Everything you need to know about traveling with animals (and kids)

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By Christopher Elliott

My kids are pet magnets when we’re on the road. They’re constantly adopting dogs and cats and other animals we encounter in our vacation rentals.

If you don’t know what that’s like, you’re probably one of the millions of Americans who vacation with their pets. You bring your own animal companions, you brave souls. A recent poll of pet owners found that 27 percent are planning one or two trips with their pets; 37 percent are planning three to five getaways; and 31 percent plan to travel with their pet six or more times this year.

Either way, we need to talk.

Traveling with animals is one of the great unexplored topics in travel journalism. That’s because most of the stories begin — and end — with a discussion of whether pets, and specifically “comfort” animals belong on a plane, or not. Fascinating topic, but let’s go in a different direction.

This is a story about the animals you meet while on your vacation. Other people’s pets can be unpredictable, even dangerous. And even if that stray dog seems to be a perfect companion that you might want to take home with you, it’s unlikely to have a happy outcome. My advice? When it comes to meeting Fluffy or Rover on the road, feel free to look and take pictures, but don’t get too friendly.

Here's the Rental Cat at our place in Fort Collins, Colo.
Here’s Rental Cat at our place in Fort Collins, Colo.

Other people’s pets — or dangerous animals?

Last year, when we visited Fort Collins, Colo., we stayed in a three-bedroom corporate rental. All of our neighbors were people who, like us, were between homes. It was summer and we occasionally left our front door open to let a breeze in.

One afternoon while I was working on a story, I looked up and saw a grey tabby just as she was about to jump into my lap. I let her, because I am a cat person. She made herself comfortable, demanded petting, and then jumped off the sofa and disappeared. The cat returned the next day and the next. My kids got friendly with her, too, and gave her a name: Rental Cat.

But whose cat was it? I discovered the answer a short while later, when I introduced myself to the neighbors. Yes, it was their cat, but for some reason, she preferred our condo. I think it may have had something to do with the fact that the family had a new baby, who was a little loud. Our home, by comparison, was quiet. (Related: No ‘pet-friendly’ rooms at the inn.)

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We were lucky. Rental Cat was friendly and good around kids. We have also visited places with not-so-friendly animals. In Santa Fe, N.M., a neighborhood cat tried to swat me when I reached for it. My daughter is afraid of dogs, which they seem to sense. When a neighborhood dog sees her, he barrels towards her, barking loudly. If this were a movie, my daughter would be the villainous shapeshifting creature that only dogs can detect.

Fortunately, it’s not a movie.

I’ve told the kids that when it comes to other people’s pets, they should think of it as a museum: look, but don’t touch. I have the bites and claw marks to prove it.

Meeting pets on vacation
Iden Elliott and his new friend in Sand Point, Idaho.

“Daddy, can we take it home?”

The most dangerous animal is not the one that tries to attack you (although that’s pretty dangerous). It’s the one that is so friendly and cute that you want to take it home with you. Nothing melts a parent’s heart quicker than a young child saying, “Can we take her home with us?”

I’m writing this from seat 11A on a Hawaiian Airlines flight back to Phoenix. Hawaii has some of the most rigid pet quarantine laws in the world. Even though they wouldn’t really affect us when we returned to the mainland, they offered enough cover for avoiding a pet-adoption argument.

We have met so many animals that we wanted to adopt, I’ve lost count. An adorable Bengal cat in Spokane, Wash. Another tabby in South Dakota. A golden retriever in Arizona. The world is filled with animals that would make a perfect fifth member of the family.

But the kids know that their life is on the road. We couldn’t even bring our three beloved cats with us when we left Florida two years ago. So they know it’s impossible. And yet every time we meet a friendly furball, we want to take it back to our home base in Prescott. Maybe that’s human nature?

Can a feral cat count as "traveling with pets"?
Our furry buddy Tree Cat in Spokane, Wash. We encountered him on every walk through town and he tried to follow us home.

Keeping a polite distance

If you love animals as my kids and I do, you may find it difficult to ignore a friendly pet when you’re traveling. But you can do a few things to minimize the highs and lows of finding the perfect pet and then having to leave it. (What you need to know about summer travel.)

What happens here stays here. Explain to your family that any animal encounters they may have are part of their vacation memories and should stay there. It’s just a rule, don’t question it.

Stay away from pet stores and farms. That’s where you’re most likely to find a cutie that you just have to adopt. (Related: What staying home can teach you about a vacation.)

Avoid unconventional accommodations. Most hotels are pet-free, but bed and breakfasts, small inns and farm-stays may put you in close proximity with animals. Don’t go there unless you are prepared to deal with the irresistible cuteness of a litter of kittens and an innkeeper who asks your kids, “Want one?”

Actually, if this is the biggest problem you have with animals on your next vacation, consider yourself lucky. If you haven’t already checked YouTube, there’s a fine collection of clueless tourists trying to pat bears, moose and bison on their family adventure. Not all of them end well.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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