YOUR MONEY - Finding the best pet boarding plan for the holidays
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Helaine Olen
NEW YORK Dec 6 (REUTERS) - Last year, I needed to find a boarding situation for Katie the poodle while the family went on vacation. The options seemed endless. I heard about spa kennels where Katie would receive a daily massage, and saw Craigslist ads for dog sitters who said they would allow canine visitors to share their bed at night.
How to decide? I wasn't going to let the dog I only semi-jokingly refer to as "my daughter" sleep with just anyone.
The answer came to me in the form of an annoying yap. My neighbor's schnauzer mix was renowned for barking and I thought surely that mutt's besotted owner would know the best dog sitters around.
She did - and recommended one who kept Katie happy for two weeks, even hand-feeding her the boiled chicken she loves when, likely homesick, she refused to eat her kibble.
Christmas travel season is one of the busiest times for the nation's 14,000 boarding facilities and all of the at home pet caretakers. And as Americans increasingly identify animals as members of their families, pet care has undergone an upgrade. Today, many pet hotels offer everything from 24/7 video-cams (so owners can see their pets at all times) to group play sessions and hikes and doggy paddle swims.
For a price, of course. U.S. pet owners are on track to spend $2.1 billion on pet boarding expenses in 2013, according to market research firm IBISWorld. While the International Boarding & Pet Services Association estimates the average kennel stay at $30 a day, that number can go much higher, especially on the east and west coasts.
At D Pet Hotels in Manhattan's uber-hip Chelsea neighborhood, a basic suite costs $84 a night, while a unit with a full sized human bed goes for $200. At the Barkley Pet Hotel & Day Spa (Bark, get it?), located in Westlake Village, California, cat boarding begins at $36 a day. Birds cost $40 per day - extra, perhaps, to protect them from the cats. Rates are higher during peak and holiday periods.
Yet owners worry. Rules regulating kennels vary by state, and a pet can't tell you what they think of the experience. Some 70 percent of dog owners say they would travel more if they could find a more trustworthy dog-sitter, and almost that many say they are less than happy with their most recent boarding situation, according to Rover.com, a pet sitting exchange website.
So how do you find a good place for your animal companion?
- Ask around. It turns out my neighborhood research is the best way to find a good pet sitter. "Network," says Michelle Fournier, who owns Harry's Picks, a website for dog owners, and Durty Harry's Dog Wash & Boutique in the Boston suburbs. "When you meet people in the dog-park or vet, ask them where they bring their pet." Ask pet owners both what liked - and didn't - about the boarding situation they use.
- Do the smell test. Visit the facility before committing to leaving your pet. "If it seems dirty and unkempt, and the staff is unfriendly, that should be a red flag," says Carmen Rustenbeck, the CEO of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association.
Take your pet, suggests Aaron Hirschhorn, founder of DogVacay, a company that matches up pet owners and in-home pet sitters. "See how your dog interacts with the host and the environment, and see how they interact with the other dogs in residence," he says.
- Ask about activities. How many times a day will your pet be walked for how long? Are there opportunities for socialization or are they simply left alone in their kennels? Aaron Easterly, the chief executive officer of Rover, suggests finding out where the dog will spend evenings. Finding out where the dog will sleep is the best way to get at the relationship between the host and the dog.
"You want a situation where the dog will be treated in a manner the dog is used to," Easterly said.
Personalization is important too. Does the facility allow you to bring in your pet's own toys and other item from your residence to help combat stress? Will it accommodate your pet's special diet?
- Do a health review. Kennels and pet boarders can spread dog illnesses. Make sure they require proof of dog immunizations, and ask how they handle emergencies and if there is a veterinarian on the premises or on-call.
- Book early. You may already be too late for Christmas; many facilities are fully booked weeks in advance then, says Rustenbeck.
- Stay in the loop. Can you check-up on your pet while you are away? "Ask for email or text updates," Fournier advises. Other facilities offer written reports, or promise the phone will be answered at all hours.
- Give the pet a vote. If you are considering a return to a previously-used pet sitter, see how your pet reacts. Jeff Goldman, a Florida-based marketing consultant, says he got the ultimate proof that his toy fox terrier Mr. Peabody is happy at his vet's boarding facility.
"One time when I dropped him off, a guy who worked in the kennel who I had never met came out, bent down and said, 'Hi, Mr. Peabody.' My dog leaped into his arms, and started licking his face like he totally loved the guy.
"That's when I knew for sure I'd found the right place." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Linda Stern and Andrew Hay)
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