Full disclosure--I (Your Humble Practice Manager) run a medically-oriented boarding facility that proudly operates with no-compromise policies on veterinary medical standards. Having said that, every cat boarding facility or pet hotel is different (different can be good) and many have different policies as state standards are minimal. As well, we all (myself included), have differing budgets or what we consider to be realistic expectations of our cats’ veterinary care. As a feline owner, how you approach boarding can have dramatic impacts on how successful your cat’s boarding stay is. Ideally, your cat would enter the boarding area parasite-free, healthy and happily eating & drinking and exit the facility with the same disposition. Here are some tips and knowledge about cat boarding facilities and hotels that may help you when the up-coming vacation season starts.
Boarding not bored-ing:
Positive environmental stimulation can help ease the stressful transition to boarding. This includes time out with the staff and/or in a larger area with enrichment. Things like panoramic windows (or windows in general), safe cat toys (strings, etc. should be avoided always), or videos/monitors with birds, fish, etc., cat tracks (elevated tracks or safe shelves that cats can move around on), etc. all can help with environmental enrichment. Things that don’t help include dog noise anywhere in the same facility (even if they are heard through walls and not directly), car noise, encounters with anxious or angry cats, etc.
Parasites (be they internal or external) are a very real risk of boarding environments. Even with the most stringent of cleaning and disinfection, it is almost impossible to truly sterilize every nook and cranny. On top of this, if your beloved kitty is to be afforded any time out of the kennel/enclosure, they are theoretically at risk for acquiring external parasites (fleas) or ingesting internal parasites (roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms (from fleas) and giardia). If a boarding facility offers any outdoors time, even screened in, that has now put your feline at risk for outdoor-acquired illnesses (probably minimal risk but a risk none-the-less). While sufficient cleaning and disinfectants are mandated by most state standards, prevention and testing for parasites are not. Minimally, all cats that board should be combed for fleas and protected by a prescription (ideally) flea preventative. Given that some prescription flea preventatives also help to protect other internal/semi-internal parasites (ear mites, intestinal worms), they are a no-brainer from a veterinary quality standpoint. In addition, there are several topical treatments that have been shown to safely treat and prevent intestinal parasites, specifically.
The great outdoors:
Having outdoors access is great for many cats. This type of environmental enrichment almost always causes the most cautious and withdrawn of felines to cozy up to the screen and bask in the sunshine or friskily chase birds to-and-fro. Medically-speaking, outdoors exposure (in many cases, even when screened-in) comes with real risks and while screens might protect against biting and sucking bugs, they don’t necessarily protect from animal-carried diseases. These are diseases like feline distemper or feline leukemia (caused by FeLV) that are respiratory or saliva-borne. Fleas most often come from outdoors reservoirs as well, so even those cats with screened-in access are at significantly elevated flea risk. Always make sure to tour the boarding facility and be prepared to identify potential problem areas. No boarding facility is perfect and many risks are relative; however, you can take simple steps to mitigate these potential dangers for your feline while still affording them a wonderful boarding experience.
Smells like home:
Cats are scent-driven animals and regardless of setup, boarding is often a stressful experience. When you bring your cat to the boarding facility, check to see if they allow blankets, woobies, work-out t-shirts (yep, unwashed is better), etc. Ideally, these are non-bulky items that won’t crowd the kennel but still have the scent of your house and family. Favored cat beds (again, not generally bulky) are a common item brought with boarding cats. In addition to your scent, a quality boarding facility or veterinary center can use Feliway products (often by request if they don’t use them globally in the facility) to help with your cat’s stressful transition.
Stress + Not Eating + Not Drinking = SICK
For the vast majority of cats, boarding is a stressful event and a successful boarding stay centers on minimizing the stress and duration of the initial transition (link). The problem with stress during boarding is that most cats who are stressed do not eat or drink sufficiently. Having a good idea of how much your cat eats and drinks and their general weight trends (sometimes lower during the summer and higher during the winter, etc.) is vital information to pass on to your boarding professionals. In addition, bringing the typical foods that are being fed (we don’t recommend food transitions or kennel food during boarding for cats) can minimize food aversion or gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea and/or dehydration) due to the transition. Without fail, many cats do not eat adequately in the first 48 hours. Therefore, their condition going into the boarding stay then becomes much more important. For those of you with cats that have sensitive systems or medical needs, it is highly recommended that you consider possible mild sedation (think taking the edge off) or authorize prudent use of mild appetite stimulants and bring delectable canned foods (help maintain hydration). Even better, a boarding facility with trained veterinary staff can administer fluids, etc. if needed. Minimally, you should discuss how often your boarder weighs boarding cats (if at all) and what the action plan is if your cat loses weight (including what amount of weight loss is physically okay for your cat).
Cleanliness is next to godliness:
A clean boarding facility is a must. Tour your prospective pet hotel. Ask how they clean, what cleaning chemicals they use (some like bleach or the most commonly used Kennelsol are noxious and will irritate your cat’s delicate sense of smell), etc. Kennels should not be a revolving door of cats but should be cleaned and allowed to sufficiently air out between boardings. Transmission of cat diseases (including chronic herpes viruses and coughs) can be minimized with the right cleaning regimes. Without fail, your cat hotel or boarding facility should be able to show you cleaning logs for each specific kennel. The boarding area should be clean to the eye and quiet. If you hear dogs, even quietly, your cat can hear them like a loud-speaker. Regardless of cleanliness standards, a not minor percentage of cats in stressful situations will develop a kennel-related sneeze or cough whereby no amount of cleaning can prevent transmission. For these kitties, having safe isolation areas/kennels available is a must. Ensuring that these kitties are in peak physical health or the use of viral preventatives (like lysine) may help dramatically.
Special needs are not bad:
Those of our cats with special medical needs can often be boarded with the same level of certainty and safety as more healthy cats. For these kitties, choosing a medical boarder with the medical know-how or experience (can be as simple as a vigilant or trained pet sitter) to care for your cat’s specific needs are important. For example, these medical needs can range from true medical conditions, renal (kidney) disease, diabetes, thyroid disease, etc. that require medication and appetite and hydration monitoring to behavioral needs (some cats only do well in isolation, so having the facilities or a so-called “princess ward” can make a massive difference for these kitties with visual cat aggression (they like us but not other cats—Yes, I’m calling you out Opal, my beloved but cat-hating 15 year-old).
Should I sit or should I go?
Choosing a pet sitter may be a great option for those kitties that do poorly in the boarding environment. Sometimes one can find a pet sitter that has experience giving medications or other medical veterinary care training. One thing to keep in mind is that even in your house, your cat may be substantially stressed by your absence and/or the presence of someone else. Having explicit instructions for your pet sitter to follow food intake or water intake may help them care for your pet during these stressful times. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that your pet sitter will likely not be sitting 24 hours a day whereas a boarding facility or medical facility may have monitoring that goes 24/7. As with anything, weight the specific medical needs of your kitty and let that be the primary decider. For example, if your cat needs meds more than once or twice daily or needs canned food feedings (canned food can make your house rancid after a few hours of sitting out), pet sitting may not be the best option. Also, if you have cats with different dietary needs, a pet sitter might not have the time to stay for each cat to finish eating and prevent unwanted food intake.
Practice Manager’s Take:
Boarding your cat can be a positive and healthy experience and even though cat boarders and cat hotels come in a variety of flavors and price-points, knowing what the risks are can help you prepare your cat for optimal success during their boarding stay. Prior to a boarding stay, especially if there are health issues or a boarding stay is only occasional or exceptionally longer than normal), it’s not a bad idea to have your cat checked by a quality cat veterinarian. During this exam, the cat vet can examine your cat, identify any possible complications unique to your cat’s physiology and give your cat a healthy approval and/or you peace of mind for boarding. Knowing the right types of preventatives (vaccines or flea/parasite preventatives) either required by your boarding facility or suggested by your vet due to the type of boarding facility can be golden information. Done as part of a responsible or preventative pre-boarding cat exam, many of these procedures, vaccines or services are quite affordable. It’s when conditions are missed or cats are not protected during boarding that small (and often over-looked problems) can become costly nightmares.
Medically, choosing the right boarder, pet sitter (or neither) might be a fine and healthy choice for your feline presuming you take into account the duration and specific medical needs of your kitty. Regardless of the health and condition of your cat, keeping tabs on the drinking and eating habits and a close eye on the weight and condition of your fur baby can generally allow you and/or your pet-sitter/boarder/hotel to spot problems early. While this is important advice for all cats, it is even more crucial for pets during stressful boarding or vacations where the owner(s) are gone. Regardless if you get a pet sitter, board or bring your cats to the “spa” for your trip, being caught up on all vaccines and preventatives is ideal. Even making that appointment that is due the day you get back, instead, for the day before you leave is not a bad plan. More than ever, when you know your cat will be stressed, a quick veterinary exam by a trusted cat vet 425-392-8770 can provide both peace-of-mind and possibly provide for a healthier boarding experience (peace of body). Don’t forget that providing your boarder, cat hotel or cat sitter with the contact information of your trusted family veterinarian is a must!