The cruising life is difficult enough, with confined space and endless maintenance. Throw an animal into the mix aboard a sailboat and cruisers are presented with a whole raft of additional challenges. Litter trays and fur balls, seasickness and vet bills; these are just some of the obstacles pet owners face. International cruisers also have to deal with customs clearances and immigration laws. But many cruisers have found the joy outweighs the hassle.
Pet owners feel a sense of loyalty toward their four-legged friends. After all, they are members of the family and for some, leaving them behind is not an option. Brooke Bass’ dog Bourré, a large chocolate Labrador retriever, had been a member of the family for seven years before Brooke and her husband Barrett, moved aboard their 38-foot catamaran Solstice.
“We planned to leave Bourré with my mom in Louisiana for a couple of years, thinking it would be too much to have a dog on board while traveling from country to country,” Brooke said. “But when we moved on board, he followed us, quite literally, and wouldn’t get off the boat unless we got off first. He just seemed so content on the boat with us, he ended up coming along for the journey.”
Stephanie Colotti Ferrie also felt very strongly about bringing her two Labradors along for the adventure.
“Having dogs was a long-term commitment our family had chosen, and we’d had both Emmie and Summer since they were puppies. We couldn’t imagine leaving them behind,” she said.
Neither of her dogs had ever stepped foot on a boat until they moved aboard their 44-foot monohull Serendipity. Lucky for them, it was a smooth transition.
“Our dogs love being with us 24/7. At home, they would often be alone while we ran our four kids around. Now they get to spend so much more time with us, and they clearly love it,” she said.
It wasn’t such a smooth transition for Sharon Fisher and her cat Mollie aboard Spindrift. She too wanted to bring her pet along, but she had a hard time trying to help her kitty adapt to boat life. In the end, they had to stop cruising.“We totally failed at getting our cat on board. She was so sick. She was always vomiting, unable to adjust to the movement of the boat—it was horrible. In the end, she was part of the reason we had to stop sa iling,” Sharon said.
For others, their pets seem to find them.
“A feral Tunisian cat rescued us,” said Nikki Fox Elenbaas. “When we pushed off in 2016 aboard Grateful, our rule was ‘no pets.’ We thought they would be too much hassle. Yet, when we found Bumpkin, she was injured and alone. Her brother had been killed, and her mother was nowhere to be found. We took her home with the firm plan of helping her recover from her injuries and gain some weight. That was 18 months ago.”
Pets that travel aboard boats face an increased risk of health issues compared to their suburban friends. Exposure to the elements and a greater number of risky activities and foreign animals require pet owners to be prepared when setting sail with a pet on board. For the safety of your pet, it’s essential you consult with a vet before you set sail. It’s also important to ensure you are capable of some basic medical care for your animal, should you be cruising in remote areas or your animal is injured underway. While vets are accessible in many locations, you still need to bring along supplies to treat common injuries such as coral cuts on paws, skin and ear infections and dehydration. Pet first-aid kits are not unlike our own, and owners should bring antibiotics, antihistamine, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatories along with heartworm and flea treatments.
Seasickness is a genuine problem among some pets. While most of the pet owners I spoke to had some experience with their pet getting seasick, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Piper, a 4-year-old German short-haired pointer Lab mix, is the much-loved pooch of Dawn and Sam Weigel aboard Windbird, a Tyana 42. With only one bout of seasickness in the three years he’s been cruising, Dawn is more worried about Piper going overboard due to his enthusiasm. “More often than not he wanders around the deck looking for dolphins and flying fish. I’m pretty sure Piper can hear dolphins long before we see them swimming at our bow,” Dawn said. Having a larger high-energy dog on board means that Dawn and Sam have to provide Piper with a means of exercise several times a day.
There are several options available in terms of seasickness and anti-anxiety medication, and it’s important to follow the dosage recommendations. Providing plenty of comfort and reassurance underway is also necessary. Animals are often frightened when the boat is pitching and rolling.
Cats have been sailing aboard boats for centuries. Revered as a good luck charm, they were also used to rid ships of mice. It seems they don’t require the same level of exercise as man’s best friend, saving multiple trips to shore each day. Kach and Jonathan Howe of Two Monkeys Travel Group live aboard their monohull Empress with two cats, Captain Ahab and Zissou. “Our sailboat is basically a 37-foot jungle gym for them, if the mast were a material they could get their claws into, they would have climbed to the top of it by now,” said Kach.
Then there is the issue of ensuring your pet doesn’t fall overboard and teaching him how to clamber back onto the boat if he does. Owners should also be mindful of stray animals when traveling ashore, as the incidence of mange and other transmittable diseases are common in third-world countries. Mange is caused by microscopic mites and is highly contagious to animals and humans. It is easily transmitted and can be caught simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pets are also susceptible to sunburn just like us, so ensure you protect them from the UV rays with hypo-allergenic sunblock. While zinc oxide is an effective sunscreen for humans, it’s toxic for dogs. White dogs with short hair are more prone to sunburn, so they need sunscreen on sun-sensitive areas such as noses, lips, ears, groin and belly. Buy a sunscreen that is suitable prior to departure.
Doing their business
What is often most taxing on pet owners is the numerous trips to shore each day to allow pets to relieve themselves. While there are techniques owners can try in the hope to train their pets to relieve themselves on the boat, many dogs do not feel comfortable doing so unless they absolutely have to, such as when they are on a long passage. All the dog owners I interviewed agreed that while being forced to take their pooches to shore was usually at inconvenient times, such as first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, the pros outweighed the cons. They all mentioned meeting many interesting people, both fellow cruisers and locals alike. They made new friends and explored more of the area because of their regular trips ashore. And they too had an excuse to exercise. Despite only being 18 months old when he moved aboard, Piper steadfastly refused to go on deck.
“Perhaps it was because he was kennel trained at home, he now considers the whole boat his kennel,” Dawn said. “When we’re anchored or moored near land, we will take him to shore two to three times a day. During long passages at sea, he will hold as long as possible, but will finally pee after 24 hours at sea and do his business after 40 hours, after that he’ll do both once a day, usually at night.”
Kelly Porter and Nick Johnson’s pup Arthur lives aboard Satori, their 44-foot Morgan, and is less than five pounds soaking wet. Arthur is so small that he travels with his doting parents in a backpack. However, it’s not so much the size of the animal but his level of stubbornness.
“We’ve tried to train Arthur with a pee pad,” said Kelly, “but he is so stubborn and will not go consistently. We even tried with real grass, but he just used it as a bed. Now we take him to shore at least twice a day, and that’s not always fun, especially after a big night of sundowners or a long day of boat maintenance.”
If dogs present toileting issues, cats are easy. While Capt. Ahab had been a member of Kach and Jonathan’s family before moving aboard, Zissou was found struggling to survive in a drainpipe in the Dominican Republic when he was just a few weeks old. Kach had a soft spot for ginger cats, and the little kitten bared a striking resemblance to Capt. Ahab, who they already had on board. After a brief adjustment period, the two cats bonded, and the pair are now inseparable. As far as toileting goes, Kach seemed to find this aspect much easier than those with dogs.
“We have a litter tray on board which both cats are happy to share, and sourcing litter for their tray has been easy. I only ran out once and had to resort to sand from the beach. Luckily there’s always plenty of that around,” Kach said.
Finding a secure area for the litter tray is essential for cats and humans. Boats often move around violently at sea, and an unsecured tray is not pleasant for anyone. Owners should consider an enclosed box, and it should be firmly strapped into place before each passage.
Something both dogs and cats do have in common is the need to declare them to customs and immigration upon arrival into each country. It’s not uncommon for cruisers to have to alter their plans because animals are not easily accepted or because the additional fees are prohibitive.
With the standard practice of ensuring your pet has all of his or her vaccinations up to date, a valid health certificate and rabies titer, Stephanie estimated that her two dogs ended up costing her $1,200 to import them directly from the USA to the BVI.
“Cruisers have to meet the regulations of the country they’re traveling to and also the country they are leaving from. We met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture vet for full certification and then sent the paperwork to a government vet in the BVI. We found this part of the planning process very costly,” she added.
Stephanie has found emailing vets directly to be the best way to gain knowledge on fees and requirements for future destinations. Alternatively, some large veterinary offices provide a service where a travel specialist conducts all the research on behalf of the pet’s owners, ensuring they meet all of the countries requirements before departure. In general, all pet owners reported spending a subsequent $50 to $100 each time they visited a new country, and that was just in customs fees, with vet appointments costing $25 to $50 on top of that, if required. Pet owners also need to take into account the transportation fees to and from the vet, often resulting in taxi fares of a similar amount. Many cruisers have to plan weeks if not months in advance, researching their future ports of call to ascertain the requirements for bringing pets ashore. Often information is difficult to come across or hard to interpret because most of the data refers to pets arriving by plane, not by boat. Blood work, a microchip and tapeworm treatment are also often required. It’s imperative that you do your homework.
Some marinas don’t allow pets and some countries may deny entry to breeds of dogs known to be more aggressive, such as pitbulls. Animals could also be placed into quarantine if country officials deem it necessary. The absolute worst-case scenario is that your pet could be euthanized due to your lack of research if you arrive in a country that feels strongly about biosecurity.
Gear and chow
If your pet has a special diet, or you have a particular brand of food you prefer to use, it is suggested you bring as much as you possibly can from home. Several pet owners mentioned the difficulty they faced sourcing high-quality pet foods in areas such as the Caribbean, the Pacific and Asia, often resorting to placing orders online and having it delivered to whatever island they were on for an exorbitant price.
Safety gear for your pet is another issue you will need to address before you leave, ensuring you have a correctly fitting harness, tether and life jacket for your pooch or kitty. Others even purchased special leashes, carry bags, a light for after dark beach romps, an identity tag with the boat’s details and contact information, and weighted blankets to calm their pets in times of stress. Then there are the grooming utensils, pet netting around the lifelines to prevent a POB (pet overboard) and bedding that can withstand the salty environment and dampness. If there is a possibility that you may need to fly home with your pet, it’s important that you take an airline approved pet carrier with you, as sourcing them in remote places can be extremely difficult.
The size and breed of dog, along with its agility and sure-footedness, should be considered when deciding if cruising is right for your pet. In general, a pet that can be held under your arm and lifted with one hand will be easier to wrangle at docks, up and down the companionway and onto the dinghy. Smaller dogs also take up less space, require less food and water and land travel is easier to accommodate with a small dog. Long-haired breeds will require regular grooming due to the sand and saltwater, and if water is a precious commodity on your boat, this is something you may need to consider carefully.
Security onboard is often a heated topic, and several owners cited the protection their dogs provide as a significant benefit to having them aboard. Some argue though that a dog offers a false sense of security and many intruders will not be put off by a dog. If nothing else, they may be able to provide you with an early warning. Dogs that bark a lot will not be popular in an anchorage, and nervous dogs who cannot be left on the boat alone will also present problems.
The bottom line
There are many benefits to cruising with a pet. There’s the joy they provide as they frolic and romp along deserted beaches, darting this way and that, trying to take in all the new sights, tastes and smells at once. They are also entertaining, especially if you have a dog who will jump off jetties and attempt to catch fish or hang over the front of the dinghy, the wind in their jowls, their ears flapping in the breeze. Moreover, there is the company and companionship, affection and unconditional love, not to mention the stress release after a day of trying boat jobs.
Overall the payoffs seem to be worth the complications and expenses for most. However, a few said they would never consider taking an animal aboard again and certainly wouldn’t have considered it if the pets weren’t already a part of the family. Of all the people I spoke to, their love and dedication toward their four-legged friends was apparent, and the lengths owners go to assure their pets comfort, safety, and enjoyment aboard a boat was heartwarming. Cruising with a pet adds another element of happiness to an already fulfilling, yet challenging lifestyle, only you can decide if having a pet on board is right for you.
–Sailing Magazine, Sept. 19, 2019
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