Many Americans take long-distance trips during the holidays, and some board their pets.
Pet boarding has become a lucrative business — Forbes magazine reported in 2019 more than $6 billion had been spent annually on boarding and grooming services nationwide.
With such practices, however, come risks. Dogs and cats unaccustomed to boarding sometimes become lethargic or depressed. There also is the possibility of a canine fight or a pet’s exposure to an illness. Occasionally, a high-profile tragedy emerges. A dog fatally mauled a caretaker at a boarding facility in Louisiana.
A Santa Fe man grieving the death of his dog and a state lawmaker say it might be time for the state to set guidelines for the largely unregulated pet-boarding industry in New Mexico.
David Safian’s Rhodesian ridgeback, Maya, died of an infection within a day after she returned home from a six-day stay at a Santa Fe pet care center. Safian concedes it’s possible Maya contracted an infection before he left her at the facility — a police report on the incident says the dog likely was sick when she arrived at Paws Plaza — but he believes staff members should have recognized she was ill and called him about concerns or taken her to a veterinarian.
The dog died at a local veterinary hospital.
According to a Santa Fe police report on the case, the dog’s necropsy report showed Maya died of a bacterial infection called streptococcus group G.
A veterinary pathologist quoted in the police report said “the infection could not have started within the time frame that the dog was at Paws Plaza. … The dog had to have been sick for weeks prior to being boarded at the facility for it to reach the severity that it did.”
The report says a veterinarian at Smith’s Veterinary Hospital told police it was “hard to say” when the infection began, but due to its severity, “it had to have been in her first few days at the facility or before she arrived at the facility.”
Safian lovingly recalls Maya as a dog of boundless energy who was “very cheeky, very sweet, very intelligent,” and said her death has prompted him to question the kind of training kennel workers get and whether they can spot warning signs when pets aren’t doing well.
He wants to see regulations enacted to ensure boarding facility employees are trained to
spot and respond to pets who may be injured, ill or clearly listless.
But in New Mexico, there is little, if any, oversight of the industry. Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, wrote in an email the state leaves it up to local governments to set regulations.
Spokespeople for the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County confirmed there are no regulations for pet board facilities, other than to ensure businesses meet building safety code standards.
State Rep. Linda Serrato, a Santa Fe Democrat, said Friday she might introduce legislation addressing the issue after hearing from concerned constituents, though she said she had not heard of Safian or Maya.
Her brother runs a dog day care center in California, Serrato said, and she has been talking with him about possible regulations.
She next wants to talk with Santa Fe pet care center operators to see what they think “is lacking in regulation.
“It’s a two-way street,” Serrato said. “You have really responsible dog care facilities that do things right. It is their reputation at stake if something horrendous happens. Oftentimes they want some leadership on this [issue].”
Any legislation could include guidelines on training standards for employees, she said.
Chris Coyle, who owns Paws Plaza and defends his staff’s treatment of Maya, said his employees receive training, and he’s constantly working to improve on that front.
He hopes early next year to initiate a program in which veterinarians come into the facility to train staff “just for better education overall.” He’s also looking into the nonprofit Professional Animal Care Certification Council’s efforts to independently test and certify animal day care centers like his.
Maya’s death, he said, affected everyone at the facility. “It was hard on us. … This is what we do — we care for these dogs. They become a part of what we do every day, and anything that happens to them, we are very concerned,” he said.
“Nothing like that has happened here before, where a dog would leave us and the next day has died at the vet,” Coyle added.
The investigator who compiled the report, a Santa Fe County animal control officer, found the facilities “sanitary and safe.” The report said no further actions were taken on the issue.
Carmen Rustenbeck, CEO of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association, a professional trade association founded in 2010 that represents about 1,000 members, said the details within potential legislation or regulation are critical.
While her group supports the idea of regulations for boarding and day care centers, she said, much more has to be done to define what guidelines might look like.
Individual states or municipalities planning to regulate pet boarders need to figure out what type of regulations they want in place, who would enforce them, who would train people to enforce them and whether there would be fines or penalties attached to violations.
Those measures could include rules on training for all employees, Rustenbeck said.
“It’s a challenge,” she said. “We don’t like to talk about it because it makes our industry look like we don’t care, and that’s not the situation. We do care.”
She said even if every boarding facility had a veterinarian on hand — which would increase costs for everyone involved — “pets are really good at hiding when they are sick. They don’t want to show a weakness.”
Some in the industry say pet owners should research a facility before choosing it as a day care or boarding site.
Murad Kirdar, a spokesman for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society — which does not provide boarding services — agreed people should “do their homework first. Ask to walk through the facility and take a tour.”
Some Paws Plaza customers said they believe Coyle and his staff do an exceptional job of taking care of their pets.
Richard Quick, who calls himself a “longtime Paws parent,” said he has left his Labrador retrievers there for up to 16 days. “I’d be happy if I were in the hospital and they took care of me as well as they take care of my dogs at Paws Plaza,” he said.
Another Paws client, art gallery owner Nat Owens, said Coyle is the only person in town he would trust with his dogs.
Kathy Jackson, who runs Lucky Dawg Daycare in Santa Fe, said she and one employee run the 18-year-old facility, which has a regular canine clientele base of 25 to 30 dogs.
When they board dogs overnight, she said, they take the animals home with them to make sure they are being watched all the time.
Asked if she believes the Legislature should mandate more rigorous training for people who work in these facilities, Jackson replied: “I think so.”
Safian said he knows nothing can bring Maya back. But as he played with his new pup, Luna — another Rhodesian ridgeback — he said he will never trust his dog to another boarding or day care center again.
“I’d rather figure out a way of making as many people aware that this is a problem, and I’m not just talking about Paws Plaza,” he said.
“There’s certainly a dozen things that could be done differently moving forward to protect the animals,” Safian added. “And you know what? They should be interested in trying to see how they can make things better, right?”