It's holiday time - but what about your pets?
July is here, and the summer holidays have started. For many people, it's easy to head off: you simply lock the front door behind you, and off you go. For pet owners, it's far more complicated: before you go anywhere, you need to find some way of having your pet cared for in your absence. And this isn't always as simple as you'd think.
The standard approach is to use a commercial boarding kennel or cattery, and while this has much to commend it, there are some interesting new alternatives. Two websites, in particular, are becoming very popular with dog owners.
The first one - www.housemydog.com - is effectively a nationwide database of pet sitters who have been screened to ensure that they have appropriate knowledge and experience to do the job well. The website uses location-sensitive software to find the closest pet sitter to your home. Before choosing someone to mind your dog, you can scrutinise their references from previous pet sitting jobs to reassure yourself that they are a safe pair of hands. Your dog then goes to stay in the pet sitter's home, being cared for as a family dog, taken for regular walks and living with the pet sitter's family. This type of lifestyle can be less stressful for many dogs compared to the standard "living in a run" set up in a dog boarding kennel.
Before I am besieged with angry calls from deluxe boarding kennel operators, I should add that these days many boarding kennels are genuinely like "luxury spas for pets", with regular play sessions and walks. I know some dogs who get stressed when they are collected from the kennels to go home, because they've had such a wonderful time in their boarding kennel environment.
However, boarding kennels vary in quality: there are no obligatory standards, and it's up to the individual kennel operator to decide how they want to do things. There is an industry group - the Irish Boarding Kennels & Cattery Association (www.ibkca.ie) - that insists that members comply with specific rules, but many good kennels are not members. This means that it's up to pet owners to inspect kennels themselves, asking the right questions to reassure themselves that their pet will be well cared for.
A second "alternative" way of having pets minded is via another website: www.trustedhousesitters.com. This website allows you to advertise your home as a holiday destination: experienced pet sitters from other countries then come to Ireland and stay in your house, looking after your pets according to your instructions. "Two walks a day, for an hour each time? Of course, madam, no problem". These pet sitters look after your home and pets for free: you "pay" them by allowing them to stay in your house for no charge. Again, you can check out potential pet sitters by reviewing their references from previous jobs that they've done. Good pet sitters use this website to travel the world: I used it myself last year, staying in a Greek mountain villa, looking after five dogs. I had to walk the dogs at dawn every day, but for me, that was an enjoyable part of my holiday. It would not suit everyone.
As well as these internet enabled alternatives to boarding, some people try to "do it themselves" with their own contacts. This does not always work out well.
A friend bought a pedigree kitten last autumn, and this summer, he planned a family trip overseas. He had the ideal answer for the young cat: the breeder had offered to take her back, so that she could spend the time with her original family. He delivered his pet to the breeder, expecting not to see her until the end of the summer. Twenty four hours later, there was a phone call: could he please come back to pick up his cat as soon as possible. It turned out that the cat's parents were not at all happy to see their "daughter" back again. Feline territorial instincts had kicked in, with hissing, spitting and cat fights. My friend had to collect her and take her to a boarding cattery.
Another friend decided to take up the offer of a neighbour's teenage daughter to look after his two pet cats. The plan was simple: she would call around to the house twice daily. In the morning, the cats would be fed, then allowed out into the garden. In the evening, the girl would call the cats in, feed them, spend some time playing with them, then shut them up for the night. My friend headed off to the west coast of the USA, but he awoke on his first morning to find an email: the girl had only been able to find one cat on the first evening. The other cat seemed to have vanished: what should she do?
Communications were complicated by the eight hour time difference. As it turned out, the missing cat arrived for breakfast the following morning, but my friend's two week break was punctuated by anxious emails from home. One of the cats was clearly a shy creature who was not happy to find a stranger calling her in at bedtime,and she preferred to stay outside, out of sight. Understandably, the girl was worried about something bad happening to the missing cat. In the end, it all worked out well, but my friend decided that next time, a cattery would provide a more predictable, less bothersome way of keeping his cats secure and comfortable.
It's important to get holiday pet care right: plan carefully to avoid complications!