Dogs—and even cats!—have been known to keep sailors company on the open water. I’ve been the proud parent of both and love having their companionship with me whenever I get the chance.
But before you embark on any kind of excursion with your pet, there are some important steps you need to take into consideration in order to keep them safe.
1. Getting Your Pet Acclimated
First, you’ll want to introduce your pet to the boat before going out.
Whether you have a new pup or a new boat, it’s important to get your pet acclimated. Be sure to do so while the boat is still tied and docked to allow them to become comfortable with their footing.
Another step to get them acclimated is to start up the engine. Repeat this a few times to get them familiar with the noise. To them, it sounds a lot like a big nasty growl and a warning to stay away. Let them know it’s alright and reward them with petting.
I have to admit this is as far as I could get with my cats, Dublin and Coleman. While they don’t mind the water and sway of the dock and boat’s motion, they were not having it with a loud engine. My suggestion would be to acclimate them when they’re very young. Like hold-in-your-hand young.
2. Picking a Life Jacket
Before even taking your pet near water, be certain they can swim.
Some dog breeds are strong swimmers; others not so much. But even if you have yourself a fearless water dog, bad weather conditions and strong currents could potentially knock them off their feet or pull them under. And even the best swimmers can get tired out. So, no matter what, you should give your pet some extra protection.
Choose a life jacket with a handle so that you can help lift them out of the water. Grabbing by the collar is never safe. And be sure the color is bright and noticeable from a distance. If it has reflectors, even better.
There are many decent brands out there manufacturing pet life jackets but the company Outward Hound carries one with great reviews.
Order the right size
Check to make sure the size fits comfortably before you go out. You want it to be snug—especially if they have a thick coat that will only get thinner when wet. Choose small and extra-small sizes for cats and be sure they can’t slip out (otherwise known as Dublin’s Houdini-style).
Break them into it
Break them into the jacket at home and get them used to it before going out.
Cat owners especially know felines have the tendency to flop over in protest. I’ve seen this happen with smaller dogs also. As a cat owner, trust me—this might happen the first few times, but they should eventually get used to its bulk and walk on their own.
3. Having an Overboard Plan
Hopefully by now your pet is trained and acknowledges basic commands. You want them to listen when you tell them “sit” or “stay.” Why? Because if they’re jumping in excitement and not obeying, they could propel themselves overboard. Or even knock someone else overboard.
However, accidents do happen. Unexpectedly hitting a large enough wave could lift a small pet off the ground and over the low railing. Should this happen, you should already have an overboard plan prepared:
- Remain calm and shut off the engine
- Go to a side of the boat to call them
- If time, drop in a ladder
Practice this with your family a few times, without throwing your pet overboard of course. Let your pet take a casual dip and teach them which side of the boat to swim to. Over time, they will remember.
Plus, this practice is important in teaching them not to panic as well. Even with a life jacket on, they will drop below the water’s surface and can come up a bit disoriented.
4. Making the First Ride Comfortable
Go at a much slower speed than you usually would on your pet’s first ride.
Don’t go skiing or tubing; some pets become more active and concerned for the family member you’re pulling behind. Not to mention it takes your own eyes off your pet.
Just make that first ride a short and light cruise, slowly increasing the rides to be progressively longer. And as a positive reinforcement, reward them with petting or treats afterward.
If you find they just aren’t comfortable and they’re fearful of the water, then leave them at home. There’s no need to cause extra stress. Obviously—although there’s always the exception—most cats will fall under this category.
Also, conditioning your pet on the first ride is key to preventing seasickness. Which brings us to our next step.
5. Treating Seasickness and First Aid
Though pontoons have better stabilization than many other boats, the sway of the water, especially large ocean waves, can make your pet nervous and even seasick. And when you are on the water, pay attention to certain warning signs such as yawning, whining and heavy drooling.
If your pet does get sick, they may relate the sickness with the boat and may no longer enjoy coming along. If your pet still gets sick after the first few rides, talk to your vet about motion sickness medications, or leave them at home in the future.
First aid kits should be on board for yourselves, but what about your pet? If you carry a first aid kit already—great! Most the items you can use for your furry family member too. But there are a few things you should add for your pet. Here’s what the Humane Society recommends.
It’s also a wise idea to check your local area for courses on pet first aid and even CPR.
Speak to your vet
Lastly, ask your vet if they have any specific recommendations given your pet’s medical history and health concerns. If your four-legged friend has heart conditions or skin allergies, you should speak to your vet for further advice.
My cat Coleman suffered a leg injury at a young age, so I’m extra cautious with certain activities. But there are other issues you may not be immediately aware of, so it’s always best to have a check-up done before your first pontoon outing.
6. Hydration and Urination Training
We enjoy boating on the water on warmer days. Being said, we carry many drinks to keep ourselves hydrated and have the memory to drink regularly.
Even if your pet is a healthy drinker, make sure to occasionally point them toward a water bowl and encourage them to drink. They might be too excited from commotion to keep up with their intake.
Always have a bowl aboard and provide fresh, clean water. Today, there are a lot of collapsible bowls to choose from.
If you have a puppy, it’s safe to assume they haven’t quite grasped a timed schedule. Even if your pet is a well-trained adult, being on a boat all day without nearby land and drinking lots of water can interrupt their normal routine. Have a few puppy pads on-board just in case.
7. Getting Ladders and Other Pet Accessories
Getting your pet out of the water could be as simple as calling them. One trick for dogs is to throw several balls or toys to fetch, guiding them closer to the boat each time.
If your dog loves to fetch sticks, try these durable floating stick toys. Another clever product for your pontoon would be this Doggy Boat Ladder and Ramp by Paws Aboard. This is also a wise idea for less energetic senior pets.
Ingesting sea water is bad for us humans. And unlike us, pets have fur to groom. Since they groom themselves with their tongues, they can easily ingest a lot more saltwater than you might expect. So when you motor out in the ocean, it’s important to wash the salination out of your pet’s fur often.
Fill up a few—or a lot, depending on the size of your pet—used water bottles and create a fresh water shower out of this portable shower gadget.
8. Keeping Everyone Safe
Besides our furry friends, it’s a good idea to be proactive in the safety of the entire family crew. For resources on boat safety kits, check out our list of essential items you should bring along while boating and our safety equipment list.
In general, always be aware and alert of your surroundings.
Have a fun—but safe—trip with your best friend!