Wexford People

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Minimising stress for pets when you go on holiday

HOLIDAYS ARE meant to be about enjoying a stress-free, relaxing break, but it's often not as simple as that. There's a psychological condition known as "pre- and post-holiday stress syndrome." People have work deadlines that they need to complete before they go away, meaning that the build up to a holiday can be far busier than the normal work routine.

And when returning from a break, there can be a challenging accumulation of problems that need to be sorted. Furthermore, the change of pace can be stressful, moving from the pressure of full-on work, to a state of complete relaxation of being on holiday, then back to full-on work again when the break is over.

It's no wonder that some people find themselves wondering whether it's worth the hassle of taking a holiday at all.

Obviously pets don't need to worry about aspects of life like work pressures, but for animals, holidays can also be a time of stress. Animals love routines, and holidays mean a complete change in their daily activities.

A visit to a kennel or cattery means a new temporary home, with unfamiliar people, animals and feeding routines, as well as strange smells and sounds. Even if a house sitter or a neighbour is looking after the pet in their own home, there's still a significant difference from "normal".

Many owners worry about their pets while they are away. A recent survey revealed that 32% of dog owners feel that their dog is stressed by a stay in kennels. In fact, 11% would not leave their dog in a kennel again. 33% of dog owners alter their holiday plans to reduce the stress for their pet.

Sometimes the signs of stress in pets can be obvious to an owner: animals may lose weight while in kennels, or a dog may have a hoarse voice because of repeated barking. I know one dog who always seems depressed after being in kennels: he is quieter than usual, moping around the house and spending a lot of time in his bed. It usually takes him a full week to return to his normal level of enthusiastic and energetic activity.

Some degree of stress for pets is inevitable when owners go away for holidays, but there are some simple steps that can be taken to minimise any negative impact.

Importantly, choose the least stressful type of care for your animal. For cats, this may simply mean asking a neighbour to call in several times a day to provide food and social interactions. For dogs, it usually means finding a boarding kennel with high standards.

Anybody can set up boarding kennel in Ireland: there are no official guidelines, which means that there's a huge range of quality, from the most basic to the most advanced. Members of the Irish Boarding Kennel and Cattery Association (www.ibkca.ie) adhere to a high standard of facilities and ethics, so choosing an affiliated kennel is a good starting point.

It's worth asking local vets if they know of good kennels in their area, and it can also help to ask pet owning friends: as with most services, word-of-mouth is often the best way of finding well run businesses. Pet owners should plan well in advance: the best boarding kennels are booked up many months in advance, especially at the busiest times of the year such as the summer holidays.

It's also useful to take your pet to the kennels for a short period, such as an overnight stay at the weekend. This will allow you to get a sense of the way that the kennel is run, and it will help to familiarise your pet with the place, as well as teaching them that when they are left for a longer period, you will be coming back to pick them up in due course.

It's worth asking simple questions about the kennel's set up: how much space do the animals have, how much exercise do dogs get, and importantly, what is the staff to animal ratio. Dogs are social creatures, and interactions with staff at the boarding kennel are important.

If additional time is allowed for staff to play with dogs, grooming them and giving them treats for behaving well, this will help them feel even more relaxed. It's best if there are regular routines, with walking, feeding and cleaning being done for each dog at the same time each day, so that animal residents learn what to expect. Sometimes small "extras" can make a big difference to a kennel environment: dogs spend less time barking, and more time resting, when classical music is played in the background.

Owners can play their part in helping to make kennel visits less stressful for their pets. It's worth bringing familiar food (enough for the first few days), as well as bedding, toys and chews, to lessen the strangeness of the new environment. If an owner is particularly worried about a pet suffering from stress, simple calming medication can be obtained from vets to give during the holiday period, and soothing pheromones can be provided, either as a plug-in diffuser for the kennel, or impregnated into a special type of collar.

It's exceptionally rare for pets to suffer serious problems associated with kennelling. Animals live in the minute far more than us humans. While they may prefer to be at home and miss you when you're away, from the moment you pick them up at the end of their stay, the kennels are forgotten. They're home, they're with you, and they're happy.