Pets On Board

For most of us, our pets are part of the family, so it's hard to leave them behind when we're out on the water having fun. In fact, many boat owners choose to take their furry friends with them. According to a recent survey, about 62% of those who cruise with pets choose dogs as their sailing partners, while cats account for roughly 36% of seafaring pets. Whatever your preference, here's how to make sure the experiences you have with your four- legged mates are pleasurable and safe...

Help Your Pets Get Their Sea Legs

As with any new experience, your pet will probably need time to get comfortable aboard your vessel, so ease them into the sailing experience. On your first outing, take them aboard your yacht and just hang out with them. Let them sniff and snoop around so they can get used to the surroundings. Next time, turn the engine on (but don't leave the dock) to adapt them to the noise and vibration. When you do this, be sure to hold them-or use a leash-to avoid a mad scramble to get away. Gradually work up to a short (two- to four-hour) maiden voyage, then a day trip, then an overnighter... and so on. Once your pet feels at ease, the sea's the limit!

Important: Some pets prefer to be landlubbers, so know when to "abandon ship." If you've tried several trips and your pet simply doesn't like being on the water, leave them on land with a sitter. A miserable animal can be unpredictable and could even jeopardize the safety of others on board.

How Safe Is that Doggie (or Kitty) on the Water?

If you think all dogs are innately strong swimmers, think again. Truth is, some breeds just don't take to the water very well. And even if yours is a good swimmer and loves splashing around, a short doggy paddle in a pool, pond or nearby lake is a far cry from swimming through strong currents in open waters. Under these conditions, drowning is a risk because your pooch could panic and become fatigued and/or disoriented. For this reason, a pet flotation device (PFD) is a must. These are available at most boating stores and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Before you buy, talk to other boater/pet owners to get their recommendations. Better yet, take your dog in for a "fitting." Look for breed- or size-specific devices. A PFD that's too small will restrict your pet's motion, and one that's too large might slip off. Also check where straps and buckles fall and make sure these aren't rubbing sensitive parts.

Go for brightly colored PFDs that have reflective tape so your pet will be easier to see. The PFD you choose should also have a handle on the back that rests between your pet's shoulder blades and will enable you to lift your pooch out of the water, should the need for rescue arise.

It's important to get your pet used to wearing a PFD before venturing out for a cruise. Start by putting the device on your pet at home for brief stints, then let them swim with it on for short periods of time.

Should your cat wear a PFD as well? Most cats are not fond of the water, but feline versions of these devices are available. Cats tend to be more finicky, however, and may not tolerate wearing one. If that's the case with yours, be sure to hang towels, carpet strips, burlap or fishnet at each corner of your yacht so they can use their claws to climb up to safety should they fall overboard.

Tip: Shop pet stores for collars that sound an alarm when wet to help alert you when your pet falls-or jumps-overboard.

Before You Push Off

Make sure your pet has a collar with an identification tag that includes your yacht's permanent marina location and slip number, a phone contact for when you're afloat, and a secondary phone number for a relative or land-based friend. Or, consider having an ID microchip implanted in your pet. These are about the size of a grain of rice, are inserted at the scruff of the neck and contain a number linked to a national registry.

Make Your Yacht Pet-Friendly

Do a quick safety check for possible hazards that could harm your pet. For example, make sure fishing gear is contained and out of your pet's reach. Ditto for cleaning supplies. Check your deck for traction issues. If there are spots your dog or cat is slipping and sliding, use throw rugs or outdoor carpet with nonslip backings to help with your pet's footing. Keep the deck cool to protect paw pads, and make sure your pet has plenty of shade when relaxing on board. Remember, pets don't sweat, and fiberglass can get super hot.

Make it easy for your pooch to climb aboard. If your dog is too large or heavy to carry, provide a dog ladder or ramp to help them get on and off the boat-and also from the water back onto your yacht. Ramps are highly recommended for older or overweight canines. Collapsible floating versions attach to your deck and create a slope that mimics the shore. Once on board, remember that pets can easily get dehydrated when sailing. Secure their water dish and keep in mind that a large bowl kept half full will spill less. It's especially important to hydrate dogs before they get into the water. Otherwise, they'll drink from rivers, lakes or oceans and could get sick.

Create an onboard "cave" for your cat-somewhere low and in the center of your yacht where the motion is least severe. Stock it with blankets and include a favorite catnip toy or kitty treat. A scratching post is a must as well, unless you want your yacht's furniture clawed to bits. Firmly attach it to some part of the boat. Otherwise, your cat's not likely to use it since they're looking for resistance when they scratch.

Compile a Pet First Aid Kit

You should already have a people first aid kit on board. Here are some pet-specific items you should add to it:

• A pet first aid book.

• Your veterinarian's number-and depending on where you're cruising, a number for the nearest emergency veterinary clinic.

• The number for the ASPCA Poison Control Center Hotline (800-426-4435).

• A waterproof container with all your pet's paperwork (proof of rabies vaccination and other shots, as well as copies of other important health records) plus a current photograph of your pet in case they get lost.

• Self-cling bandages-the kind that stretches and sticks to itself but not to fur (available at pet stores).

• Seasick medication-ask your vet for recommendations.

• Hydrogen peroxide to induce vomiting when directed by a veterinarian or poison control.

• Sunscreen (at least SPF15)-yes, like people, dogs are susceptible to sunburn.

Important: If you're planning an extended cruise, visit your vet for a check up before you go to make sure all your pet's shots are up to date and they are healthy enough to travel. Also, request a supply off antibiotics (just in case), eye and eardrops, heartworm and flea and tick meds.

The Scoop on Poop

You'll need to make provisions for your pet so they can relieve themselves onboard. Cats are easy-simply anchor their litter box. Choose clumping litter over the non-clumping kind to avoid creating big messes in choppy waters. Be sure to keep the clumping litter well away from the bilge pump, however, to avoid clogs. For dogs, a box of sod or a piece of AstroTurf marked with your pet's scent works best when landfall is not possible.

Going Ashore

Be extra alert when docking, as studies show this is where the most accidents occur with pets. To keep yours from making a run for freedom as soon as they spot solid ground, use a harness or carrier for your cat and a leash for your dog. Carry a copy of your pet's vaccination and health records with you as you go ashore. Some marinas may require proof of immunization before allowing your pets to disembark.

If you're planning to spend time on a beach, check the sand for debris and consider outfitting your dog in Muttluck boots. These not only come in handy in areas with sand burs and rough terrain, they can also protect your pooch's paws from docks that have wide boards or splinters, as well as those made of metal with sharp surfaces.

Important: Before docking, call ahead. Some marinas do not allow pets, and many park and wildlife areas do not permit pets ashore. Also, if you plan to enter international waters, look for foreign laws regarding pets traveling on board and going ashore. Each country has its own rules. Just search online for the country's Agricultural Department for pet rules and regulations.

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