Finding Best in Show Kennels
Last updated May 2022
Most kennels used to be dreary places. Dogs usually were housed in isolation; cats spent most of their days in cages. Kennels focused on keeping critters safe by keeping them separate. And most operations featured few frills: As our editor’s stepmom once said to her beloved pooch, “I’d never leave you at a kennel; why, they’d treat you like a dog!”
No more; most kennels are run as resorts now. They’re decorated and designed as cheerful, fun getaways. During the day, dogs carouse together in one large common area or are sorted into smaller groups, depending on their sizes or dispositions. Cats also usually get play areas. Have a pet that doesn’t get along well with others or gets anxious away from home? Some facilities will still accommodate him in isolation, but many will suggest you find another spot for your surly-or-skittish Spot.
Unfortunately, our evaluations of local boarding facilities found that, like human resorts, many kennels charge four-star prices for stays. And, like the rest of the vacation industry these days, many punish their clients with ridiculous fees for extras, often poorly disclosing the true cost of stays until it’s time to pay up.
Fortunately, our ratings turn up high-quality animal houses that charge reasonable fees. We also offer up advice and ideas on how to make sure you and your pet both have a good experience, plus tips on how to arrange alternative care.
To help you choose a kennel that makes both you and your pet happy, our Ratings Tables provide information we gathered on area kennels.
Our Ratings Tables report results from our surveys of area consumers for their ratings of kennels they’ve used. (We regularly survey Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers plus other randomly selected individuals in the area whom we invite to participate.) Our Ratings Tables show results for businesses for which we received 10 or more ratings.
Though the surveys asked consumers to rate kennels for their care of dogs, owners of cats and other pets may also find the data useful. (Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.) As you can see, there is substantial variation in the customer survey ratings.
Although pet owners can’t know what a kennel is really like when they’re not around, many pet owners inspect the kennels they use—everyone should—and most are aware of the condition of their dogs before and after boarding.
Our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Consumer Protection Division of the Office of the Washington Attorney General for a recent two-year period. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts.
Facilities and Policies
Our researchers found that many kennels use marketing lingo and add-on options to make their facilities seem more captivating than any vacations humans might take. While you want the best for your fur babies, don’t get so distracted by resort-like descriptions that you fail to spot basic problems.
Before booking, personally inspect any facility you are considering, and ask questions. Here’s what to look for:
- Can you take a complete tour? You’ll learn what a kennel is really like if you can inspect the entire facility. Some kennels insist that letting strangers walk their spaces needlessly agitates the dogs, but we believe that’s a price worth paying for openness.
- Are there webcams? Most kennels now have them, which allow owners to monitor their pets.
- Where will your dog stay? Kennels offer a variety of arrangements. During the day or scheduled hours, pets usually hang out in common play areas. At night, animals are secured in their own rooms, runs, or crates. When left on their own, it’s usually better for pets to have separate areas. Kennels that have common nighttime runs and spaces—mostly hospitals and clinics with limited real estate room—usually rate considerably lower than facilities with separate ones.
- What if my dog doesn’t get along with others? Some facilities charge extra fees if your pooch can’t participate in group play.
- Are the runs and stalls large enough? Runs should be long enough for a dog to break into a short gallop and wide enough for the dog to wag its tail without hitting the sides. Four feet by 10 feet is probably adequate for a medium-size dog, but a large dog may need a longer run. Stalls should be large enough for a dog to move around comfortably. Cats, which exercise isometrically (by stretching), don’t need runs. A 2x3x3-foot cage is sufficient, though bigger is better.
- Does each dog have a dry, comfortable bedding area? Resting boards give dogs places to lie down off concrete or tile. A sleeping box with bedding will enhance comfort and help your dog stay warm.
- Does every cat cage have a perch for the cat to sit on? While cats are generally easier to accommodate than dogs, this feature is a must.
- Is there a play area for cats? This feature is a plus for active cats that would enjoy additional space.
- Is there a solid barrier between each cage? Concrete or other solid barriers 18 inches or so high between the stalls give dogs a little privacy and prevent them from urinating into each other’s cages.
- Does the kennel maintain appropriate temperatures? Good heating and cooling systems are important for your pet’s comfort.
- Does the kennel have good ventilation? Canine cough and other illnesses are spread by airborne viruses. A kennel’s ventilation system should provide an air exchange every five minutes or so. This is especially important for cats, which are susceptible to serious respiratory diseases.
- Will your cat be separated from dogs? Dog kennels can be extremely noisy, and may traumatize a cat unaccustomed to the constant barking.
- Is the kennel adequately lighted? Your pet should get artificial or natural light for at least 10 to 12 hours per day.
- Is the kennel’s fencing adequate? If the kennel offers outdoor areas, fencing should be solid enough and high enough to prevent dogs from escaping.
- Does the kennel have a central-reporting fire alarm system? Are working smoke detectors installed throughout the facility?
Health Screening and Prevention
- Does the kennel require proof of vaccinations? Animals are much more likely to get sick in kennels than at home. First, they are exposed to illnesses carried by other animals in the kennel (a dog in a kennel is similar to a child in daycare). Second, the stress they experience while in a kennel makes them unusually susceptible to illness. A kennel that requires appropriate vaccinations forces you to take the proper steps to protect your pet and reduces the chances that other kennel residents are diseased. Dogs should have the following vaccinations: DHLPP (canine distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus), rabies, and bordetella (canine cough). Cats should have FVRCP (feline distemper and upper respiratory diseases) and rabies vaccinations. Your veterinarian may wish to vaccinate for other transmissible diseases (e.g., feline leukemia), so ask before boarding.
- Are animals carefully examined at check-in? Kennel staff should examine each animal’s eyes, ears, mouth, genitals, anal area, skin, and coat to detect any disease or parasites.
- Does the kennel have an isolation room? Although a kennel should refer serious medical problems to a veterinarian, it should have an isolation room for sick animals that is completely separate from the area where the other animals are housed with solid walls and doors and its own ventilation system.
- Is the kennel clean? Cleanliness is critical to your pet’s health. Carefully inspect the kennel’s floors, walls, and fences. Also, be sure that water and disinfectant have not formed puddles. Take a good look each time you drop off or pick up your pet.
- How does the kennel smell? Kennels should not smell foul. A whiff of disinfectant is fine, but a strong disinfectant smell might be masking other odors.
- Is bedding washed daily, or whenever it becomes soiled?
- Is the facility in good repair?
Care and Comfort
- What food options are available? Can you provide your own?
- How flexible is the kennel about its feeding schedule? Most kennels feed dogs only once a day, but some older dogs should eat twice a day. If your dog is on a twice-a-day schedule, find out whether the kennel will accommodate it.
- Is clean water always available to each animal?
- Is some form of bedding provided to each dog?
- Can you bring your pet’s toys and bedding? Most kennels will allow this, but it does pose sanitation problems and requires extra effort on the kennel’s part. Most kennels won’t guarantee that you’ll get back what you bring, so don’t bring more than necessary.
- Will the kennel give your dog extra individualized attention or exercise by special arrangement? Most offer this service, usually for an additional fee.
- If the facility’s runs don’t have outdoor access, when are dogs let out to relieve themselves? Some kennels let dogs out first thing in the morning, a few times during the day, and then one last time before closing, perhaps as early as 6 p.m. This means dogs can’t go outdoors for 12 hours or longer. If your dog requires more frequent outdoor access, particularly during evenings, ask if arrangements can be made—and at what times extra breaks can be scheduled.
- Will the kennel administer shots and pills? All of the kennels we surveyed will administer pills, though some charge extra for it. Many will administer shots.
- Are staffers affectionate to the animals? Most kennel staffers like animals, but be sure.
- Is the staff experienced and well-informed? Check how long the kennel has been in business under the same management. Note how staff responds to questions.
- What are the arrangements for veterinary care, if necessary? If you have a regular vet, check whether the kennel will use him or her. Expect to pay for transportation and vet fees.
- Is a staff member on the premises 24 hours a day? If not, how does the kennel ensure the welfare and comfort of pets through the night?
- Do the animals seem happy?
- Are grooming and other services available? We also offer reviews of dog groomers.
- Is the kennel a veterinary hospital (or clinic)? On average, non-hospitals rated higher than hospitals on almost every question on our survey. Several veterinarians have pointed out that healthy pets that board at animal hospitals or clinics are more prone to return home with a disease picked up from hospitalized pets. One vet asked, “Would you go to a hospital for a vacation?”
Finding the Best Run for Your Money
Although your first considerations are the health and comfort of your pet, you also need to consider price.
Checkbook’s undercover shoppers contacted each facility listed our Ratings Tables and asked for per-day prices to board four different sizes of dogs, a pair of medium-size dogs boarded in the same run, and a cat.
The price differences among kennels are substantial. For example, we found that boarding a 35-pound springer spaniel for a week would cost from $200 to more than $500, depending on the kennel you choose.
There’s no correlation between quality and price. Some of the lower-priced kennels received highly favorable ratings from their surveyed customers.
Some kennels charge more per day as dogs get larger, but at other kennels size matters less. Cats are generally less expensive than even the smallest dogs.
Also ask about check-in and check-out times. Some kennels charge for only one day if you check in your pet in the morning of the first day and check out the afternoon of the second day. Others charge for two days if you check in before noon or check out after noon, even for just a one-night stay.
Determine when the kennel is open for drop-off and pickup. A common complaint is that facilities don’t have convenient drop-off or pickup hours, particularly on weekends. If the kennel is closed on Sundays, for example, you’d have to pay for a Sunday-night stay even though you are back in town—and ready to retrieve your golden retriever—on Sunday morning. Or it might charge a special fee for pickup outside regular hours.
Finally, check facilities’ prices for various services your pet might need, such as special exercise or administering medicine. These services are free at many kennels, although some charge $10 or more per day for 15 minutes of special exercise.
We also found goofy descriptions of luxury amenities at some kennels, usually offered as add-ons. A few examples:
- A luxury suite! “Located in an exclusive area for maximum privacy and serenity, each full-size room has its own distinctive decor, dog-friendly furniture, cable television, and a large picture window overlooking an extra-large private outdoor patio. Two thorough daily housekeeping service visits. Tidy-up services throughout the day.”
- “Complimentary turndown treat package” and “calming pheromone treatment.”
- Add-on options at one “spa”: 30-minute massage by a certified therapist for $65; 30-minute treadmill workout for $15; pool play session for $15; ocean view boarding area. (The ocean view sounded great to us, but we weren’t so sure our nearsighted-and-color-blind pooches would care about it.)
- At another: Suite options that feature “luxury bedding”; “Story Book Reading and Bedtime Tuck In” for $10; “Biscuits at Bedtime” for $3; “Cuddle Time with Staff” for $10. (Several facilities offered bedtime stories. Is this now a thing??)