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6 Low-Cost Ways to Care for Your Pet While You’re Away

Try these cost-effective solutions when you must return to work or travel

During the pandemic many folks opened their homes to an animal in need, relishing the company while in isolation. A recent survey by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reveals that some 23 million American households adopted a pet. The results also show that so far, most newly adopted animals are staying in those homes and have not been returned to shelters. ​

If you adopted a furry friend, by now your pet is part of the family, accustomed to your company 24/7. But you may need to return to work or take a work trip soon. Your first impulse, taking your pet with you, may not be an option. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that just 7 percent of employers allow pets in the workplace. Surcharges at so-called pet-friendly hotels can range from $30 to $90 per night. If you fly, be prepared to pay as much as $100 per pet carrier in the cabin, or $200 if you check your pet as baggage — which would be highly stressful as well as expensive.​

How can you provide affordable, loving care while you are gone? Professional pet services can be pricey. Devising the best and most cost-effective solution starts with determining how much alone time your pet can tolerate without undue stress or behavioral issues, as well as figuring out what resources are readily available.​

1. Tailor their daytime care to their schedules

Your pet may not need as much attention during the day as you think. Adult dogs need 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day and are typically active for just four or five hours. Cats can sleep 16 to 20 hours a day and tend to be more active at dawn and dusk. Don’t spend money on full-time day care if all they need is a quick trip outside.

​​People often think of cats as easier; they seem to enjoy their solitude more than dogs, and a litter box eliminates the need to walk them. But the notion that all felines are independent is a misconception, says Marny Nofi, senior manager of behavioral sciences at the ASPCA. She recommends looking for changes in your cat’s habits after it has spent time alone. “Play biting, pouncing, excessive vocalizing or destructive behavior may be signs that your cat isn’t getting enough from you or its environment,” she says. Age is also a consideration. Young cats and kittens, who need more attention, will be calmer and more well-behaved if they don’t spend hours alone. Seniors can be more sensitive to routine changes than others.​​

Likewise, a dog’s tolerance for solitude depends on its personality, says Carly Loyer, research manager on the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences team. “Signs of anxiety include nervous pacing and panting and changes in posture and body language, which can include tenseness, a low tail, ears back, a furrowed brow, wide eyes, trembling, whining or trying to leave with you as you prepare to depart.” Most healthy dogs can hold their bladder for up to eight hours or longer, but letting them out at least every six hours is better — and less risky for your rugs. ​​

2. Ease them into your new schedule​​

Most animals don’t like a sudden change in their schedule, and if you suddenly disappear for eight hours each day, you’ll simply make them more anxious. To acclimate your cat or dog to change, experts recommend that you envision a new workday and slowly adjust things accordingly. “This way, your pet can begin getting used to a new walking, feeding, napping and playing schedule,” Loyer says. ​

Practice giving your dog longer periods of solitude, with soothing music or the TV in the background, while you go to the store or do yard work. Offer healthy chews, Loyer suggests, or toys stuffed with favorite foods that have been frozen, such as peanut butter, canned dog food, yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese. Vary them during the week. Likewise, Nofi advises giving your cat toys and cardboard boxes to play with or scratching posts to use. These are low-cost ways of keeping your pet calmer if you are delayed for some reason. ​

3. Pet doors can save money​​

If you have a fenced-in yard, you might consider a pet door, which could save you the cost of hiring a dog walker. estimates the cost of buying and installing a cat door to be between $75 and $400. A typical range for a dog door is $100 to $2,000. The best ones are airtight and tamper-proof and have a lock system. You should also look for a door that only opens with a microchip on your pet’s collar; otherwise, that adorable raccoon could follow your pet inside. Hilarity will not ensue. ​

A pet door may not work for all dogs and cats. For example, if your pet is particularly terrified of thunder or other loud noises, a door may not be a good solution. You should also be sure that your fence is secure enough to prevent other dogs — or coyotes — from getting into your yard.​​

4. Look to friends and neighbors ​​No pet door? If you work close to home, visit your pooch at lunch if you can, and give him as much attention as possible at night and on weekends. Also, look to others for help., which offers advice from veterinarians, suggests having someone your cat knows well check in daily if you will be gone more than 24 hours. That’s true even if you leave provisions for a longer period, as food and water can become stale, and the litter box can fill up. ​Or ask a friend or family member to visit your dog to break up the day and reduce her sense of isolation. If you know other cat or dog lovers in your building or down the street, you could take turns making lunchtime visits. The goal is to arrange pet visits or have your pet stay in their home when you work or travel, and vice versa. Otherwise, depending on your pet, a sitter may cost you, on average, about $25 for 30 minutes or $75 to $85 per night.​ 5. Shop for caregivers ​​If you must pay for services, then ask your veterinarian, local dog trainer, animal shelter or neighbors for good tips, Loyer suggests. Cheaper is not necessarily better, but it’s a good idea to get several bids. Expand your support system by using apps such as, Wag! and Thumbtack, which feature a range of services, narrowing your choices to one or two people you have properly screened and evaluated and whom you can use consistently. “Pets with underlying behavior issues, such as anxiety or fear, will do much better with caregivers they know and have come to trust than with a series of strangers,” she says. ​​ When choosing a walker, sitter or day care provider (assuming your dog enjoys playing with others), consider how much attention your pet requires based on her energy level, desire for human contact, potty schedule and medical needs, Loyer says. And whomever you choose, make sure to do a background check. Some apps require them for caregivers. Some, but not all, dog walkers and pet sitters are insured, bonded or have backing from a local vet. Insist on references from previous clients, and plan a walk to see how the person handles your dog. As you would with a babysitter, provide your contact information, specific instructions and how you want the person to respond should certain situations arise.​​ 6. Work only with the pros​ Finally, if your dog or cat has serious issues (high stress or aggression, for example), Loyer suggests contacting a trainer or behavior consultant, who can offer tips and tricks for helping your four-legged friend adjust to a new routine. The cost, the ASPCA estimates, will be about $200 per hour. “Better to identify problems and treat them early, rather than waiting to see if they get worse,” she says. “Generally, it’s harder to treat separation anxiety than prevent it.” The ASPCA has information on how to get treatment for a difficult pet. Putting off treatment will only make it more difficult for your pet and more expensive for you. ​​​

Patricia Amend has been a lifestyle writer and editor for 30 years. She was a staff writer at Inc. magazine; a reporter at the Fidelity Publishing Group; and a senior editor at Published Image, a financial education company that was acquired by Standard & Poor’s.

Also of Interest

  • Is a COVID-19 vaccine for pets on its way?

  • How to keep your veterinary bills down

  • Avoid these pet scams


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