When you’re looking for someone to watch over your pet when you travel, how ado you decide which option is best?

Start by asking your veterinarian for a list of recommended kennels and pet sitters. You can also search for local sitters on the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters and Pet Sitters International websites. Once you’ve narrowed your choices, you’ll want to check them out in person to find the best fit.

So what should you look for? We asked two experts, Dr. Margie Scherk, a past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, and Gina DiNardo, vice president of the American Kennel Club, for their tips.

Boarding at a Traditional Kennel

Look for kennels that are clean and clean-smelling inside and out. They should have good ventilation, a comfortable ambient temperature, and attentive, well-trained staff. Cages and other areas that pets have access to (such as common outdoor exercise areas) should be secure and clean, and boarded animals should look clean and have access to fresh water at all times.

Make sure you’re comfortable with the answers to these questions:

  1. How often do you check on the pets? At least three times a day is ideal.
  2. How frequently are the kennels and any exercise areas cleaned? They should be nearly spotless, and ideally, outdoor areas should be made of concrete or gravel, which are easy to clean.
  3. How often are the pets exercised or allowed to go out and play?
  4. How often are pets fed? Can you accommodate my pet’s feeding schedule?
  5. What can I bring that is familiar (pet’s own bed, food, toys, litter)?
  6. If a pet stops eating, what do you do? You want the staff to take this problem seriously. “They should monitor how much the pets are eating,” Dr. Scherk says. And if a cat’s appetite decreases for even two meals, they should consult the vet rather than switching diets, which can cause stomach upset or other issues.
  7. Is the facility monitored at night?
  8. How will my pet be cared for if she gets sick? Do you call the facility’s veterinarian or the pet’s own vet?

Facility staff should ask for your emergency contact information and a local contact. Be wary of any facility that doesn’t request this information. All responsible kennel operators will ask for vaccination records and the name of your vet. They may refuse pets with fleas or treat them — and charge you.

For Your Dog

What matters:
  • Clean cages, runs, and exercise areas.
  • Bedding that will keep your dog warm and off the floor while she sleeps.
When to walk away:
  • If there’s any odor. “A well-run kennel should not stink of doggy odors, so make sure you don’t smell anything offensive,” DiNardo says.
  • If certain areas are off limits to visitors. A responsible operation will let you inspect the entire facility up close.
  • If there are any holes or sharp edges in fencing or cage walls.

For Your Cat

What matters:
  • A calm, quiet space with multilevel cages to hide and perch in. “Cats need to feel secure when their environment changes,” Dr. Scherk explains.
  • Cozy bedding and clean litterboxes.
  • Wide feeding bowls so the cats’ whiskers don’t touch the edges and interfere with their ability to sense threats.
When to walk away:
  • If the facility is dirty, disorganized, or smells bad or the cages are cramped inside.
  • If there are dirty litterboxes, dirty drinking water, or dried-up food or insects in the bowls.
  • If climbing structures aren’t secure or have sharp edges.
  • If cats are bored, crying, sneezing, or huddled in the back of their kennels.
  • If the cats can see or hear dogs or other cats. “This may make them feel threatened,” says Dr. Scherk.

If cats are let out into a larger kennel with other cats. Dr. Scherk explains that cats should be let out on their own to avoid confrontation and intimidation, as well as spread of disease.

Other Considerations

Extras, such as emailed status updates or webcam monitoring, aren’t essential, but they might make you feel more comfortable while you’re away. Some kennels offer other perks, such as grooming on the day of pickup or additional playtime, usually for a fee.

If your pet is a senior or has a medical concern or chronic disease, you may want to choose a facility that is staffed 24 hours a day. If your pet needs regular medication, make sure the staff can perform the treatments and accommodate the schedule. You may be charged extra.

The bottom line: Always trust your senses and your gut when checking out potential kennels, DiNardo recommends.

Boarding at Your Veterinary Hospital

If your veterinary practice offers boarding, this can be a great option, particularly for senior pets, pets who may need frequent medications, or those who need to be checked on during the night (assuming your vet offers overnight care).

Boarding at Someone Else’s Home

You’ll want to meet the person at his or her home so you can examine the environment and help ensure that it’s safe for your pet. If there’s a yard, make sure it’s fenced and secure. You’ll also want to discuss your dog’s specific needs and ask many of the same questions as you would at a traditional kennel. This evaluation is essential, even if the potential sitter is a friend or family member.

After your initial meeting, take your dog with you for a second visit so you can determine if she gets along with the person, as well as any pets who live there. “Look for someone who enjoys being around dogs and whose schedule will allow him or her to give adequate time to your pet while you’re away,” DiNardo says. Also ask about any children, other pets, and anything else that you’re concerned about or that might make the environment unsuitable for your dog.

Hiring a Pet Sitter

Some sitters will stay overnight; others may just drop by to feed and play with your pet. Contrary to what some believe, cats shouldn’t be left alone, even for one 24-hour period. “A sitter should check on the cat at least twice a day to ensure that kitty is urinating and that stools are being passed and are normal in appearance. Sitters also need to clean the litterbox, refresh the water, and see if the cat is eating its food,” says Dr. Scherk. Pets can hide illness well, and if the sitter isn’t coming in twice daily, he or she could easily miss changes in your pet’s health.

Get all the details in writing, and make sure you and your pet meet with the sitter ahead of your trip. In addition to the basics, you’ll want to ask:

  • Are you bonded and insured?
  • Do you charge clients per visit or for the entire stay?
  • Can I check in with you once a day?
  • Will you send me email updates?

A sitter is the best option for most cats. “I prefer to keep cats in their own homes,” says Dr. Scherk. “It’s less disruptive and, with a great sitter, they are less likely to be affected by your absence.”

So Which Option is Best?

It comes down to personal preference. If your pet will be most comfortable at home and you don’t mind opening your place to a stranger, a pet sitter might be the best choice. If you have a trustworthy, reliable friend or family member with a safe, pet-proofed home, that could be better for your pet. Or perhaps the security of a kennel gives you peace of mind. By taking the time to research and evaluate several options, you can help reduce the inevitable stress you’ll feel when leaving your pet behind, and you’ll both be less anxious.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of HealthyPet magazine.

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