American pet owners spent an estimated $31 billion on our 77.7 million cats and 65 million dogs in 2003.
And almost 85 percent of us refer to ourselves as their "mom" or "dad." But too many of us, particularly seniors, feel they cannot travel because of their pets.
As a mature pet owner and frequent traveler, I understand the feelings of guilt and anxiety when you stash your four-footed loved ones in a kennel. Such feelings are multiplied if the pet is quite young, getting up there in years, or needs daily medication or other special care.
Although many dogs and the occasional cat or other pet may do fine on the road in a recreational vehicle, in most cases it isn't wise to take a pet along on vacation. Trips in a car, truck or SUV can be dangerous, says Thom Somes, known as the Pet Safety Guy from PetTech, a company that puts on programs teaching pet first aid and care.
Cats, even more than dogs, are uncomfortable with any changes in terrain -- let alone the constant changes while traveling. Other species of mammals as well as birds and reptiles often don't do well with variations in their habitat, either.
Somes points out additional reasons why pets do best at home. If your dog loves to hang its head out the vehicle's window, debris and insects may get stuck in its ears or eyes, which can lead to serious trouble.
If unrestrained, your animal may hurtle out the window on a sharp turn or during a minor accident, or make an escape at a rest stop. Getting it to heed your call isn't easy when it's discombobulated in a strange place.
High altitudes and decibel counts aboard airplanes, as well as low humidity and temperature changes, are physically and psychologically stressful for an animal, and will be aggravated in the case of flight delays.
Nor do pets react well to changes in water or food. And while you probably can find a veterinarian to handle any emergencies along the way, what if your pet requires hospitalization?
Your first instinct may be to ask a friend or neighbor to stop by and feed your cat or walk the dog. But they may not have the experience in animal care to handle an emergency. And they may soon resent having to romp with your pooch twice a day.
But two resources make it possible to combine stay-at-home pets with guilt-free travel: professional pet sitters and house sitters.
The Web site of the Humane Society of the United States, www.hsus.org, provides thoughtful information on why hiring a pet sitter is a good idea, and how to choose one who's qualified.
The society reminds us that good pet sitters also spend some quality time with your animal and know how to tell whether it needs veterinary care. Typically, they'll also bring in your mail and newspapers, water plants, turn lights on and off -- all of which help deter crime.
Normally, pet sitters visit your home and pets once or twice a day. House sitters, on the other hand, stay in your home while you're away.
You can ask friends, neighbors, the veterinarian or the Humane Society to recommend a pet sitter, or check the Yellow Pages under "pet sitting service." You also can contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters or Pet Sitters International.
Both of these organizations have training and certification programs for sitters, including such subjects as pet care, first aid and handling emergencies. They offer such benefits as group rates on personal liability insurance and bonding for sitters. They also provide training and support in starting and operating a pet-sitting business.
The associations hold professional meetings and conventions, and publish newsletters that cover topics ranging from caring for hermit crabs to recognizing the signs of heat stroke or separation anxiety in a pet. Sitting services should have people available who can care for birds and reptiles, as well as ferrets, guinea pigs and other mammals besides dogs and cats.
Their Web sites give pet owners hints on how to choose a pet sitter and how to make the most of a sitter's services. Pet-sitting rates run from $15 to $25 a day, although caring for puppies or providing for special needs like insulin shots or geriatric problems may cost more.
Minding pets is usually included in duties live-in house sitters will take on. Often, house-sitting services are performed in exchange for free rent, with sitters paying for any utilities expenses they incur during their stay.
House sitters who are retirees sometimes use the job as a way to get to know different parts of the country or world. Those searching for a sitter usually go to online services such as HouseCarers.com, which run confidential help-wanted ads as well as those in which sitters list their qualifications.
HouseCarers also gives tips on how to choose a sitter and develop a house-sitting contract. Potential house sitters already bonded and insured and with certification from the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters or Pet Sitters International might well be one up on other applicants.
So happy at-home pets and traveling owners can go hand-in-paw.
The National Association of Professional Pet Sitters is at 17000 Commerce Parkway, Suite C, Mount Laurel, NJ 08054. Info: (856) 439-0324, www.petsitters.org. To e-mail: NAPPS Ahint.com
Pet Sitters International is at 201 E. King St., King, NC 27021-9161. Info: (336) 983-9222, www.petsit.com.