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Travels with critters

Getting on the road with your pet isn't the trial it used to be. Pet-friendly motels and inns welcome fur-bearing travelers and their staff. Doggy rest stops, playgrounds and recreation areas break up even the longest of journeys, and the pets never whine, "Are we there, yet?"
Traveling with your pet
/ Source: contributor

A long time ago John Steinbeck and Charley, his standard poodle, set out to rediscover America. Much of what they found doesn't exist anymore, but the story of a man and his dog traveling the highways together still resonates with pet lovers. And getting on the road with Charley or Max or Bubba isn't the trial it used to be. Pet-friendly motels and inns welcome fur-bearing travelers and their staff. Doggy rest stops, playgrounds and recreation areas break up even the longest of journeys, and the pets never whine, "Are we there, yet?"

But mention to friends that you're thinking of taking the pets along on the annual family pilgrimage to the Adirondacks and the usual response is, "Are you nuts?" As if the four-legged animals will somehow prove more trouble than the two-legged variety fighting in the back seat.

'Good planning equals a good trip'
Ask Steve and Lisa Worley of Los Angeles, two retired school teachers cruising America in their Chrysler New Yorker with their two toy poodles riding shotgun. They'll tell you their fur-bearing family members are a lot less trouble than you might think.

"In a lot of ways it's easier with the dogs than it was with our kids," says Steve Worley. "Harry and Sally are always ready to go. When the kids hit their teen years they wouldn't drive around the block with us. There isn't any squabbling about one kid being on the other kid's side, and we don't have to entertain the dogs. They entertain us."

And, Lisa Worley adds, "There are a few logistics issues with the dogs, but it's really pretty simple: good attitude and good planning equals a good trip."

Smart advice for any traveler, but especially useful for traveling with pets.

Times have changed in the pet travel world since Steinbeck and Charley hit the road. Back in the late 1950s pets were just, well, animals. It wasn't like they were welcome anywhere. There weren't many leash laws, but you could drive for days without finding a place for Fido to hang his collar in the evenings.

People who traveled with their animals did it the way John and Charley did: they camped out. You can still do that -- very few campgrounds will turn away an animal on a leash. But even if your idea of creature comforts means curling up in a king-size bed while HBO puts you to sleep, you can still find plenty of places that will happily include your pet because pets are good for the travel business.

Check the Internet first
How good? Fire up your favorite search engine and search "pet travel." About six million hits later you'll begin to get the idea: pet travel is huge.

In that search you'll find pet seat belts, doggy lunch boxes, pre-measured travel meal packets, backpacks, dozens of critter carriers and toys designed for use in the car. But the real revelation lies in the Web sites devoted to finding pet-friendly hotels, motels, B&Bs, restaurants, shops, parks, beaches, critter camps and day spas, pet travel insurance and reservation services -- all designed with your pet's travel needs in mind.

The pet travel search engines list literally thousands of accommodations that cater to critters. Read the fine print though. A lot of upscale B&Bs that love hosting your dog don't want your kids. That alone should convince almost everyone that pet travel has come of age.

Even restaurants that traditionally ban animals for health reasons find ways to slip pets into the mix by offering outdoor seating for pets and their humans. And in Baltimore County, Md., officials recently floated a proposal to drop the ban on dogs in restaurants altogether.

Choose your traveling companion wisely
So if you think you're on the cutting edge of this pets-on-vacation trend, think again. The whole process is comfortably middle-of-the-road by now, so why not give it a try?

Start by having a little heart-to-heart with the whole family, fur people included. Some creatures aren't really interested in traveling and will take revenge on you if you insist.

Cats, like most teenagers, generally dislike the whole process. There are a few cats out there who make great traveling companions. If you have one of those, get on the road, otherwise, forget it. Hire the kid next door to come in once a day to check your kitty's food and water supply and provide a bit of companionship. Everyone will be happier for it.

The same thing goes for some dogs. If you're not sure whether yours is a Charley-wanna-be, take a short trip or two to find out before committing to a seven-day, 10-state marathon. Any animal that can't settle down in the car after an hour or so, or can't get over motion sickness, probably needs to stay home. And irritable bladder syndrome -- yours or the dog's -- is an instant deal breaker.

Pet-friendly or just dog-friendly?
The caveats get louder and longer if you choose to bring along non-dog pets. A large percentage of "pet-friendly" places are really just "dog-friendly." For instance, millions of Americans are terribly allergic to cats so finding cat-friendly hotels is more difficult than the dog-friendly variety.

It's even harder to travel with ferrets, prairie dogs, birds or any kind of reptile or exotic animal. A complex matrix of state, federal and international laws and ordinances controls the movement of most non-dog pets. Ferrets cannot enter California, for instance, and many exotic animals and birds must stay home because of rapidly evolving regulations designed to thwart the spread of monkey pox, avian flu or whatever new critter-driven disease is threatening the public's health.

Air travel creates its own set of demands. Small dogs and cats confined in appropriate crates can usually travel in the cabin with their humans, but all other critters travel as cargo. Check individual airline requirements carefully and follow instructions to the letter or you'll find yourself walking to your destination instead of flying.

But where to go? What to do? You can travel as you normally would, with some minor help from pet-friendly businesses, or you can plan your itinerary with your new traveling companion in mind. Does your dog love the water? Find one of the many dog beaches and let your pet do some body surfing. Or take your sports-crazy dog to one of the innumerable all-comers pet competitions or pet sports camps held around the country. And if social responsibility is high on your pet's list, check out the fund-raising events run by various animal shelters and humane societies.

Packing for your pet
Wherever you decide to go, pack for your pet, too. Collars, leashes, dishes, poop scoopers and plastic disposal bags, licenses, copies of recent (within the last 30 days) health certificates and rabies vaccination papers all become necessary on an almost daily basis when you're on the road with your pet. A supply of your pet's favorite food and treats, along with plenty of bottled water, makes sense, too. You know what happens to you when you eat too much "local" food while traveling.

Some humans dispense drugs to compensate for grumbly tummy and unhappy camper syndrome in their pets. But that's not necessarily a great idea, says Kate McKinsey, a veterinarian in Paso Robles, Calif. "Some people give their pets Dramamine or Benadryl on a short-term basis, and it will be effective for some animals," she says. "Some standard prescription pet tranquilizers can be variably effective, too, but I usually try to talk people out of using drugs, especially on longer trips. You can't safely keep dosing a pet for a long time."

In most cases animals will finally settle into a routine, McKinsey says. "Most animals won't just go crazy for the entire trip. They'll grumble for awhile, then settle in, then pipe up again and then settle down. It's something you just learn to live with."

Be a well-trained owner
Learning to live with your pet's road rage may not be difficult for you, but it can take a toll on the strangers you meet along the way. So take along a strong sense of responsibility, Steve and Lisa Worley say.

"Lots of people love and respect animals," Lisa Worley says, "but a lot can't stand them. When we check into a motel with Harry and Sally we always see some people rolling their eyes. They're thinking, 'There goes the neighborhood.' We try pretty hard to make sure our dogs don't ruin anyone else's vacation."

"But we're pretty well-trained, too," Steve Worley adds. "We never let them run loose, and the pooper scooper is always on hand. People who say they don't like animals are usually just telling you they don't like irresponsible animal owners, and who can blame them?"

Ron Bast is a freelance writer based in California whose articles have appeared in Cat Fancy, Dog Fancy and Cats USA.