Dos and Don’ts of Pet Boarding

Lena Katz

When it is time for the family vacation — don't forget about the family pet. If you aren't bringing Fido or Fluffy with you, and don't want someone watching them in your home, pet boarding is a good option. But just like the planning that went into your vacation, there is prep work to do well before boarding your dog, cat, or other pet pal. Here are some do's and don'ts to help make the process a little easier.

Dog in a kennel, one tip for petboarding.

DO: Allow plenty of time to find the boarding facility that's perfect for your pet. Most of the cage-free facilities require some sort of screening/interview step where they assess how well socialized a potential new boarder is, both with humans and other animals. They also require proof that vaccinations are up to date. And even when your best friend has been accepted, you still need to reserve their space in advance — weeks or months in advance for holiday weekends and other popular times.

DON'T: Drive up to a boarding place the morning you're going out of town and expect you can just drop your dog there for a few days. This offends the management, even when existing customers try it—to the point where many places have a "no drop-offs without prior booking" policy. If you've never even brought your pup in before? Forget it. This is basically the same as dropping a toddler off at a brand-new daycare facility and saying, "You can take it from here, right?"

DO: Prepare to show your pet's bill of health. As part of your preparations for finding a new boarding facility, check with your vet to make sure all vaccinations and licenses are current. Get proof of everything on paper, and bring that with you. If your dog has any special medical needs, explain them clearly during the interview, and double-check that the facility can accommodate.

DON'T: Expect special needs to be covered as part of the general boarding rate. If your cat needs special food, medication with meals, or extra help exercising and pottying, that entails extra energy on the part of staff; most facilities will either charge extra or not provide certain services. This is not a diss to your beloved; it just comes down to labor costs and staff bandwidth. On the flip side, some places proudly cater to "special-needs" pets and include lots of hands-on services in the day rate.

DO: Be realistic about your dog's mental health. Behaviors are often amplified in an unfamiliar setting where lots of animals and humans are in close quarters. Dogs that are prone to fear-aggression, separation anxiety, or any other trait will often have an episode their first few days in boarding. Boarding staff are, for the most part, as patient and kind as possible when dealing with it. Especially if they've been forewarned.

Blame your pet's personality issues on the staff. Especially if you've been less than forthcoming about certain emotional/psychological issues. It doesn't matter how loving they are to you personally, or whether they're perfect inside your home. If there's an issue, it's on you to disclose it. Whether your dog is a snarly-barker, a lunge-and-snapper, a self-scratcher, a food-hoarder, an all-day howler or any other variation of challenging personality, petcare professionals should not be expected to have a magic fix. They do the best they can, but at some point they'll have to prioritize the other 15 animals in the facility over yours.

Note that again, some businesses specialize in special-needs animals. There are doggy daycares that are also training facilities, and sleepover facilities that will put dogs through intensive behavioral training if needed. They tend to be quite a bit more expensive than cage-free facilities, but if your dog needs the schooling, it's well worth the expense.

DO: Be choosy. Very choosy. Consider every factor, including your pet's age, exercise needs, physical condition, psychology, and size (in the case of dogs, some places cater to small breeds; others to big 'uns). The business of pet boarding has become very specialized over the years.

Some places are super-boutique and operated out of individual homes — a few boarding animals lounge about indoors with the house pets, and sleep on the humans' beds if they want. Others are in big backyards on ranches, and the doggy clients can run wild all day long. There are places that specify "no escape artists" because they're backyard-style and the fences aren't very high. Some services encourage their guests to play in mud all day, and schedule baths for right before they're returned to their owners. There's even a place that has a "cat condo" area and special rooms where "family" dogs and cats can overnight together.

DON'T: Come in with an unreasonably low budget. Sure, you might be able to find a large general boarding facility or kennel for $20 a day, but any place that offers specialized care — whether it's structured training, or one-on-one playtime, or medication with meals — will charge a premium. Also, "pet resorts" and other boutique facilities generally operate more like actual daycares than like kennels. They only look after a few animals at a time, they supervise each one closely, and they charge accordingly. If you want peace of mind when you're away from home, be prepared to pay your pet's surrogate caretakers accordingly.