that dogs are sensibly separated (the San Francisco SPCA recommends separating dogs by age, size, and energy level).
If none of these options work for you and your pet, there’s one other option: Take them with you.
Take your pet (they might need a vacation too)
As far as I can tell, my dog Evvie loves to travel. She’s calm for long stretches in the car and she doesn’t bark or chew up the Airbnb furniture when left alone. She also craves novelty and adventure — she comes alive when she’s in a new place, wagging her tail while she takes in new sights and sniffs around new neighborhoods.
As every expert I spoke to said, however, the first rule here is to know your pet. A lot of animals, especially cats, enjoy routine and the comfort of their home turf. For them, a vacation is likely to be more disruptive and stressful than it is enjoyable.
If you do take them, there are a few things to keep in mind to make travel as frictionless as possible.
If you’re traveling by plane, first check to see if your airline allows pets. Most do, though they often charge a fee (around $100). They may also require proof of certain vaccinations, and can set a variety of restrictions with regard to species, the number of animals you bring, allowable destinations, and more. (Rules around taking your pet from the US to another country vary by location and airline, and some countries require animals to be quarantined; learn more here.)
If you’ve got the green light from your airline, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that your pet stay in a crate small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you. Be sure your pet goes to the bathroom before entering the airport or, preferably, uses a pet relief area post-security, which are becoming increasingly common in airports. And be sure to check if your flight has capacity for more pets, as many airlines set a limit as to the number of animals per flight.
Another option is to put your pet in the cargo section of the plane, but animal welfare groups and experts strongly recommend against this option as there are plenty of horror stories of animals dying due to extreme temperatures or poor ventilation. Personally, I’d never do it.
Traveling by train? Amtrak allows dogs and cats of up to 20 pounds on trips as long as seven hours; see their pet policy for more requirements and restrictions. Bus lines generally don’t allow pets, with the exception of trained service animals.
Traveling by car will give you and your pet much more flexibility. However, some dogs — and a lot of cats — hate the car. It can cause motion sickness or stress, so know your pet and don’t push them to travel hundreds of miles with you just to save money on a sitter. To provide some level of protection in the event of a crash, it’s best to keep your dog or cat in a crate that’s secured with a seat belt.
However you travel, be sure to have looked up 24/7 emergency veterinary offices in your destination city ahead of time and keep a collar on your pet with your name, address, and phone number in case they run away or get lost. For pet-friendly hotel booking, use the pet filter on rental sites like Airbnb and Vrbo, and check out this recent guide to the most pet-friendly hotel chains.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination and stretched your legs, do as much as you can to reenact your pet’s routine for feeding, walks, and play. If your dog is anything like mine, they value off-leash time the most, which you can still provide while traveling, either by looking up nearby off-leash parks — if you think your dog will be okay off-leash in a new environment — or using the app Sniff Spot, which enables users to book “private dog parks,” often large backyards, by the hour.
Wei said it’s crucial not to overexert your dog and build in plenty of time for them to rest.
You have a lot of options, and chances are that if you leave your pet at home with someone you trust, they’ll be just fine. And if you know them well and bring them with you, you should be able to figure out a workable arrangement.
But at the same time, pets — like us — can be delicate. They depend on us for everything, and here, they are depending on us too. They deserve better than just mere survival — they deserve the level of enrichment they receive when we’re at home. We already take so much from animals, including our pets, that we should at least ensure they have a good time while we are.
Correction, July 10, 11:35 am ET: A previous version of this story misstated Sandy Wei’s location. She lives in British Columbia.