Boating With Your Pets 101

Dog wearing life-vest on boat.
Safety should always be a main concern when boating with your pet. Check out these pet pictures.
Michael Cogliantry/Photonica/Getty Images

Pets make lovely travel companions, but did you know that they've also provided help to human­s on the high seas? Consider these super critters:

  • At least ­one World War II boat dog, a Great Dane on board a Royal Navy of South Africa ship, was trained to recognize enemy submarines [source: Dogs in the News].
  • Some hunting dogs, such as Newfoundlands, have been bred to dive into water and retrieve game. The Portuguese water dog even has webbed feet to improve swimming.
  • Dogs have been trained to rescue others. One smart border collie even rescued herself from a shipwreck by finding an air pocket inside the overturned ship and riding the wreck to shore [source: Dogs in the News].
  • Cats are a centuries-old standby on long voyages. Among other things, they help control the mouse and rat populations.

­Considering all that animals provide at sea, it shouldn't be a problem to take your pet on your next boating excursion, right?


Not quite. Think back to your first boat trip. Did it take you a while to get your sea legs? Your pet will also experience that. Did you slip on a wet deck? Your pet can do that as well. Did you fall overboard? Did you go a little crazy with all the new sights and sounds at the dock? Your pet will do all of that, and more.

In a nutshell, boating with your pet takes a lot of preparation. You'll need to invest in a few important supplies, and you'll need to spend some time getting you and your pet adjusted to the new situation. Once you all get your sea legs, boating can be immensely fulfilling.



Making Your Boat Pet-Friendly

Just as you pet-proofed your house and garage, you'll need to pet-proof your boat. Assume that your pet can -- and will -- get into trouble. You can't foresee everything, but you can train yourself to look at your boat as a cat or dog might. What smells interesting? What has fascinating moving parts? What looks or smells like food? Where's a good place to hide?

You'll need to install a litterbox for your cat. Attach it firmly, and use shock cord to keep it secure. Make sure to use clumping litter; the non-clumping kind can create big messes in choppy waters. However, you should keep the clumping litter well away from the bilge pump, which can get clogged [source: Drummond].


For short trips, you may not need to have a bathroom area for your dog. It's a good idea to have one on longer trips, however. You can use newspapers, or you can invest in a dog toilet. This is typically a small patch of synthetic grass attached to an absorbent, anti-microbial base [source: Animal Planet]. Your dog can sniff around just as it would on a walk. Needless to say, unless you want the phrase "poop deck" to take on a new, literal meaning, you'll still need to have a large supply of plastic baggies handy, as you would on a walk. Everyone on board will thank you.

You'll also need to make your pet boat-friendly. Give your pet a chance to get used to the boat. Weeks before the planned trip, start making visits to the boat -- either in the dock or on the trailer. Take a tour of the boat with your pet carefully leashed or harnessed. Let your pet sniff around, explore and get used to being on the water.

As you're getting your pets acclimated to the boat, you can also help them get used to their PFDs. Read on to learn all about them.



Pet Flotation Devices

You must have a pet flotation device (PFD) on hand w­hile boating with your pet. Each pet on board should have its own PFD. A PFD act as a life jacket and protects against hypothermia in case your pet is in cold water for a long time [source: Animal Planet].

Give your pet a chance to get used to wearing its PFD long before you board the boat. Let the pet wear it at home -- just for a few minutes at first. Increase the amount of time the pet wears the PFD as your departure date approaches. By the time you get to the dock, the PFD should seem familiar and unthreatening to your pet.


Many dogs like to swim. Make sure your dog has a chance to try swimming in its PFD before you leave the dock. Dogs should wear their PFDs at all times on board.

A cat's onboard behavior, on the other hand, is much harder to predict. Cats have deeply personal -- and therefore dramatically different -- responses to water. Some boaters say that their cats find lifejackets more hindrance than help [source: Drummond]. Before boating with your cat, answer these questions: How healthy is your cat? How well does it swim? How does it react to being in water? At a minimum, it's a good idea to have a PFD handy for your cat.

All pet flotation devices should have a handle on the back that rests between your pet's shoulder blades. That's so you can lift the animal out of the water if the need arises. Before getting into the boat, make sure you have practiced this maneuver a few times so you and your pet can get used to it. You want to make sure you're strong enough to rescue your pet if you need to. Your pet also needs to feel somewhat comfortable with being carried like this -- or comfortable enough not to squirm violently.

Finally, don't forget your own life vest. A big, wet dog is heavy enough to pull you into the water, and dog owners have been known to drown attempting to pull their pets aboard boats [source: Stacey].

Now that you've got your PFD, you're ready to head to the dock, right? Not so fast. Keep reading to find the other ways you must protect your dogs and cats.


Tips for Boating with Your Dog

Dogs usually like water. Som­e breeds, like Labrador retrievers, are traditional boat dogs. But that doesn't mean you can take them on boats without considering their safety and well-being.

Many dog owners assume their pets can swim, but a short doggy paddle in the pond is a far cry from swimming through strong currents in open waters. Your dog may not be strong enough or fast enough to swim alongside your boat. Leaner dogs may struggle more, since fat is more buoyant than muscle [source: NRS]. Short-legged breeds can also have problems swimming.


Some dogs can't wait to get into the water. That makes them great boating companions, but those waterlogged pups can also pose safety risks. Make sure your dog is securely leashed when you first get on board [source: Animal Planet]. The other end of the leash should be in your hand, not tied to the boat. The dog should know you're in control and that you're close by. Once you've made all the necessary preparations for departure from the dock, you can reward your dog with a swim.

What else do you need?

  • Food and water. Bring more water than you think you'll need, just in case. Chances are that you and your dog will be out in the sun more than either one of you is used to.
  • Newspapers or a doggie toilet. This clearly represents hours of training, frustration and mess. Your dog probably won't get it right every time. You already know your dog's warning signs, so accompany it as you would on a walk and clean up any messes.
  • Doggie snacks. You should always have treats handy to reward your dog's good behavior.
  • A carrier, harness or leash. Even at a dock, you have to comply with local leash laws.
  • Transportation. You'll need an easy way to help your dog get out of the water and on board -- either a dog ladder or a dog ramp. A dog ramp is a collapsible floating ramp that you attach to the deck; it creates a slope that mimics the shoreline. Older or overweight dogs may prefer ramps.
  • Proper paperwork. You'll need up-to-date papers and vaccination records, especially if you plan to cross state or national borders.

Boating with dogs can be a great time. Boating with cats? Now, that sounds crazy. But some people do it -- and some cats actually like it. Read all about it on the next page.


Tips for Boating with Your Cat

You've probably noticed on trips to the vet that cats don't enjoy being in motion they can't control. Cars are loud, they move unpredictably -- to a cat, anyway -- and they upset a feline's finely tuned sense of balance. The poor cat may spend the entire journey loudly announcing its displeasure.

Now, imagine that cat on a boat as it rises, falls and rocks with the shifting water. The cat may be even less comfortable, and you have no way of pulling over and reassuring it. That doesn't mean you can't go boating with your cat. Many people do, and many cats come to love the water. But you must commit yourself to helping your cat get used to the boat.


What do you need for a seafaring cat?

  • Your cat needs a litterbox so that it can relieve itself comfortably.
  • Your kitty will also need food and water -- it can't survive otherwise.
  • A scratching post is crucial, unless you like the thought of your ropes or boat furniture being clawed to ribbons. Remember that cats want resistance in scratching posts: It must be firmly attached to some part of the boat, or your cat won't use it [source: Drummond].
  • You'll also need a restraining device for your cat, such as a harness or a carrier. This is as much for the cat's safety in port as on the water. Cats may make a run for freedom as soon as they see solid ground. A port can be a dangerous place for a cat: Make sure the cat is safely restrained before you reach land [source: Drummond].
  • It's important that you devise a way for your cat to get back on the boat if it falls or jumps overboard. If your cat is strong and its front claws are intact, fishnet or a strip of carpet or burlap may be enough [sources: Dickinson, Drummond]. Hang this "ladder" over the side of the boat.
  • You must have up-to-date paperwork for your cat. If you're sailing between countries -- or even between states -- you need to have your cat's vaccination records on hand. Different states have different requirements for feline rabies vaccinations. Look up the laws before you go, and make sure you're compliant. Animals without vaccination records can be quarantined [source: Centers for Disease Control].

Now, how do you keep your kitty safe? Read on.


Pet Safety in Boats

Boating can be hazardous for pets. A few safety pointers to keep in mind:

  • Keep fishin­g gear contained and out of your pet's reach. Dogs and cats have been known to get hooked. If that happens, don't try to remove the hook yourself. Keep the dog calm. Do what you can to lighten or stabilize the hook's weight, then get to a vet as quickly as possible.
  • Keep an eye on your pet at all times, both on the water and on shore.
  • Even though boating is fun, don't forget to enforce discipline. Your dog should know it can only go in the water when you say so.
  • You must monitor the deck's temperature at all times. Cats and dogs can burn their paw pads. You might want to have protective paw shoes for your pets.
  • Remember that pets can lose their footing on a wet deck.
  • If your trip also involves camping, be vigilant about ticks. Pets are more vulnerable to Lyme disease than humans are.
  • Have plenty of fresh water handy. Cats and dogs may pant more when they're excited or nervous, and out in the sun they have an even greater risk of dehydration.
  • If you're planning to spend time on a beach, look for debris on the sand. Sharp objects, crabs and jellyfish can all be hazardous to a curious pet. Have a first aid kit with tweezers on hand.
  • Keep sunscreen (at least SPF 15) on hand. Pets can get sunburned, just as people can [source: NRS]. Consider buying a lightweight sun-proof jacket for breeds with very short hair. At the very least, make sure your pet's water dish is in a shaded area, so your pet has a reason to get out of the sun periodically.
  • Never tie your pet to your boat. If you encounter rough waters, or the boat turns over, your pet won't be able to swim to safety. Use a carrier or harness to confine your pet.
  • Know the signs of seasickness: They are disorientation, excessive salivation and apathy [source: Animal Planet].
  • Keep a fishing net handy to rescue pets that have fallen overboard.

Boating with pets takes patience and preparation. But when you and your best friend are out on the water, you'll be glad you did it.


To learn more, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
  • Animal Planet. "Petfinder: Boating." Animal Planet. (Accessed 1/18/09)
  • Centers for Disease Control. "Bringing an Animal into the United States." (Accessed 1/14/09)
  • Dickinson, Elaine. "Is Boating Going to the Dogs?" BOAT/U.S. 2000. (Accessed 1/19/09)
  • Discover Boating. "Boater Safety Education" (Accessed 1/19/09)
  • Dogs in the News. "Shipwrecked Dog Rescues Self." September 16, 2006. (Accessed 1/19/09)
  • Drummond, Pat. "Pat's Boating in Canada: Cruising with Pets." (Accessed 1/19/09)
  • NRS. "Boating Safety with Man's Best Friend." (Accessed 1/18/09)
  • Pet Place. "Driving Fluffy: Driving with Your Cat." (Accessed 1/18/09)
  • Stacey, Wayne. "Keep Your Dog Safe on Water." Boating World. January 2009. (Accessed 1/19/09)