If you're leaving town for Thanksgiving, it's not too soon to start agonizing over what to do with your pet while you're gone.
Most folks just have to worry about turning off the gas and stopping the paper, but pet owners make more critical decisions: Do you take the dog with you and risk the car's upholstery? Do you lock the cat in the house with 16 bowls of Tender Vittles and wall-to-wall litterboxes? Or is it better to put the pet in a kennel and take a chance on it being emotionally scarred for life?
Some people go on such guilt trips that they won't even take vacations. Or they go, but have a lousy time, convinced their animal will be as miserable as they are during the separations.
But it seems this is another of those anthropomorphic myths conjured up by egotistical humans. In the opinion of veterinarians, kennel operators and humane society officials, your pet will get along five without you as long as it receives proper care.
Not only will your dog forgive you for abandoning it, it may even regard the kennel experience as a vacation, says Dr. Allan McEwan of the Ross Veterinary Hospital. "Some dogs look forward to going to the kennel. I don't know if they need a psychological breaks or what."
And cats - it turns out cats are the ungrateful wretches you always suspected they were. "I don't think they miss their owners at all," says Dr. McEwan, confirming a cat owner's worst fears. "They're independent and they get along without you very well. They might miss their routines of wandering around the house and looking out the window, but I don't think it has anything to do with family. They're okay as long as they get fed."
So much for the age-old loyalty between man and beast. All that's left now is to figure out what to do with your pet while you're gone. A home environment is best, Dr. McEwan says - especially for cats, who don't like having their routines disrupted. The best solution is to have someone come to your home once a day to feed them and change their litterbox. A side benefit of this method is that you find out who your real friends are.
But if you don't want to put your friends to the litter test, or if your pet requires daily medication or other special attention, for $4 to $7 a day you can place your animal in a kennel. If you check out the kennel before you go and follow a few precautions, you can enjoy your vacation conscience-free. But get to work right away if you're leaving for Thanksgiving. Good kennels are likely to be booked up one to two weeks before a holiday.
Start your search by calling your local animal welfare agency, humane society or SPCA for a referral. Or check with your veterinarian - many animal hospitals also have boarding facilities.
"We always encourage people to visit the facility in advance," says Guy Hodge, director of research for the Humane Society of the United States. "In general, it should appear clean and spacious, and the employees should seem knowledgeable and genuinely concerned about the animals' welfare."
Ask if they give animals personal attention. "Obviously you can't expect a hotel," says Jane Risk of the Animal Protection Institute of America, "but it would be nice if the people petted the animals occasionally, or talked to them from time to time."
A good kennel, Guy Hodge says, will require that animals have up-to-date inoculations and ask your veterinarian's telephone number, whether your pet has any special likes or dislikes in terms of food or activities, and about any medical problems. And if they ask that you bring along one of your animal's favorite toys, or a nice smelly piece of your clothing to remind him of you, that's another tip-off the kennel cares.
You can help the kennel owner by volunteering any information that will make your pet's adjustment easier. If it turns up its nose at anything but chopped chicken liver, say so. Most kennels make an effort to feed your pet the diet it's used to. "If we have to cook it, we just have to cook it, that's all," says Susie O'Hazza of Elpaw Kennels in Alexandria.
And be sure to tell about those endearing little traits that make your dog so special - if it likes to snack on mailmen, or is an escape artist. "Which they can be," O'Hazza says. "We've had dogs that can open gates and climb six-foot fences. These are things the kennel onwer should know."
When it's time to take the animal to the kennel, don't pack first - the animal will take one look at your suitcases, know you're going on vacation and understandably feel left out, says Eileen Underwood of the Milwood Kennel in Bristow, Va. Bring your pet to the kennel first and "the animal thinks it's going on a holiday," she says. She learned this trick the hard way, from one of her cats "who used to jump in my suitcase and sit there and defy me to pack."
If you still have doubts about the kennel route, there's one unexpected side benefit that might change your mind. If your animal's been taking you for granted, a weekend at the kennel is a good way to remind him there's another world out there.
"I see this with my own two cats," Dr. McEwan says. "They get so they think they own the whole house, but you board them for two or three days, they shape up for six or seven months. It's good for 'em."