Pets on Board

      My partner, our Portuguese Water Dog (all 60 pounds of him!) named Tiburon, my cat called Po, and I have lived aboard our floating home, a 36 foot sailboat, at Liberty Landing Marina across the Hudson River from Manhattanís World Trade Center for nearly two years. We have undertaken many 4-5 day sailing trips during this time and have recently returned from a wonderful two month cruise which started in New York Harbor and found us in the Bahamas for Christmas. Whether we are out cruising or living at the dock, our pets are horribly spoiled and tend to rule the roost.

      Two of the first questions people generally ask me when my lifestyle comes up in conversation is, " Whatís it like to live on a boat, especially with a dog and a cat? " and " How do the animals deal with it? " Boy, how do you sum-up four intertwined lives into an appropriate sound bite?" When Iím feeling uncommunicative, which isnít often, Iíll reply in one-word answers like, "challenging" to the former question and "fine" to the latter. But Iím ordinarily more verbose, as you will see, and usually subject the unsuspecting inquisitor to anecdotes similar to thisÖ

      The other day my partner, RT, awakes in the wee hours, 4 am to be exact, because he is suffering from an allergy attack. He decides to go to work where he will find relief in the filtered air; he has "flex time". So after he takes the half-asleep dog down the dock to the edge of the grass to relieve himself, RT leaves for work. Tiburon climbs up onto the bed with me and we fall back asleep, apparently quite soundly, because the torrent of rain unleashed by the Powers-That-Be fails to disturb me. Since I had left the hatch cover over the bed partially opened, when I finally awake, itís to a soggy dog and a soaked bed. Apparently our water dog is not the slightest bit perturbed about getting rain on his hair. I, on the other hand, am not happy. I drag the bedding and the cushions outside into the now sunny cockpit and drape them over the wheel, the boom, and the lifelines. The boat looks like the marine equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillyís truck upon their arrival in California. I feed the dog, the cat and myself, take a shower, get dressed for work, and take Tiburon off the dock one more time to "do his business."

      Because I'm feeling a little guilty about working too many hours at the lab and not helping out enough around the boat, I decide to put the first coat of stain onto the companionway stairs, which RT had already prepped, before I leave for work. Dutifully I put Tiburon into the caged-off area in the peak, forward from the head, where he normally hangs out until RT returns sometime between noon and 3 pm, so that he cannot step onto the newly stained steps and track the sticky stuff all over the boat. I quietly begin to paint, not wanting Tiburon to wake up and realize that Iím still home while heís trapped in the peak; that would not go over well. My cat, Po, has draped himself over the companionway and is watching my brush work with interest. This is good- I can keep an eye on him. I become absorbed in my work. I nearly finish the steps, feeling quite proud of myself because the stain is spreading beautifully without any brush marks and I havenít spilled a single drop, when I hear a tinny sounding crash coming from the aft deck, or maybe in the cockpit behind the wet bedding. I look up to see that Po is missing- he must have gotten bored and wandered off. I deduce that the sound might have been from Po knocking something over. I feel a bit irritated because Iím afraid that the noise has gotten the dogís attention and now he will figure out that Iím still home. But I finish the steps in peace and rewrap the brush so it wonít dry out and be ruined. Then I carefully climb into the cockpit without touching the stairs to investigate the noise. At first I see nothing amiss, just Po walking towards me. He wants to go below deck. I scoop him up in order to hoist him safely over the wet steps when much to my surprise and horror I discover that Poís butt is completely soaked in stain. How in the heck could Po have come into contact with that much stain? Then it dawns on me- the lid! I had taken the lid off the stain and set it in the cockpit. Po must have sat directly on top of the lid. I race to the aft deck and see the lid, stain side down resting on RTís newly laid treadmaster. Oh, #$!@*%! Apparently the lid stuck to Poís butt when he sat on it and then didnít fall off until he jumped up onto the aft deck. Fortunately the stain was still wet and the treadmaster slick enough that I was able to clean most of it off the deck one-handed, while clutching the squirming Po under my other arm. Now how to get the stain off the cat? First I try just wiping it off with a rag. No good, itís too sticky. I have no choice but to try washing it off, which means going into the head with Tiburon. He is predictably pissed off when he sees me, not only still home, but "playing" with the cat! Thereís quite a bit a sibling rivalry between these two. Tiburon starts barking and whining, which scares the cat who has also just realized heís about to go under the shower. Iím yelling at the dog to be quiet. He is whining loudly and the cat is hissing at the shower and clawing my arms while I begin to massage shampoo into his butt. Po starts to wail like Iím trying to kill him. At least this fascinates the dog and he becomes quiet. Standing attentively behind his bars, head cocked at a comical angle, I can practically hear him snicker at the catís misfortune. The shampoo has zero effect on the stain. Last option. I get out the scissors and cut off all the hair beginning with the middle of Poís tail and continuing all the way down to the back of his knees. Po decides he is not going to sit still for any more abuse this morning. His wet body wriggles away from me. Flashing his badly buzzed-cut hiney, bespeckled with stain and the shampoo I was unable to remove, he heads straight for the wet stairs. I hold my breath, but he clears them all and leaps off the boat onto the dock. I give up and let him go. Iím wet. My shirt is smeared with stain and claw-induced blood, and Iím an hour late leaving for work. The next time I feel guilty for not contributing to the boat work, I vow, Iíll just sew some canvas!"

      Another FAQ, " Is it unfair to your pets to live in such a small, confined space? Or phrased another way, " Do they get enough exercise? " Of course, I could launch into my spiel regarding Wall street-types leaving their dogs crated in apartments for 8-9 hours, five days a week, and then only taking the animals out to the street for a few minutes on a leash to relieve themselves. But I wonít.

      No, I donít think that itís unfair to keep pets on board- as long as you are willing to expend the effort to keep them entertained, healthy, and exercised. But then, why would you have a pet if youíre not interested in their well-being along with their companionship? Sadly, I have heard of a few cases in which people kept dogs on their boats merely as a source of theft prevention. The needs of those animals were mainly neglected, but because the owners were not breaking any laws, nothing could be done about it. Keep in mind that this type of human behavior is not unique to marine living. But for the majority of the people living aboard with their the pets, the enhanced interaction produced from living in a small space is a plus, rather than a minus. Generally the animals tend to learn and respect your and their limitations more quickly than their land-based counterparts. In addition, by the very virtue (and occasionally vice!) that your furry friends remain somewhat underfoot, they, and you manage to get extra loviní and attention.

      No, I donít think that itís unfair to keep pets on board- as long as you are willing to expend the effort to keep them entertained, healthy, and exercised. But then, why would you have a pet if youíre not interested in their well-being along with their companionship? Sadly, I have heard of a few cases in which people kept dogs on their boats merely as a source of theft prevention. The needs of those animals were mainly neglected, but because the owners were not breaking any laws, nothing could be done about it. Keep in mind that this type of human behavior is not unique to marine living. But for the majority of the people living aboard with their the pets, the enhanced interaction produced from living in a small space is a plus, rather than a minus. Generally the animals tend to learn and respect your and their limitations more quickly than their land-based counterparts. In addition, by the very virtue (and occasionally vice!) that your furry friends remain somewhat underfoot, they, and you manage to get extra loviní and attention.

      Weíre lucky. Our boat has been docked in a state park, giving us acres of land in which to run and play with Tiburon. Also there are several friendly dogs in the marina that either live here or visit on a regular basis, offering plenty of opportunity for socialization- like 8-10 hours of uninterrupted play on the weekends! In addition, Tiburon loves to swim. We donít let him swim in New York Harbor, for obvious reasons. But during the warm months we sail to Sandy Hook for the weekends to let Tiburon swim.

      However, on long ocean passages, or during a stretch of bad winter weather, lack of exercise does become an issue for Tiburon. Portuguese Water Dogs are an extremely active, hard-working breed, and ours is still a pup, being barely over 1 year old. So we keep plenty of dog toys- or as I call them, distracters- aboard for these confined days. Some distracters Tiburon plays with alone (such as stuffed animals or impenetrable dental-type bones), while others are interactive with his humans, like rope or other pull-type toys. He works off some frustration with these.

      In addition, we intersperse toy-playing with boat-training. Portuguese Water Dogs were originally bred to work on fishing boats in Portugal. They were put to useful tasks, such as barking if anyone fell overboard, swimming messages between boats, diving off the boat down to a depth of about 15 feet and actually herding straying fish into the nets (really!). So far Tiburon has been getting his sea legs and learning how to jump into the dinghy drawn alongside the boat while she rocks at anchor, to climb back onto the boat, to sit or stand calmly in the bow of the dinghy underway, to jump out of the dinghy and swim either along side it or to shore on command, and of course, to climb aboard the dinghy from the water. Other useful boat-training he is receiving is to stay on the boat when told to do so, to wear his Defender Life Jacket, and to NOT chew on any lines. One command we made-up that has been beneficial when underway we call "Postal". An example of how the command works is as follows. Iím busy at the helm and RT is at the mast preparing to raise the mainsíl. Once again, the capín has forgotten to take the winch handle with him. I realize this and call Tiburon to me. I hold the winch handle out towards Tiburon and say, "Postal". Tiburon takes the winch handle in his mouth and carries it to the capín who takes the handle and lavishes the dog with praise. Then RT raises the mainsíl, holds the winch handle back out to Tiburon, and repeats the command. Tiburon returns the handle to me. So far this has worked about 60% of the time. Often the winch handle gets caught in the netting strung along the lifelines. Once it becomes entangled, Tiburon will usually give up and arrive sans handle.

      "One thing we didnít teach Tiburon that appears to be "in his blood" is to bark at what he considers strange objects in the water. This has been quite beneficial to us. For example, late one night we were winding our way through the green and red flashing buoys into an anchorage. We had been out for several days and were very tired. Suddenly Tiburon started barking insistently while looking over the starboard side, just off the bow. I stared into the darkness, seeing nothing at first. But then my tired eyes focused on an unmarked buoy I was very near to hitting. Now we have Tiburon up on the foredeck whenever we come into an unfamiliar anchorage at night.

      "Po, my cat, requires less exercise, than Tiburon, but still he needs to play. So I stock plenty of his favorite toys and, together, we have an extended play session at least twice a day. Since cats are so much wiser than dogs, there is no need for Po to undergo obedience or boat training!

      An important question to consider is, " What special precautions must be taken for pet safety and comfort while living aboard? " Although keeping up with the exercise demands of our pets required only a little ingenuity, their comfort, and especially their safety, took more effort.

      Po likes to "stroll the deck" when weíre underway. He often turns my 37-year-old hairs from blonde to gray when he decides to check out the bow wave, or dash to his sandbox at the worst possible times- like during gales or when weíre slogging through heavy rolling seas. I keep his sandbox (sporting a custom-made, tight-fitting Sunbrella (a water-, wind-, and mold-resistant canvas) cover over the plastic top to keep out the elements) close to the safety of the cockpit, on the aft deck wedged between the man overboard ring and the life raft. Even in 50 knots of wind that box hasnít moved an inch. Although Iíve seen Po launched into midair while attempting to reach his box on an ill-timed dash, or sprayed as he slinks along the foredeck in less than perfect conditions, he remains unfazed. Being a nocturnal animal, however, Po spends most of the day sailing in his dedicated, polar fleece-lined cut-out in the cockpit. The entrance to his cut-out is curtained by a piece of white Sunbrella that I sewed and top-snapped to protect him from wind, rain, and sun. The signal for Po to emerge from cut-out appears to be when itís pitch black outside, just as anchoring is getting hairy. At these times, Iím extremely grateful for the netting strung along the lifelines surrounding the perimeter of the boat. This netting also preserves my sanity when Tiburon decides to watch for dolphins on the bow in 4 foot seas. In addition, it comes in handy for forcing the dog to remain on the boat when heís determined to jump onto the fuel dock after spending a couple of "boring" (his apparent perspective!) days at sea.

      Although, similar to Tiburon, Po has a "CrewSaver" life jacket with a water-activated strobe light attached, he is remiss when it comes to actually wearing it. I donít force the issue because even though I tried to get him comfortable with the jacket (like all the books said) by wearing it for only a few minutes a day, everyday, and then extending that time up to an hour a day, he never adapted. He would remain frozen in a crouch, one inch off the cabin sole, wherever I had placed him with his eyes narrowed to such little slits I was sure he couldnít see a thing. Then suddenly, apparently in an attempt to dislodge the jacket, he would scrunch up his face, close his eyes and burst into a frenzied low-rider scurry, backwards! He would even attempt to move onto the settee in this bizarre fashion, all the while looking every bit like a cartoon character viewed in fast reverse. It seemed his smooth cortex had lost what little innate ability it possessed to reason and I was fearful heíd back his way over the side of the boat if I forced him to wear the jacket. OK, OK, then there is this one tiny mistake that I made which might contribute, if however slightly, to his fear of the jacket. When we ( MY cat and I) first moved aboard my partnerís boat, I was terrorized my little hitherto apartment-bound companion would fall or purposefully leap into the water, not knowing what it was or how to swim. I knew of another liveaboard couple who had recently gotten a kitten and began itís marine education by gently placing her over the side of the boat into the water next to a thickly braided line which was attached in the cockpit at both ends, itís middle curving gracefully down into the water. The kitten immediately swam the few strokes to the line and then easily climbed it back into the cockpit. Every day they would place the kitten in the water a little further from the line, until finally they were literally tossing her over the side anywhere along the boat and she knew to swim to the line. Well, I decided to follow their example, with a couple of slight alterations. First, I worked all of one day to make this beautiful ladder to hang over the side. It was constructed of bright yellow nylon webbing for stairs and a brilliant white canvas backing for easy visibility. It was weighted at the bottom with the lead sinkers used on fishing lines. I was quite proud of this cleverly designed ladder. The next sunny day, I put Poís life jacket on him and attached the main halyard to itís handle so that I could quickly pull Po back onto the boat should he be unable to swim to the ladder, for whatever reason. As an added precaution, I asked RT to stand beside us, ready with the fish net to scoop up Po at the slightest sign of trouble. (Yeah, Iím a little overprotective.) So with my heart in my throat, I lowered Po over the side of the boat via the halyard. His little body was rigid with fear, but as he entered the water he seemed to relax. Perhaps his fear had arisen from being suspended in midair by some contraption he could not see. For a moment, he didnít move. His hair flared out beside him and the life jacket kept him afloat. Then, slowly at first, but gaining speed as he mastered the technique, Po swam. Directly away from the ladder and the boat! I carefully used the attached halyard to guide him towards the ladder. Po spied the ladder and tried to climb onto it. But it moved out of reach every time he made a swipe for it with his extended claws. I couldnít take the torture anymore, and so I used the attached halyard to pull him onto the first nylon webbed stair of the ladder. Alas, the next step, only 6 inches away, was completely out of his reach! And as he stood with all of his water-logged weight on the first step, the sides of my wonderful ladder collapsed inward rendering the remainder of the steps completely useless. Admitting defeat I pulled him up with the halyard. RT, with a big smile on his less-than-cat-loviní-face returned the fish net to itís holder on the aft deck. Unfortunately Po appeared less shaken by the experience than I expected him to be. That caused me grave concern. Maybe Po hadnít learned the important lesson that I wanted him to know - the water is NOT a fun place and should be avoided. So I decided to lower him over the side again, thinking that Iíd just let him swim around a bit more and then Iíd pull him to safety with the halyard. Much to my dismay, about 2 feet from the waterís surface, Po suddenly slipped free of the life jacket, plunged into the water, and began to sink! Apparently the new nylon webbing on the life jacket which encircles the body of your pet stretches the first time it gets wet and needs to be cinched tighter for the second water entry. Iíd like to relate that I calmly asked RT to grab the net and retrieve my cat. But some would say thatís not how it went down. Iíve been told that I lost my cool and began shouting at the top of my lungs- where the !@*$ was RT, and to get the #@!%$! Net now, and rescue my poor cat. RT rushed to our aid and unceremoniously scooped Po from the briny deep, depositing the sopping wet animal on deck. Surprisingly, both the cat and RT later forgave me. Although Po refuses to wear his jacket, he did emerge with a healthy respect for the water. Unfortunately, I canít seem to conjure up the fortitude to continue his swimming lessons. I hope that Po doesnít pay dearly for this later.

      I would like to stress that I do think it very wise to keep your pet in a life jacket while underway. If the animal does fall overboard, the bright color will make it easier to spot him, the jacket will help keep him afloat longer and the handle will dramatically aid in retrieval.

      One issue that many dogs have difficulty with is, " Where does the dog relieve himself when youíre on a long passage? " When Tiburon was a pup, he was too small to get off the boat by himself. So whenever he had to "do his business", weíd just take him out on deck. He was never scolded for using any part of the deck as his toilet and consequently has never been wary of defecating or urinating while on the boat. It quickly becomes tiresome chasing brown piles and yellow spots around the deck, and if we did not clean them up immediately, well, the boat looks as though itís been bombed by some pretty weird birds! So the next step in his training was to teach him to do his business on a piece of non-porous Astroturf located at the stern of the boat. We embedded a grommet in one corner of the Astroturf and attached a line. When weíre far out to sea, we just toss the Ďturf overboard, let in drag for a few minutes until itís clean, and then haul it up with the line. Near shore we toss the soiled Ďturf into a big garbage bag and set out a clean one. We dispose of the garbage bag appropriately when we pull into a port.

      Another useful plan is to feed both the dog and the cat a dry food which is recommended by veterinarians, not only for better general health but also because it produces lower volume, solid stools that are less smelly than those formed after canned food. These foods may be more expensive, but the easier clean-up is worth it to us.

      "Have your pets ever gotten seasick?" is another FAQ, and the answer is yes! The first two days that Po was out sailing I made the mistake of forcing him to stay below decks while we were bashing away to weather. Iíd read several articles that recommended forcing pets to stay below in rough weather so that they donít get washed overboard. Understandably sound advice. Well, my poor little cat was puking all over himself and was so wiped out that he couldnít even get out of the blanket I wrapped him in. Thereafter I have allowed Po to choose where he wishes to be, and that is generally in his cut-out in the cockpit. As I already said, the Sunbrella curtain that I snap over the entrance keeps Po safe and dry. (The snaps are only across the top so that Po can always get out; the curtain hangs below the edge of the cut-out, long enough that any water coming from the cockpit canít get inside.) Po has never been seasick again, and heís been in some rough seas that had me tossing a few cookies to Neptune.

      Tiburon is a different story. Iíve read that puppies are prone to seasickness, but they tend to outgrow it. Tiburon has gotten sick a couple of times after he endured less-than-favorable conditions over many hours, although heís never looked as pathetic as Po did those two days. Tiburon will usually curl up on a seat in the cockpit, under the dodger, out of the elements, and fall asleep after he pukes. As soon as conditions improve, he quickly bounces back. The one thing we watch carefully is his water intake. He will not drink as much when we sail in rough conditions and his urine becomes very concentrated. This might indicate dehydration and also contribute to his mal de mar. So we try to entice him to drink small amounts often and add water to his food. One product that Iíve heard otherís have given their dogs is a carbonated fruit drink called "Smooth Sailing". It is formulated specifically to combat seasickness in humans. RT said heís tasted it before and itís "sickly sweet". I would likely dilute it with water before I tried giving it to a dog.

      Although I did touched upon several issues regarding cruising with your pets, there are other important considerations of which cruisers specifically need to be aware - such as: either having enough of the animalís favorite foods, grooming supplies, toys, and treats aboard or knowing where you can restock; maintaining a First Aid kit and having emergency treatment manuals for your pets, as well as a supply of medications and flea and tick remedies; know how to keep your pet cool in tropical climates; know whether the countries you plan to visit require your pet to be quarantined, which vaccinations are necessary and precisely when these should inoculations be given prior to departure. Allot an appropriate amount of time for all the necessary paperwork to be completed. Donít be surprised. Write to the consulates of each country you plan to visit months in advance of your departure date. Inquire about their regulations regarding the transportation of your pet into their country, and request the appropriate forms. As fair warning, it took about six weeks and two separate visits to veterinarians (a signed and dated health certificate is required 48 hours before entry) from the initial consulate queries for us to obtain clearance for Po and Tiburon to legally enter the Bahamas. Some countries, such as England, have a no-getting-around-it six month pet quarantine requirement!

      As a final concern, consider the cruising kitty. Tiburon and Po definitely took a toll on our two month Bahamas-trip kitty. From the initial lay-out of consumable supplies, vaccinations, current health certificates, and importation fees, to difficulties encountered en route (fleas were especially prevalent in Florida, ticks abound along the entire east coast, and Poís chronically bad gums forced him into the vetís office for dental cleaning immediately upon our return), we spent in excess of $500.

      If you liveaboard and/or are planning on cruising, and donít currently have a pet, think about some of the issues raised here. Give careful consideration to the quality of life you can provide. Most pet owners we have encountered in our cruising opted for a cat rather than a dog. The few dogs we saw were of the smaller, rather than larger breeds. I donít regret our decision to have both a cat and a somewhat large dog because I love them both dearly, and they have given me a great deal of pleasure. Admittedly, life would have been a lot easier without all the extra hassles. As an alternative to many of the problems encountered in possessing a furry animal, you might consider my partnerís favored choice for a liveaboard pet, a lizard. He says: lizards can subsist on the flies they catch, simultaneously saving you money and ridding the boat of a pest; they donít need vaccinations; they have no special toilet considerations; they donít complain about bad weather or rough seas; they enjoy long passages; and best of all, you can always eat them if youíve under-provisioned!

      Thressa Smith aboard s/v Emeline


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From connie ball on Thursday, May 25, 2000 at 22:26:24

Is there anything to keep your cat from getting seasick?

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From Roz Smith on Friday, June 25, 1999 at 12:06:34

Enjoyed these stories immensely - I have a badly behaved toy poodle who would demolish a boat if he didn't get the attention he felt he deserved at every given moment. Good piece of writing. RS

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