Our four-legged companions are far from just our in-house pets – they’re family. So when we ask them to hop aboard and join us for an epic journey through the high seas, we’re met with an enthusiastic wag and unwavering confidence in our request. That is, at least, until they see the body of water they’re up against. While some of our pets can’t wait to splash into the cool blue, others might feel the urge to curl up in a corner and cower.
In this guide, we cover everything from pet passports to onboard anxiety when sailing with your pawed counterparts to ensure the most enjoyable adventure imaginable.
Planning and Preparation
Dipping a Paw in the Water
Before making the decision to set sail with your pets, it’s a good idea to first see how they react to a smaller excursion close to home. Of course, you’ll already have some idea of how much or how little they enjoy the water or being away from the comfort of the living room, but thoroughly testing the reality can help you manage and prepare for the things that need the most work. Do they follow commands on the water as well as they do at home? Do they sprint down the boat deck barking at passing birds? Will they eat, relax, and sleep as needed when weather conditions aren’t ideal? These types of questions become more of a concern once you hit the open ocean, so you should consider them carefully before a big journey.
Pet Documentation – Pet Passports (EU) and More
Since each country has its own travel regulations regarding animals, you’ll need to educate yourself well ahead of time about the required documentation, vaccinations, and the possibility of an animal quarantine on arrival. Nearly every country worldwide now requires your pet to be microchipped and vaccinated for rabies, and countries within the EU require a pet passport for onward travel. Further, certain countries require you to fill out an import permit to be submitted when clearing immigration. In any case, do yourself a favor and skip the assumptions – all of these rules can change at the drop of a hat.
A pet passport is exactly what you’d imagine it to be – an official document that holds information related to your pet which will ultimately make international travel a simpler and more streamlined process. For an EU pet passport, only veterinarians within the union may issue them, and they are only valid for travel between member countries. Although an EU pet passport will set you back about $70, it’s a small price to pay for the freedom it allows while traveling in the region. Passports remain valid for the life of the pet, but be sure that rabies vaccinations are kept up-to-date – otherwise, you’ll need to re-apply for the document.
Before heading to the appointment with a vet, be sure you have all of the following in hand:
- Copy of ISO microchip information
- Rabies vaccination certificate OR (1) Copy of negative rabies test results
- Copy of your passport
- Annex IV form filled out by your home veterinarian and endorsed by your country’s governing body (i.e., USDA if coming from the US)
- Copy of your home address and supporting information
* All documents should be no more than three weeks old.
If for any reason, your pet does not meet a country’s entrance requirements, they’ll need to stay in a secured room on board your vessel for the duration of your stay. In some cases, your pet won’t even be allowed on the boat’s deck, which makes fresh air and exercise nearly impossible. If you find yourself in this position, DO NOT break these rules under ANY circumstance. Stepping on land illegally could lead to the seizure of your pet by immigration authorities.
Microchips – A Trending Standard
Microchipping pets has been common practice in recent history, even for those of us who don’t sail or travel internationally. The reason is simple – we love our animals too much to risk their safety.
When traveling to foreign countries, the prospect of this scenario becomes much more relevant, so we need to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. Apart from the safety and security of our four-legged family members, a microchip provides several other benefits to an animal and its owners. Owners can choose to store important information on the chips database for quick reference to health officials, including medical and travel records.
Is microchipping your pet required or just recommended?
While there’s certainly some wiggle room in this answer, most countries now require pets to be microchipped before their arrival. Since so few nations don’t require owners to register their pets with an ISO standard chip, it makes sense to have them chipped sooner rather than later.
How is a microchip implanted? Is it painful?
Veterinarians use a tool called a hypodermic needle to implant microchips – a small, hollow tube used with a syringe. The microchip is about the size of a grain of rice, or 12mm, to be more precise. While the hypodermic needle is slightly larger than a standard needle, it doesn’t hurt any more than a typical injection. In many cases, owners choose to microchip their pets while undergoing other procedures like spaying or neutering, as they’re already under anesthesia and won’t be conscious during the process.
Rabies Vaccination – A Requirement
No matter where you’re traveling, your pet will need to be vaccinated against rabies to come ashore. Beyond the entry requirements, though, the need for a rabies vaccine becomes far more apparent when traveling internationally. While many countries consider themselves “rabies-free,” others have “high incidence” rates – large populations of infected animals and a high spread rate. Additionally, just because a country considers itself “rabies-free” doesn’t make the threat non-existent.
Cats have been known to catch rabies on sailboats, even when they’ve spent the entire trip in the cabins. Bats are common intruders in boat cabins and galleys, and cats love to hunt. Unfortunately, bats are ideal carriers of the disease.
Before reaching a new destination, make sure to have the following documents arranged:
- A completed health certificate from the country you are traveling
- Copy of your pets rabies vaccination document
- Copy of your pets rabies titer test at least 30 days after the initial vaccination
* It’s common for rabies titer results to take over a month to receive, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Flea and Tick Treatment – Minimizing the Risk
When traveling internationally, it’s essential to have your pets checked and treated for ticks and fleas regularly. First things first, though – always consult your veterinarian before making decisions on control. Treatments and repellants can be toxic, and you don’t want to run the risk of harming your pet, especially while there’s no immediate access to animal healthcare.
Certain treatments and preventatives can also be harmful to children and pregnant women when exposed, so you should always inform your doctor before beginning use. If there are children or pregnant women on board, you should strongly consider using an oral treatment rather than a topical treatment.
Some owners choose to use natural insect treatments, but be careful – some of these can cause allergic reactions in animals and have the potential to be fatal.
Instead of using natural products for prevention and treatment, use the following control methods:
- Use a flea comb to find and remove fleas (Drown them in water)
- Wash your pets’ bedding and accessories regularly
- Bathe your pet often
- Vacuum indoor areas weekly
Why is it so important to prevent and treat fleas and ticks?
For safety and peace-of-mind.
Fleas can be a huge nuisance, and they can wind up being harmful to your pets when left untreated. Fleas are “external parasites,” and they live up to their name well. When a flea bites, it causes an itching sensation that can’t be satisfied. Scratching often turns into open wounds, putting your pet at risk of infection and diseases. Open wounds should be dealt with immediately, especially after exposure to warm seawater – the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive.
Ticks are common carriers of various harmful diseases like Lyme disease and mostly thrive in grassy, wooded areas. You don’t need to have even set foot on land to find ticks on your boat, though. Windy conditions can be enough to blow the little buggers aboard, so it’s wise to have your pets taking tick medication just in case.
Heartworm Treatment – Prevention is Key
Heartworm disease is a serious and potentially fatal condition that can cause lung disease, heart failure, and organ damage in dogs, cats, and ferrets. The disease develops because of long, parasitic worms by the name of Dirofilaria immitis, which lives and reproduces in the heart, lungs, and blood vessels of an animal.
Since the disease is so common and the effects can go unnoticed, we as pet owners must understand the risks and know how to mitigate them.
Is Heartworm Disease common for pets living the cruising lifestyle?
Heartworms spread through mosquitos, putting those who sail in tropical and sub-tropical destinations at relatively high risk. It’s not just those animals who travel that are at risk of infection, though. Heartworm disease is extremely common and reported in dogs in all 50 of the United States. While our pets are generally safe from contracting heartworms in colder climates, nearly anywhere that mosquitoes are active can pose a threat.
How is Heartworm Disease different for dogs and cats?
Dogs are an ideal host for heartworms, and they’re the most common of our pets to catch the disease. Since they’re a typical host, dogs can carry anywhere from two to 250 adult heartworms at once. The good news is that the disease is successfully treatable when caught in the early stages, although prevention always provides a better outcome than treatment.
Cats play quite a different role than dogs as hosts to the disease, which comes with benefits and downfalls all the same. Cats are atypical hosts for Heartworm Disease, meaning they do not provide the ideal environment for the worms to thrive. When infected, a cat will only host one to three worms, none of which survive to the adult stage.
Since the worms all die off before maturing, the disease most often goes unnoticed. While this sounds like a benefit for cats, you need to understand that even immature worms can cause severe and lasting damage to the heart, lungs, and respiratory system. The damage comes in the form of Heartworm Associated Respiratory Disease, otherwise known as HARD. You can not treat a cat for heartworms with medication. Prevention plays the only role in keeping your felines healthy and heartworm-free.
What are the signs of Heartworm?
Dogs often show little to no signs of Heartworm Disease in the early stages. As the disease progresses, symptoms are more likely to develop – although this may not happen until serious damage occurs.
When symptoms begin to develop, they can include one or more of the following signs:
- Mild, Persistent Cough
- Reluctance to Exercise
- Quickly Exhausted
- Decreased Appetite
- Weight Loss
Cats have symptoms that vary dramatically from negligible to the extreme, and the first signs are often the indication of a significant medical problem.
When symptoms do present themselves, they can include one or more of the following signs:
- Wheezing Cough
- Asthma-Like Attacks
- Lack of Appetite
- Difficulty Walking
How and when should I have my pet tested for Heartworm?
You should test your dogs for heartworms annually – even when regularly taking heartworm medication. You can have your dogs tested during routine check-ups or visits to the veterinarian, so there’s no need to set up additional appointments unless your dog shows symptoms of the disease. A small sample of blood is taken and tested for the heartworm proteins that develop in the bloodstream. Results are quick and accurate, so you should act immediately if the infection is present.
Because cats are far less likely to carry the disease than dogs, they are often checked less routinely for heartworms. It’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian, though, as sailing to new destinations could increase the likelihood of contracting the disease. The most common method of detecting heartworms in cats is to test for antibodies in the blood or with a visual inspection using x-rays and ultrasounds.
When we think of dogs and their love for the water, it can be easy to forget just how much effort they need to put towards paddling their way back to solid ground. They love it – but it’s no easy task, even for the strongest of swimming breeds. Add a bit of choppy water or current into the mix, and things become particularly dangerous.
Animal life jackets make swimming safer for pets and owners alike, and most animals will learn to wear them happily. The last thing you want is for you or your pet to be overboard, without flotation, struggling to get back to the boat. The US Coast Guard reports numerous deaths every year of pet owners attempting a rescue in open water.
So, how do you choose the right life vest for your pets?
Ideally, you should look for the following in an animal life vest:
- A Proper Fit: Comfort and safety should go hand in hand when buying your pet a life jacket, and a proper fit will support both of those values. Remember, they will wear these quite often, and an improper fit could make life miserable for the foreseeable future.
- Sufficient Buoyancy: The size and material will dictate how buoyant the life jacket is, but if the jacket has the right fit, it should have enough lift. Carefully choose the design of the jacket, though. Some vests are more padded on the belly than they are around the neck, and each animal will require something specific to keep its face above water.
- Bright, Flashy, and Reflective Colors: One of the most important things to do when an animal or person goes overboard is to keep their location known. Brightly colored life vests with reflective material can help you identify things from long distances, and they make swells less effective at hiding a person or animal overboard.
- Functionality: An animal life jacket is providing safety to our pets – yes. We don’t just want security, though. We want convenience. Things like handles, clips, and adjustment straps are essential to making life safe and easy for everyone involved. If your furry friend ends up overboard, pulling them back on deck is infinitely easier with handles. Falling overboard trying to lift them is the last thing you want, and it can become potentially dangerous in less than ideal conditions. More simply, though, little Todo doesn’t want you yanking on straps and fumbling over clips for five minutes every time they need to put the jacket on. Easy-to-use equipment is essential.
Some owners prefer to use a safety harness while sailing in rough conditions or making long passages. The added security allows your pet to spend some time outside without being tossed around the deck or over the side by unexpected waves or excessive boat roll. If an animal were thrown over the side of the boat wearing a standard leash, they would hang by the weight of their necks.
A good harness would allow the animal to hang from their body, instead – a far safer alternative. Additionally, pulling your animals out of the water back to safety is much easier done with a body harness than a leash.
Lifeline Perimeter Netting
Having a perimeter fence for your boat deck is a great way to add some extra security for your clumsy crewmates, and they provide plenty of additional benefits such as keeping loose equipment, tools, and random recreational toys dry. Along with using the netting as a perimeter fence, consider using it to line your cockpit or bow of the boat for rough passages. If your pet has a place they feel comfortable during lousy weather, fence-in that area too.
Installing the netting is easily done, even by the most novice of handymen and women. The netting comes pre-rolled in specific lengths, so all you’ll need to do to prepare is measure the perimeter or other area you wish to fence and prep for installation. While the process is exceptionally straightforward and done by nearly anyone, proper installation can be time-consuming – it is a safety feature you are adding, after all.
Pet Overboard Plan
We hate to think about our beloved pets ending up overboard, especially in foul weather. Since the risk is so high when it does happen, we need to prepare for these situations thoroughly – even if they aren’t likely to occur. Much of this article has harped on doing everything in your power to prevent these situations from happening. So why then would we need to put so much time and effort into a rescue scenario? It’s simple – unexpected things happen all the time.
Perimeter nets can break, harnesses can fail, and boats can heel to the extremes. A rescue scenario is your last lifeline if an animal goes overboard, and you should already have one in place for yourself and the rest of the crew. You should always know how to react to a man-overboard scenario, especially when sailing offshore.
Training Your Pets
In addition to practicing things like boat maneuvers, deploying rescue GPS systems, and assigning individual positions and duties, you should spend some time teaching your animal “in-water commands.” Although it will be tempting, do not jump in after your pet to save them. Animals can panic just the same as humans, and a panicking pet can be the demise of both of you in an unforgiving ocean. Instead, having in-water commands practiced will allow you to call the dog over to the boat – or at least in the boat’s general direction to make maneuvering easier. If your furry friend is wearing a life jacket or harness, they should be relatively easy to pull aboard.
Many sailing pet owners choose to buy a useful piece of equipment called a “Man Overboard Indicator,” which is essentially a waterproof location transponder worn by your pet. The indicator comes with up to eight additional transponders that alert the crew when a pet falls overboard. Once the alarms sound, the transponder sends out a signal to its location so that you can carry out a quick and safe rescue.
For those who aren’t used to spending so much time on the water, sea-sickness is a real threat to what are supposed to be enjoyable days of leisure. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be the victim of the short-lived illness, you know just how miserable it can be. If you can become that nauseous that quickly, what makes you think your pets won’t react the same way?
Dogs are susceptible to numerous forms of motion sickness, and sea-sickness is at the top of the list. While general motion sickness is less of a problem for dogs who have reached adulthood, the problem can be remarkably persistent for sea-sickness.
Training cats to deal with motion sickness is much more difficult than their canine counterparts. The driving factor for sea-sickness in cats is anxiety, followed by actual motion sickness. Because cats are generally so anxious and stressed in new scenarios, they can be harder to train while traveling.
So how do we recognize when our pets are dealing with motion sickness on a boat?
The following signs and symptoms are common among cats and dogs experiencing motion sickness:
- Persistent Yawning
- Whining and Whimpering
- Persistent Licking
It’s important that we’re aware of motion sickness signs in our animals, as fear and anxiety can worsen the illness. If we can identify the problem as soon as possible, we can treat the problem and get our pets feeling well again. Motion-sickness pills taken by humans are an occasional solution to overwhelming sea-sickness, but you must always consult your veterinarian first. For animals with frequent and persistent motion sickness, prescription medication may be appropriate. If you suspect that your pet has motion sickness, especially on a boat in the hot sun, the best immediate action is to give them as much cool water as they will drink.
We know how much you love your pets, so we know you’ve done some preparation regarding the health and safety of your four-legged friends while at sea. It never hurts to have an additional comprehensive run-down, though – just to be sure you’ve covered all your bases.
Let’s take a look at our top health tips for sailing with your pets:
- Awareness of allergies is essential when traveling internationally, as certain medications may be hard to come by in some parts of the world. By knowing which allergies are present, you can adequately prepare for the worst-case scenario.
- Consult your vet if your pet has dietary restrictions or needs something specific to keep them happy and healthy while traveling, as some treatments and medication will be unavailable while traveling.
- Neatly organizing and categorizing your pets’ medication with bold and dark lettering can be helpful when searching for them during a long or particularly rough passage. It will also help ensure that there are no mistakes in which medication you give your pets. Labels with words like “eyes,” “ears,” or “stomach” can help you quickly identify which medication you’re trying to find.
For a list of specific medications and first-aid supplies to keep on board for your pet, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian. Dogs, cats, and ferrets will require different medications for different things, so there isn’t one solution to cover all of their needs. Your vet will give you the best advice and plan of action for a specific situation such as yours.
Potty Training and Exercise
Fake Grass Pads
Having our pets on board for an epic journey at sea is nothing short of a dream, but how do we address the simple points of life, such as potty training? No worries, you’re not the first to take a journey with your tail-wagging, peeing, and pooping machines by your side.
Just as with any other type of training – and certainly potty training – consistency will be key. However, consistency met with a reward system is going to get you across the metaphorical finish line.
Routines should be physical and mental, so establish a system that’s likely to motivate your pet to follow through. Using an artificial grass-pad placed in one location on the boat is your best bet to get your pets – dogs, in particular – to be happy and comfortable relieving themselves. Choose a spot on the boat to install the grass pad, but choose wisely, as changing its location will break the routine. Some pet owners choose to have both a primary and secondary grass pad on board. One for fair weather conditions above deck, and the other for foul weather and long passages below deck. The size of your grass pad should reflect the size of your pet. Be sure to provide adequate space for them to do their business.
If you’re having trouble establishing a new spot to take care of business, here are a few tips and tricks that may sway them to submit to the new way of life:
- Collect a small sample of your pets’ pee or poo, and place it on the grass pad. As dogs and cats like to have their territory marked, this may help establish the location as their own. Once your pet makes its way to the mat and starts sniffing around the familiar smell, give your standard command for them to get to the point.
- If they simply aren’t responding well to the reward system, try switching up your methods. Use new and exciting treats to entice them. Reward them with playtime immediately after, or anything you can think of that they usually respond to positively.
- A common and successful method for keeping your pet regular is to keep to a strict feeding schedule. By feeding them twice a day at similar times, their bodies will adapt. This helps reduce any accidents that may happen on the boat.
- For male dogs, particularly, a small shrub or bush can be a helpful fixture to mark their territory. Doing so will help them feel more comfortable and willing to use the area consistently.
While our cats may not need much exercise to keep happy, our dogs are a much different story. Getting them the exercise they need while moving through an unimaginably massive body of water can be a challenge. In ideal scenarios, we would stop the boat every once in a while to get off and run around. Unfortunately, there are no stopping points on long passages, and we have to deal with the resources we have.
If conditions allow for it, you can let your dogs run freely on the boat’s deck – although these may come few and far between during long, open passages. Most of the time, you can expect that your pups will be below deck, or in the best case, tethered somewhere on deck. Do as much activity and get as much exercise as possible right before you get underway on long journeys. Your dog will undoubtedly feel cooped up for a while. Get as much exercise as you can before you leave, as well as on arrival. After reaching a new destination, let them go for a run on the beach or a swim near the pier.
Other tips for long passages or inclement weather include:
- Don’t feed your dog as much as you would in places that they can exercise often. The less active lifestyle will be worsened by overeating – further complicating the journey for them.
- Keep various toys and games on the boat that the dogs can play with inside or on deck. Even the smallest amount of playtime can go a long way in extended scenarios without the outdoors.
Amenities and Accessories
Designated Shade Areas
When sailing in tropical and subtropical destinations, we’re cautious about keeping our time under the sun limited. Sunburns, heatstroke, and just general comfortability can be significantly affected by prolonged sun exposure. It’s easy for us to recognize when these things begin to happen to us, though. Our animals have a more challenging time making the distinction. Providing easy access to shade on the deck reduces the risk and worry of our pets overheating.
Designated shade areas will vary from boat to boat, so there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. As long as there is significant space that remains shaded throughout the day, you should be set. Consider setting up your pet’s bed under the shade for a day at anchor, alongside the food and water bowls to create a relaxing atmosphere. If shade is hard to achieve during specific points in the day, an umbrella can be the perfect solution to staying cool.
One epic and innovative accessory to keep for sunny occasions are “cooling mats” made specifically for animals. As long as they stay in shaded areas, these mats keep your pet feeling cool, even when the temperatures outside are scorching. The cooling sensation comes from a unique gel material that cools when unpressured. As the dog or cat lays on the mat, the gel begins to warm. Within a half-hour of them getting up, the gel cools to a lower temperature.
Books and Resources to Learn More
While we pride ourselves on the work we’ve done to write this article for you, we understand that there is so much information that others have to offer – and it’s never a bad idea to continue learning. Below, we list a few of our favorite books and resources to help you prepare for and enjoy a sailing voyage with your furry life companions.
How to Sail with Dogs: 100 Tips for a Pet-Friendly Voyage – by Michelle Segrest
The only sure-fire way to know the ins and outs of voyaging with dogs is to have the first-hand experience. Being a full-time cruiser and owner of two beautiful beagles, Michelle Segrest is the perfect person to outline the details that allow an enjoyable and safe experience traveling the oceans with your four-legged crew. With tails wagging at her side, Michelle managed to sail through four continents, picking up tips, tricks, and advice along the way. From getting your pets into specific destinations to keeping safe on the water, this book is a must-read for anyone traveling at sea with their pups.
A Sea Dog’s Tale: The True Story of a Small Dog on a Big Ocean – by Pamela Douglas Webster
If you’re questioning whether or not to sail with your pet, this book might bring you some clarity. Pamela is the perfect author for this book, having a deep emotional connection with her pet and endless stories that illustrate just how rich a sea dog’s life can be. Life often presents us with tough decisions, but Pamela will be the first to tell you that the benefits of taking your pet to sea well outweigh the risks. If you’re in need of some inspiration, this book is a must-own.
AdventureCats.Org – Living Nine Lives to the Fullest
AdventureCats is an online resource to help execute a life of adventure for owners and cats alike. The site was created for cat lovers, by cat lovers. No gimmicky sales pitches here, just quality information to help our feline-loving friends. While this is not a sailing-specific resource, there is a ton of valuable information regarding travel and adventure. We promise you’ll find some value in this. Be ready to get lost for hours at a time reading through their content.
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