Van Life With Pets: A Vet's Perspective
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Written by Teresa B. Schumacher
Photographs by Amelia Marie Photography
When I got the crazy notion to buy a cargo van and convert it into a tiny home on wheels, I did so with every intention of bringing my dog, Etta, along for the ride. I imagined endless adventure, beautiful hikes, frolicking on the beach at sunset, cozy nights snuggled up with my furry friend by a campfire.
It was a romantic notion.
The truth is that van life with a dog is hard work. It’s messy, it’s inconvenient, and sometimes it’s a down right pain in the ass. But if done correctly, it can also be an extremely rewarding experience, and very similar to those daydreams of mine. It just takes a bit of forethought, planning, and sacrifice.
Whether you’re planning a weekend road trip or a full-time commitment to nomadic life, follow these guidelines for making the best of your travels with your pet!
Remember that Van Life Isn’t For Everyone…or Every Dog.
If you’ve ever met Etta, you’ll know that she’s not phased by a whole lot. In fact, she’s one of the most laid back creatures I’ve ever known. She gets along with everyone. She loves cats. She doesn’t care if other dogs bark at her. She’s highly adaptable, and doesn’t mind spending an entire day hiking, or just snoozing in bed. She’s physically fit and can keep up with me on longer hikes. She’s so devoid of separation anxiety that sometimes I wonder if she even notices when I’m gone.
Etta does really well in the van, whereas some dogs just aren’t cut out for it. If your dog has major separation anxiety, for example, you will not be able to leave them in the van by themself for any length of time. If you have a breed that is predisposed to heatstroke or respiratory issues (think flat-faced dogs like Bulldogs and Pugs), they may not be well equipped for the climate changes and rigors of van life.
If you are considering hitting the road with your pooch, whether on a short term vacation or for the long haul, the first step is making sure that it’s the right thing for your dog.
Remember That Your Pet Always Comes First
As perfect as Etta may be, she still has her eccentricities. She’s always hated car rides, and although the van is more comfortable than a car, Etta still has trouble relaxing while we are on the road. So I go slowly and stop frequently. I’ve learned to read her body language and when she’s getting tired and needs a break, I will pull over. I typically won’t drive more than a couple hours in a day to avoid stressing her out too much. This obviously slows me down, which has its ups and downs--I can’t be overzealous about getting anywhere fast, but at the same time the slower pace allows me to appreciate my surroundings and take my time while exploring.
Etta is pretty bomb proof, but she is terrified of fireworks and not crazy about thunderstorms. Therefore I carry a stash of sedatives with me in case of emergency, and obviously try to avoid anywhere with fireworks. Today just so happens to be Fourth of July, and I had to turn down an invitation to celebrate at my friend’s lake house because of Etta. Instead we are spending the holiday hiding in the van in a random parking lot, as far from any parties as is possible. This certainly isn’t how I wanted to spend the holiday, but anything else would be unfair to Etta.
When you travel with your dog, it's up to you to be their advocate, above all else. Sometimes this means putting their needs above your own and making sacrifices to ensure their safety and well-being.
Know Regional Risks and Practice Preventative Care
As a veterinarian, I can’t stress enough the importance of proper preventative health care. This includes:
Heartworm and parasite prevention
Basic knowledge and preparation for regional threats
While preventative care is important at home, it’s even more vital when you travel around with your pet and increase their potential exposure to infectious diseases. A dog that is traipsing through meadows and fields is more likely to get fleas and ticks than one that stays at home. Dogs that hike frequently are more prone to drink from standing water and thereby increasing their chance of contracting leptospirosis, a potentially lethal bacterial infection. Pets that travel to the north eastern states have a higher risk of exposure to Lyme’s disease, an often debilitating, potentially lethal disease that is spread through ticks.
In addition to infectious disease, there are a plethora of regional risks that you should be aware of when traveling with your pet. The alligators in Florida have been known to snatch up an unsuspecting dog by the water’s edge. Rattlesnakes in the hills of northern California are highly venomous. Certain mushrooms can cause liver damage if ingested. The world is a scary place, and while it’s not reason enough to hide at home, it is a reason to do some research before you head out into the great unknown with your beloved four-legged friend.
Schedule an appointment with your family veterinarian prior to setting off on your adventure to discuss vaccinations, monthly preventative medications, and regional risks. A little preparation can go a long way in preventing injury and illness.
**You can also book an online consult with YOURS TRULY on Vetster (yep, I'm a veterinarian and offer Telehealth services) and I’d be happy to share my recommendations in a personal consult. If you have a time that works for you but don’t seen an open slot, shoot me an email or DM and I’ll get you in ASAP!
Always Be Prepared
Know The Nearest ER Clinic
Emergencies happen, at home or on the road. Wherever you travel, it’s a good idea to know where the nearest veterinary ER clinic is located in the event that your pet needs care. While in veterinary school I took my Labrador, Stella, on a camping trip out in the middle of the desert in Nevada. She ate a pack of sugar-free gum containing xylitol (toxic to dogs), and I had to drive two hours out of my way to get her to a veterinary clinic for care. I had almost no cell service, and it took me forever to find a clinic. Stella was fine, but it was a scary experience and I remember wishing I’d been more prepared.
Know What To Do in Common Emergency Situations
Allergic reactions: For bee stings or less severe allergic reactions such as facial swelling, you can give Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) 25 mg tablets, at a dose of 1 mg/pound of body weight. This dose can be repeated safely up to every 8 hours. If your dog is showing signs of a more severe reaction (weakness, collapse, vomiting), seek immediate veterinary care.
Wounds: If your pet is wounded, disinfect the area gently with lukewarm water and soap. Do NOT apply hydrogen peroxide or alcohol. Once clean, you can apply a bandage to keep the area clean until reaching a veterinary clinic. If there is excessive bleeding, apply firm, constant pressure to the area for no less than 5 minutes to allow for clotting. If the bandage sticks to the wound, do not rip off. Take your pet to the nearest vet clinic for evaluation. For heavily bleeding wounds on a limb or for a snake bite, you can also place turnicet above the affected limb and leave in place until you get to the nearest vet clinic.
Heatstroke: Early signs of heatstroke include heavy panting, bloodshot eyes, and drooling/nausea. More severe signs include vomiting, bloody/watery diarrhea, collapse or extreme lethargy, bruising, and seizures. If you are concerned that your pet has overheated, take a rectal temperature. Anything over 104 Fahrenheit warrants immediate cooling measures including getting your pet to a cooler area, rinsing them with lukewarm water (not too cold as you don't want them to cool down too quickly), and placing them in front of a fan. Even if your pet appears to have recovered, you should still seek immediate veterinary care, as additional, life-threatening complications can arise later.
Keep Your Pet's Records Handy
Always keep copies of your dog’s vaccination status and previous veterinary records either digitally or in the vehicle. These come in handy if you want to board your pet or need veterinary assistance.
Seek Out Dog-Friendly Places
As much as you love taking your pet with you wherever you go, it’s important to be aware of restrictions and rules, and know that not everyone will want to welcome your pet with open arms. Some businesses, such as restaurants or Harvest Host locations, may not want your dog on their property. Certain national and state parks don’t allow pets on the trails, mainly to protect local wildlife. Certain beaches don’t allow dogs. Be respectful of laws and people’s wishes wherever you go, and stick to places that welcome your pet.
Leaving Your Dog Alone In The Van : Should You Do It?
This is the most frequently asked question I get about van life with dogs, and my short answer is: it depends. It depends on your van, your dog, the weather, and your location.
Avoid Overheating: As an ER veterinarian, I’ve seen my fair share of heatstroke cases, and I would NEVER recommend leaving your pet in a regular vehicle, especially on a hot day, as the risk for heatstroke is so high. When building your van, therefore, it’s extremely important to consider temperature control and ventilation. My van is outfitted with the following features to ensure that Etta does not become overheated when I leave her alone:
A fan that stays running while the van is off
Two windows that can be left open for airflow
A ton of insulation
Black-out curtains that help with thermoregulation
Access to water
Before leaving your pet, you’ll need to temperature check the van yourself. Or you can buy a thermometer app that tells you the temperature of your vehicle on your phone. Not only is leaving your pet in a hot vehicle a bad idea, it’s illegal in most states to leave your pet in a car if there are potentially unsafe conditions. In these instances, good samaritans will get a free pass at breaking into your vehicle to rescue your dog.
Know Your Pet: The decision will also depend on your pet. I’m pretty sure Etta loves it when I let her nap for a couple of hours while I go sight-seeing. Not every dog is so independent. If your dog gets separation anxiety or barks excessively when left alone, this is probably not a good idea.
Leave A Note: If the weather permits, and your dog is ok with being left alone, it's always a good idea to leave a note that states that there is a dog in the vehicle, the vehicle has means for temperature control, and your pet has access to water. You may also want to leave your phone number in the event that someone is concerned and wants to reach out to you.
Know Your Other Options: If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and come to the conclusion that leaving your pet in the van is not a good idea, there are other options to allow you some free time. Check out rover.com for nearby pet sitters. PetSmart doggie daycare is also an option for daytime petsitting, though their locations are more limited.
Traveling with your pet is not always easy, and it takes a lot of planning and thoughtfulness to ensure that your four-legged companion is happy, healthy, and living his or her best life. But in the end I’ve found that it’s worth it for me and Etta, and I hope you do too!
Follow Etta’s adventures on Instagram at @ettathebluetick
**Feel free to message me with any questions, or schedule your consult with me today to discuss your pet’s healthcare and travel needs!