Cruising with Pets

Cats and dogs adapt to onboard living quite well, but travelling on the water over long distances are another matter. But sometimes animals make better cruising companions than humans! They are often cheerful when you're scared to death, and help the crew with the inevitable boredom or loneliness on even the best cruises. When you are planning a cruise with any pet, there are a few common sense things to consider for all pets.

Take along your pet's favorite bed or blanket. Pack paper towels, a pet comb or bruch, snacks and toys. Dogs are happy with a stick or ball. All cats enjoy chasing a laser light - don't try this on deck! A springy wire with fobs on the end is a favorite. The cat got more exercise than I did.

Your pet's health can be adversely affected by life aboard and should be monitored carefully. Take along your normal pet food to avoid dietary upsets, particularly in older dogs and most cats. Have your pet examined by a veterinarian well before you leave. Get advice on vaccines and medications. Ask if your pet's microchip can be read by other countries. Get a copy of your pet's medical records in case of emergency. Some countries quarantine pets for health reasons. Regulations required for pets to enter other countries (U.S.A., Bahamas) should be researched well in advance.

Most places you visit require your pet be under your control at all times, and "poop'n'scoop' laws are common. Keep a collar and leash on board for any pet with legs or wings. For identification, engrave an ID tag on the collar with the boat name/port, and the owner's name and phone number if there's room. Also get a microchip inserted by a veterinarian under the pet's skip, which allows for indentification using a special scanner. (Check an existing microchip for operation and update your contact information!) A collar tag is a much faster way to get your escaped pet returned to you in a harbour or marina.

Falling overboard:
Lifejackets on cats will interfere with their agility and are not recommended. Some people put them on dogs, but the nuisance factor tends to reduce their use. I rarely saw them on pets on cruising boats. A harness is useful for more than using leashes, as you can grab it with hand or boat hook to lift the pet from the water. It's also useful to tie up your pet to keep it safe while docking.

If you pet gets used to the boat when it's moving, it may never fall overboard - but most do. I hung a strip of carpet over the side when we were anchored or moored for the cat to climb and always had a fish net handy, but neither were ever used. That was probably just luck, as our first ship's cat was a dare-devil and fell in the water many times, but always survived. The dog fell off the boat because he spent the day docked on the starboard side and when we returned to the marina, he automatically jumped off that side right into the water. The dog also walked off the end of a dock in the dark, but even my friends have done that. :)

Plan ahead how you will deal with pet poop if garbage disposal is not available. On a long-distance cruise, you may have to carry your garbage for weeks at a time. Disposing dog poop in the water can get you into "hot" water, especially in U.S. states with stringent environmental laws.

I hope your dog never runs into a skunk on your travels, but here's a quick fix. Mix 1/4 cup (60 ml) mouthwash and 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of dishwashing liquid together. Then wash the dog immediately with half of the solution, rinse, and repeat. Save tomato juice for a Bloody Caesar to calm your nerves!

Pet Crates:
Having your pet get used to a crate or carrier is the best way to keep them safe when things get scary. Reward them with treats any time they go into it and they will soon go their on their own to feel safe. Secure the crate in the center of the boat, out of traffic. Shock cords fastened to eye bolts can hold the crate securely in place, and be easily removed.

Getting Seasick:
Pets rarely do well offshore. Anything you can do to create a secure place in the center of the boat will help prevent seasickness (and fear). Do not feed any food a few hours before departing as food makes motion sickness more likely (water is ok). Make sure someone can tend to the pet to calm it down if it's distressed. Most cats, even after much practice, will still get seasick, but at least will warn you with a mournful catterwall just before they vomit. Cats instinctively hide if they get scared, often in the bow - the worst motion on the boat!

Pet is lost:
Arriving at new docks is a perfect opportunity for a pet to sneak off without being noticed. Secure the pet before you arrive will prevent the panic of losing it. You can buy a GPS collar for pets, so you can locate them more easily if they run away. At least keep photos of the pet handy so they can be put on posters. Our dog and both cats have all "jumped ship" at least once approaching a dock. We finally had to secure them in the cabin every single time without fail. I thought the dog was safe on the flying bridge while decending in a Rideau Canal lock - until the top of the wall reached him. Oops! Skipper's name had double meaning - he got out of every harness we ever tried and jumped off the boat at every opportunity. Staying at a dock for any period was especially difficult - he wanted to go ashore as soon as it got dark. I had trained him to come when I whistled, but it rarely worked at night until after an hour of freedom. Pepper (cat v2.0) had a different personality, and was rarely wanted to go ashore - unless we did. She loved lying under the hatch rain cover on the foredeck - knicknamed the 'cat house'.

Cruising with Cats


When preparing for a cruise, these basic steps should be taken before you bring your cat aboard for the first time. Always have fresh water available in an untippable bowl on a nonslip surface. Make sure the litter box is secured and ready to use (and keep it clean). Block off all openings the cat can disappear into - especially the engine compartment! Your cat will inspect the entire boat the first time aboard, and will find any you missed! (Coming back out may take some time, but don't worry - cats always show up at meal time.)


Litter box
makes it easier to travel with cats than dogs. Place it near the centre of motion of the boat, out of traffic, and in a corner if possible. Secure it so it doesn't move in waves but can be removed for cleaning. Shock cord with hooks fastened to eye bolts works well. A slip-proof mat underneath protects the sole. Clumping litter is the greatest invention, and saves on supplies and garbage. But be forewarned - it turns to concrete slurry if mixed with water. Sweep up spills right away unless you like "muck" in your bilge and bilge pump!

Preparing the boat:
It's worth a little planning and preparation before a trip where you will experience waves or ocean swell. First, make sure "hidey holes" are blocked (your cat will find them her time on the boat). Then secure her water bowl in the center of the boat on a non-slip mat or held with shock-cord. It's important to create a cave the cat feels safe and secure in. This should be as close to the center of the boat and as low as possible to minimize motion. On the floor away from feet is perfect. You can use a well-secured pet carrier or a "nest" in a shallow box out of the traffic. A special blanket or your tshirt may help. Keep her warm. The leeward settee surrounded by cushions is what "Skipper" preferred.

Don't declaw your cat! His life may depend on being able to climb out of the water! "Skipper" used up 7 of his 9 lives while cruising. Without claws he would have drowned several times over! Keep the nails trimmed, but don't cut them all at once. Start when kitty is young so clipping is tolerated.

Scratching post - mandatory for a cat, even for a short stay. We were lucky to have a mast "box" which we covered with carpet to "scratch" height - the carpet lasted 8 months before it was scratched through. It was fastened securely with carpet edging and screws. Boat cat #2 loved it too. If you'd rather not train kitty to scratch carpets, try natural hemp rope instead. Whatever you use, fasten it securely, or your cat won't use it. Train with treats and embed the carpet with catnip until it's the ONLY thing kitty scratches.

"There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast." ~ Unknown

Cruising with Dogs

When you are planning a cruise, you should prepare for Rover before he arrives. In addition to the basics above (collar, ID tag, chip, leash, water bowl), you need to consider bathroom breaks.

While it may seem to be an easy task to stop at a dock or row Rover ashore in the dinghy, that isn't always possible. Aside from private property issues, you could find yourself anchored in mangrove swamps where there simply isn't any terra firma upon which to set Rover. Anything you can do train him to use facilities on the boat will obviously be worthwhile - try a special washable dog mat and lots of patient training time. If you can't re-train your dog, and shorelines are private, then planned stops at marinas are an option.

Dogs must be licenced and leashed and be "picked up after" almost everywhere you will cruise to. A dog will go anywhere with you, but often does not adjust to parts of living aboard involving motion, heat, activity restriction and traction.

Should you take your Pet Cruising?

Your pet will alter the cruise, mostly for the better, but it will also impose some restrictions on destinations, heavy weather sailing, choices about going to marinas or anchoring out. Housekeeping chores will double. Some pets just don't adapt to travelling on any kind of boat or react badly to the stress of wild motion. On the other hand, a pet is better than valium for the crew!

A Paws and Claws pet study (Ipsos-Reid 2001) estimated that Canadians have 7 million cats and 5 million dogs. 98% of people talk to their pets. 70% allow their pets to sleep on their beds. What's really scary though is that nearly half the women surveyed said they relied more on their pets than on their spouse for affection!

In our travels we have met many happy dogs and owners, but most have had to deal with issues not found on land. We've observed the unwanted dip in the water immediately before bed time. Sometimes a steak that goes missing - in one case a whole barbecue with 6 chickens went over the side!

We see many more dogs on boats than we do cats in our home waters (1000 Islands). While cruising south, we saw a few dogs, but many more cats aboard boats.

Your pets will be required to react to many new situations, people and other animals. Once you make the decision it's pretty much cast in stone if you are going on a long distance cruise.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does your pet tolerate a harness and leash?
  2. Does your pet get over-excited in new situations?
  3. Does your pet get seasick easily?
  4. Is your pet old?
  5. What would you do if you had to depart and your pet went missing? The safety of the vessel and crew would have to come first!
  6. DOGS:
    • Does your dog respond to commands (come, stay, heel)?
    • Is your dog prone to barking, or nipping at strangers?
    • Will your dog use newspapers if there is no "land"?
  7. CATS:
    • Does your cat respond to commands (come, down, up)?
    • Is your cat a fussy eater?
    • Is your cat an "indoor" cat?

Notes about Cruising with Pets

Thousand Islands National Park

In winter, the raccoons actually travel across the ice, so Parks Canada sometimes resorts to a trap-vaccinate-release program to prevent the spread of rabies. Warn your kids not to touch traps (baited with sardines) and keep your pets away from them. Animals are not allowed in parks unless on a leash, and "Poop'n'scoop" laws apply everywhere.

Protect your Pet from Rabies

If your pet goes boating with you in waters near the U.S. border, always carry a vaccination certificate for rabies, dated within the last year - even if you do not plan to cross the border. Keep your pets on a leash, and teach children not to touch animals or pets they don’t know.

The St. Lawrence River wasn't able to stop raccoon rabies from spreading north into Ontario. New York state rabies exposures increased tenfold between 1990 and 2000. "If the little suckers can rent a boat, they'll be here", joked the town clerk in Landsdowne, near the Ivy Lea bridge. In 2020, two bats tested positive for rabies in Eastern Ontario. Contact the Eastern Ontario Health Unit for recent updates.

United States

A rabies certificate less than a year old must carried for Canadian pets travelling into the U.S.A. Boaters should also check for any new quarantine requirements or other certificates required before entering the United States with animals. As a general rule, there are no restrictions on bringing cats into the U.S. (Hawaii and Guam have quarantine requirements). While a rabies certificate is not usually required, cats must be in apparent good health. Further examination by a licenced veterinarian may be required at the owner's expense. Regular vet exams and recent vaccination certificates will make border crossings easier. While you're there, get your pet fitted with a microchip for identification.


Some years ago, travel to the Bahamas required getting papers signed by a veterinarian within a few days of departure from the U.S. Since cruising folk have the problem of waiting for the right weather to cross the Gulf Stream, some veterinarian leaves the date blank so you can fill it in before arriving at Bahamian customs. This has probably changed, so be sure to check all regulations for you and your pets.

Our Experience with Pets on Boats

We have been cruising on boats with our pets for almost thirty years and have actually enjoyed having our dog and two cats with us on trips - on our sailboat for about twenty years and on our two powerboats prior to that. We cruised Ontario's canal systems, Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands. We lived aboard and cruised south from Ontario to the Florida Keys with cat "Skipper" - I have to admit he used up 7 of his 9 lives, but he made it back. We also sailed in the Bahamas and BVIs without pets - and rarely saw pets aboard other boats offshore.

We have been fortunate - all our pets survived to old age. We never lost a pet from the boat, at least not longer than a day! Not all our friends have been so lucky. Friends' two cats left during the first night aboard, as they both decided that a sailor's life was not for them. Sadly, our friends could not stay to look for them as they were late heading south. Other friends had a dog that drowned while they were sleeping, tied to a dock in the Thousand Islands. Yet other boaters got their cat back from a notice posted on the island that gave their boat name - which resulted in a VHF radio call. The two boats met in the middle of the St. Lawrence and the wandering cat was passed over to his happy owners! It pays to put contact information and boat name on a pet's collar too!

Our cocker spaniel, Saki, primarily cruised with us on powerboats, but was a terrible boater. Happiest with the motor running, he would simply go to sleep. He managed to get into lots of trouble when the boat was docked, and could not be left alone (howling). We finally found a good kennel for trips where we planned to shop or eat ashore.

Our two cats Skipper and Pepper have both been good sailors. The longest tenure on any cruise was put in by Skipper who lived aboard with us for 15 months as we druised south and back. Being a kitten when he moved aboard, he got into everything, jumped off the boat at every opportunity and fell in the water several times before we even headed south. Although a good swimmer, he also became more aggressive and territorial. Fortunately he returned to normal within a year of becoming a land lubber again. Pepper our second ship's cat was much more placid and became queen of the St. Lawrence. Photos of Pepper on board


Dogs believe they are human. Cats believe they are God.

Lettin' the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin' it back in.

There is no snooze button on a cat who wants breakfast.

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea." - Robert A. Heinlein

"As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat." - Ellen Perry Berkeley

"Dogs come when they are called; cats take a message and get back to you." --Mary Bly

You call your cat "sweet-pea" - everyone else calls it "the cat from h*ll".

"In order to keep a true perspective of one's importance, everyone should have a dog that will worship him and a cat that will ignore him." -- Dereke Bruce

Cat's motto: No matter what you've done wrong, always try to make it look like the dog did it.

Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.

You call it the nav table - kitty knows it as "the bowling alley." (William J.Thomas)

That WAS your favourite place to sit. Move on. (William J.Thomas)

You say,"Get down!" Your pet hears "Mboep bhon!"

A "printable" page of this collection.


Hilarious cat videos

This is Simon's Cat trying to wake him for breakfast.
If you don't laugh, you never owned a cat.

Kitten playing in tub of water