Going away? Vineyard petcare options

Melissa Schellhammer, veterinary technician at Animal Health Care Associates, with Mac, who is owned by Pam and Chris Scott and wearing a Thundershirt. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Unfortunately we can’t always bring Fido with us when we zip off to the Bahamas for a vacation. When leaving your animal behind, there’s a little more to consider than what your pet (or pet sitter) might like for a souvenir. Although your four-legged friend is never going to enjoy your vacation as much as you are, there are some things that will make your time away less stressful on your pet.

There are essentially three options for pet owners leaving for one reason or another: A kennel, a boarding facility, or an in-home or part-time pet sitter. All three services are available on the Vineyard.

In choosing among these three, cost is one consideration, and your willingness to have someone in your home another, but you should also weigh your options according to your pet.


During his lifelong career as a professional dog trainer, Vineyard transplant Tom Shelby worked with an average of 800 dogs a year, more than half with serious behavioral problems. He also led a one-man/two dog search and rescue unit and was recruited by the police department in Rockland County, N.Y. to train and handle their K9 unit.

“If your dog really suffers from separation anxiety, house-sitting is preferable,” he said. As a matter of fact, he says – not surprisingly – that a sitter is probably always superior. You leave a dog in an environment it doesn’t know it can be really freaked out.He makes a couple of suggestions to help familiarize your dog with his temporary master: “Have the person come over a few times before you leave. Ask the sitter for one of their tee shirts or pair of sweatpants and put that where the dog eats or sleeps.” And, as with all three options, get references.

Ellen O’Brien of Edgartown provides both live-in sitting for dogs or cats or once-a-day visits for cats. She has been in the pet sitting business for 10 years. Her part time job is a perfect fit for her since she is an animal lover who has never been in a position to have pets of her own. “I get all the advantages without the responsibility or the expenses.”

Ms. O’Brien walks the dogs twice a day and provides that extra TLC that only a one-on-one situation can offer. She is meticulous with new clients. “I have a book and we go over everything from allergies, vet’s number, and emergency contact numbers.” She notes that even the most wary animal will adjust to her presence within 24 hours. That’s probably partly due to the fact that she truly dotes on her charges. “I keep mentioning the owner’s name, look at pictures, and tell them that they’re coming back.”

For cat owners, she will stop by once a day to feed and interact briefly. “I’ve never met a cat I haven’t liked,” she said. She will also do cat sleepovers occasionally.

Home boarding

The next most personalized approach to pet care is home boarding. Again, Mr. Shelby recommends easing a pet into a new situation. Whether it’s a kennel or a home that will be your pet’s temporary environment, Mr. Shelby suggests one try an overnight, or at least an extended visit, before going away. “Take your dog for one or two nights and familiarize him with it,” Mr. Shelby said. If the animal reacts very negatively the second time he’s brought to the home or kennel it’s a good indication that the experience was a bad one and perhaps one should consider a different solution.

Karen Leigh of Vineyard Pet Heaven offers boarding on a very intimate level. She only takes one dog or cat into her home at a time. “I want it to be more like a home away from home,” Ms. Leigh said. “When people go away they want to know that their pets feel pretty much at home.” She has two highly socialized dogs, a beagle and an Australian shepherd, who welcome new animals. Ms. Leigh usually has a roster of cats and dogs that she feeds and walks daily and she often takes her current boarder along in the car and for the walks.

Ms. Leigh can accommodate just about any special needs. She once provided live-in sitting for five dogs that not only each needed individual medications but were also on a home cooked meal plan.

For cat owners, Ms. Leigh will change the litter daily and provide food and fresh water. She encourages twice-a-day visits and she notes that she tries to spend some time during cat visits. “They get lonely when they haven’t seen someone around all day,” she said. Ms. Leigh is a trained groomer who has been working with animals for more than 10 years.

Diane Jetmund of On Island Dogs is equipped to take multiple dogs into her home, although she will never take more than seven at a time. She lives on a two-acre piece of property in West Tisbury that has two large fenced in areas, accessible by a doggy door. The boarders sleep in the living room along with Ms. Jetmund’s two dogs. “It’s like camping – a sleepover,” she said, and noted, “there are dogs who really enjoy each other’s company and dogs not interested in playing.” She is sensitive to the individual needs of all and noted that, “puppies require special care.”

Ms. Jetmund has seen all types of reactions: Some acclimate right away, some hang out at the door. She’s also noticed different levels of separation anxieties in owners and strongly suggests hiding your own feelings. “Sometimes the people are worse than the dogs,” she said. “I have to tell them that it’s really best if you just say goodbye – or don’t say anything – and walk out.”

Mr. Shelby concurs with this advice. “You want to de-emotionalize leaving, and coming back. No long goodbyes. That exacerbates the problem.” He also recommends desensitizing dogs to the cues that one is leaving. “Take the suitcase out every day for awhile and throw a few things in, then don’t leave.” Similarly, he suggests that you take a dog to a boarder a couple of times previous to your departure and walk the dog around, then leave.

Mr. Shelby stresses that all dogs are different and that many will handle a kennel situation just fine.


Animal Health Care Associates, at the airport, provides boarding for dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, birds and, occasionally, guinea pigs. Cats are kept in cages but taken out at least once a day, either alone or to mingle with other cats, depending on their sociability. Dogs are housed in combination indoor/outdoor facilities and also taken for walks at least twice a day.

“The majority adjust pretty quickly, but for some it’s not for them,” said Terry Lowe, practice manager. “Cats are pretty easy going as long as they feel safe and secure.”

There are a few intervention plans for especially anxious dogs. The clinic staff has found a great deal of success with something called a Thundershirt, which Ms. Lowe compares to a baby’s swaddling blanket. The fitted shirt allows for ease of movement but provides gentle, constant pressure that has been proven calming to dogs stressed out by thunderstorms or other situations.

The clinic can also (with owner’s permission) in extreme circumstances provide an occasional sedative for an anxious dog. For bored cats the solution is simple – catnip is always on hand.

The Vineyard Veterinary Clinic in Edgartown offers similar boarding accommodations. However, they are undergoing renovations right now and won’t be taking boarders until March at the earliest.

Mr. Shelby has a couple of tricks up his sleeve for anxiety. He notes that harp music has proven very successful at soothing distressed animals and he also suggests a natural drug called Calm-Quil. The formula, available as a spray or collar diffuser, is made of a natural compound that simulates the pheromones of a female dog in heat and has proven to calm and control aggression in dogs and cats.

However, if harp music and pheromone sprays are a bit too much to ask of your pet sitter, the tried and true reminder of yourself is always helpful. “One of the things you can do when you leave a dog is leave your tee shirt or sock, one that’s not freshly laundered,” Mr. Shelby suggested.

One last thing, according to Mr. Shelby: long distance phone calls are not helpful. He says that dogs rarely react to the voice of their owner heard over the phone and, “If the dog picks up on their owner talking to them it’s only going to agitate and confuse them.”

Send a postcard instead.