Everything You Need to Know About Sailing and Cruising with a Dog

It’s been done many times before. Blogs. Videos. Podcasts. About dogs on sailboats. Monohulls. Catamarans. Day cruisers and liveaboards. Should you? Shouldn’t you? Young dogs? Old dogs? Big? Small? What’s best? What’s a big no-no? 

But ultimately, what’s the MOST IMPORTANT THING TO KNOW?!?!

The most important thing to know IS THIS:

Having a dog on the boat prohibits your spontaneity. We can talk vaccines and breeds and potty breaks in a sec, but first things first. 

Paperwork and Vaccines

Before you depart from your current country, you need an import permit AND health certificate, amongst other things, for each pet. The “health certificate” is the key thing to ruining your spontaneity. It’s essentially the physical and health inspection the vet gives your dog/pet before you depart your current country. The new country requires this permit to be done so many days before you depart so that the pet may seem as healthy as possible as close to the departure date as possible so they have less of a chance of acquiring any diseases before they leave. 

The Health Certificate

The health certificate often expires in a short while, often two weeks or less. So you have, we will call it 10 days for example’s sake, 10 days to depart your current country before the certificate expires and the new country won’t accept it. This does not include travel time at sea. So what if a storm comes? What if you decide to go to a different country? What if you decide to leave earlier than the vet appointment allows? What if you decide to leave later? If your form expires, be prepared for another vet appointment. Each country has its own form and the vet will charge you for each one they do… and don’t forget they expire quickly! 

Another challenge could be diverting your destination mid-travel, perhaps even for the weather. If the decision was one of safety, most countries will be accommodating or may simply not allow your dog onshore. The forms usually include all current vaccines, microchip numbers, breed, age, weight, and a vet signature that the dog appears in generally good health. 

If you are coming from the United States, it is often that a USDA vet signature is required, and sometimes this is challenging to get. Don’t forget to get an extra copy in case customs decides to keep one. Two sets of everything is a good idea so that you always have hard copies of documents to present. 

The Import Permit

The import permit is a nice formality for the intended country of travel. It does not usually require a vet signature from your country of departure but SOMETIMES requires a signature from the intended country before departure. You find this form online from the intended country, usually from their Ministry of Agriculture website. Print and fill out with information about your dog: name, age, weight, breed, vaccines, microchip number, and any other required information on the provided form. Some countries will require that you send this form via email ahead of time to be signed and then emailed back to you. You will then need to print this new form with the signature of the vet or official from the intended country and present it to customs.  You will either provide this form with the other check-in forms for the vessel and crew or email it ahead of time to the intended party.  This may sometimes be a specific vet from the intended country of travel or someone from the Ministry of Agriculture Department. 

This is why it is a good idea to carry a printer on board. You can find small compact ones for a decent deal online or at your electronics or office store (Best Buy, Staples). You’ll want to be able to print from your email in some way or another. Having a printer that can scan is also a good idea to save your documents electronically that were given to you by the vet. 

In summary, your health certificate is your vet health inspection from your current country while the import permit informs your intended country of travel of your intentions of bringing a pet. The reason for this is that many countries do not wish to bring in foreign diseases. All of this technical talk aside, there are many countries that have all this paperwork as a formality and are pretty laid back. They are simply looking for proof of vaccines and may help you out when it comes to dates and timing. 

Is less better or is more better?

When it comes to paperwork on vaccines, more is perfectly fine, but keep your most recent vaccines up front. People doing paperwork usually want to move on quickly so make it easy for them. Less is better in that sense. Make your paperwork simple and straightforward, no need to present a book. (However, there may be some countries that prefer a complete history, but it’s not as common.)

Vaccines and Other Tests

There is also something called the rabies titer test. This blood test calculates how many rabies antibodies are in their system. You generally get this done ONE MONTH after their rabies vaccine. I would say most countries don’t require this test, but still many do. It is generally expensive and there is only one location in the United States that will do the lab work so it is also often a time-sensitive test. It can take weeks to get your results back. Get this done before you take off, BUT make sure you had your rabies shot at least one month before. Although not all countries require this, it’s easier to get it done when you’ve got the time. Don’t wait and find yourself in a pickle. 

The majority of countries that I’ve seen in my research require the following vaccines:

-Rabies vaccine (1 year or 3 year, usually 1!)

-DAPP: Distemper, Adenovirus, Parainfluenza, Parvo




While still some countries will ask for:

-Proof of heartworm 

-Treatment for internal and/or external parasites


Most of these vaccines are yearly and others are every three years. However, the standards vary from country to country, and thus three year may not be accepted. 

Everyday life

Fake turf did not work for us!

Using the “bathroom”

The most common question I get when people learn we have a dog on the boat is asking how she goes to the “bathroom”! Everyone seems to have advice for this. I will start by saying it is different to train a puppy than an adult dog that had been living on land. Training a puppy to essentially have a “litter box” is something you should take the time to work on.  Re-potty training your adult dog can sometimes go smoothly. Putting their scent on a fake turf pad or buying the spray from the pet store or using your code word for going and lots of treats work really well for some people. I researched to my wit’s end about how to get my 9-year-old pup to go on the boat. Preface: We have a monohull and our dog has been day sailing before moving onto the boat. 

I tried everything that I could possibly do and no matter what I tried I could not convince my very smart well-behaved dog to “go” on the boat. She really thought it was so terrible and always refused. We even tried seaweed on the deck! All failures. After some deep searching, I found that many people were experiencing the same troubles as me. I have resorted to taking Roxy into shore twice a day. Some may say this sounds like a lot of work, but don’t we do the same at home? A walk in the morning and a walk when we come home from work? It works for us and also gives me some good exercise and a break away from the boat. Thanks to this, I’ve seen many beautiful sunrises and sunsets I may not have taken the effort to see. I’ve also gotten good exercise from paddleboarding when maybe I was preferring to become just a couch potato in the salon. 

So what do we do underway?

We wait. She holds it for as long as she can! I’ve read and talked to other couples and this tends to happen to them too! Even sailing overnight was difficult for us humans to get used to “going” on the boat, so we can’t expect our pet to get used to it right away! Over time she has gotten better, but she still holds it in as long as she can. We consulted numerous vets about potential health hazards with this and the worst we’ve heard is a UTI. Fortunately for us we have not had any serious issues. Eventually, when she’s reached her limit, she knows to go to the stern and do her business there, where it can fairly easily be washed away. Once the “seal” is broken she has a better time going underway. 

Navigating the Boat Underway

Safety and Navigating the Boat

Getting her sea legs took a bit of time. I would recommend some day-sailing in flat water first if you’re able. Give them baby steps and let them work up to rougher conditions. TREATS. ALL THE TREATS. Or toys. Do whatever you can to make them happy and feel at home. Side note: Many dogs struggle with walking on a dock or making a jump on board where there is no land, and only water, underneath their paws. Don’t assume they will be comfortable with this! We made sure to give treats the first time on the dock as well as boarding the boat and she had no issues, but not all dogs overcome this fear so easily. 

Safe Spot to Sleep

Another suggestion is to find a specific safe spot for your dog. There are going to be a lot of weird noises and weather for them to experience and you’ll want to make them at ease by giving them a spot to call their own. A spot in the boat where it is dry and warm or cool, depending on the weather, along with their bed and pillows and blankets and toys or whatever they enjoy! Bonus points if they can go there on command. Unfortunately for us, we discovered that our pup jumps out of bed and attempts to climb the companionway stairs and check out what’s happening on deck during storms with loud noises and lots of yelling. She knows what to do when I tell her to “go in Roxy’s bed”. Sometimes we have to block the companionway to keep her from checking things out. She’s slowly getting better at staying in her bed when things get uncomfortable. 

Getting some much needed zzz’s

Walking While Underway

Don’t assume that a non-skid deck that works well for you will work well for your furbaby!  Our non-skid deck is more of a skating rink for Roxy and she has a hard time walking around certain corners. She has gotten used to it, but it took waaaaaaaaay longer than I thought it would. I would add that it took probably 6 months before she really felt like this was her new home. In doing research this is not abnormal even for dogs that move from land-based houses to land-based houses. Referring to the deck, some people have chosen to get grippy shoes or socks for their dog or even those nail covers that make it easy for your dog to stand on slippery surfaces. None of those options really worked for us so I’ve resorted to using basic yoga mats or towels to help her walk or lay down in the cockpit. 

Hanging out behind the wheel

Another road bump you might hit is your dog navigating stairs, whether it be the companionway or down into the hulls of a catamaran. These stairs are usually steeper and slicker than what they’re used to and can be difficult if the boat heels! Navigating the stairs may take some training as well. Something else we came across was helping our dog figure out how to turn around mid-stairs as she sometimes wants to climb all the way up, but is not allowed in the cockpit and needs to make her way back down. 

Please let me outside!

First Aid

Regarding safety, we also carry a dog-specific first aid kit equipped with her flea and tick and heartworm medication, tick tongs, mild sedative, antibiotics, spare leash, toothpaste, nail clippers, and a few other things.  This way it’s a quick grab and we don’t confuse it with our human medication. Perhaps read up on basic pet first aid before you push off as well, or get certified!

Dealing With Temperature

Depending on your intended plans, you will want to make sure your dog is comfortable in the temperatures of the places you’ll be visiting. If you’re visiting somewhere with a hotter climate, you may choose to invest in a cooling pad for your pup to lie on. Certainly, make sure there is enough water and perhaps find a way to swim your dog from your boat if a beach is not available. We’ve trained Roxy to jump off the paddleboard and climb back up (with assistance) to help cool her down in the middle of the day. If you find your dog has a hard time cooling off, a good first step is to cool the pads of their paws. You can use water or alcohol, which evaporates quickly and will cool them off. If you’re lucky enough to have ice on board, perhaps give them some to eat or add it to their water bowl. 

Staying cool under the canapy

What about leaving the boat? Do you need to lock the hatches and close the windows in case it rains? We have a canopy system that allows us to keep windows on vent and block the rain, but also block the strong rays of sun from entering the boat. This keeps the boat cool if we need to leave during the day and are unable to bring our girl with us.  Of course, there are some, very few, situations where we have opted not to leave the boat because it is THAT HOT. But usually, we are not eager to leave the boat ourselves if it’s going to be that much of a scorcher. This could be another good reason to invest in a cooling pad. 


What about if it’s cold? Does your boat have a heater? Some toasty warm foulies are available for purchase online or even a variety of dog coats. Try to get something that will keep the water out and the heat in. Perhaps keep a spare coat or sweater in case the original one gets wet. If your pet is not accustomed to the cold or wearing warm clothing, try to get them used to it before you leave. Can’t say this enough. There is so much for them to learn when they first get on the boat, and the easier you can make it for them, the better. 

Bundled up!

Food and Beverage

As far as food goes, a non-skid food and water bowl is a good idea, or even a rubber mat so it’s not going to move around onboard. Choose a designated spot and also consider keeping a water dish inside and outside the boat so they don’t have to go chasing for it. Always make sure they have water before you leave! Storing the dog food is something to think about as well. I try to buy small bags in place of the big ones, but this is a personal preference. 

Regardless of the bag, I break down the food into zip lock baggies to try and keep critters out. You may even choose a hefty bin depending on the type of storage on your boat. However, I would recommend various storage compartments in case you get food that goes bad OR you find a creepy-crawly critter. This way, you’ll have some backup food. Once I found a maggot in some food that must have sat on the shelf for a long time in this tiny grocery store in the Bahamas. I threw the food overboard, but still had plenty left as I had food separated into individual zip locks. 

We are lucky that our dog does not have motion sickness and also does not mind a change in the brand of food. For many dogs, this is an issue. Getting dog food shipped to your location may not be an option. Find a way to prepare for these hurdles you might encounter along the way. 

Be sure to monitor their drinking. Have they been drinking regularly throughout the day? Are they not drinking enough? Are they guzzling their water? Guzzling could lead to some problems too so if they are quite thirsty after some intense playing, perhaps space out some servings of water for them. 

There are two dogs in this picture 😉


Grooming my girl is fairly simple. We are lucky to have a short-haired dog on the boat, but that doesn’t stop the hairs from finding their way to the bilge. If I was lucky, I’d have a little hand-held vacuum to sweet it up every day. I currently use a broom and check under the floorboards every once in a while. If you are planning to get a dog to take with you, this is something you may want to consider! You may not mind the shedding hair, but it could be an issue for some of the systems on your boat. 

I’ve also trained my dog since the beginning of adopting her to get her nails clipped by me.  She does really well and I try to choose calm days to do this. A swim platform with a shower hose makes bathing and rinsing saltwater off of them much simpler too. Don’t forget to rinse those private bits to avoid infection!


I’ve chosen a leak-proof dog bed for her as she loves to swim and sometimes gets wet from the rain. As an older dog, she sometimes has incontinence and the waterproofing works well for that too. 

A harness style life jacket is a good way to go so you can easily pick up your dog from the dinghy or if she is to fall overboard. We use a simple life jacket from West Marine, but there are plenty online to choose from and read reviews about. Some life jackets include a reflective strip so you can find your pup in the dark, whether onboard or onshore. 

Roxy weighs 50 lbs and having a harness style life jacket makes it easy to pick her up or grab onto her while on deck. During rougher conditions when she wants to hang outside, we will also harness her in so that she has limited mobility and has to stay in the cockpit, assuming this is safe of course. Your dog may need some time to get used to this as well. Maybe practice wearing it around the house before you take off!

Harnessed in but still getting some sniffs!

Also, note that many life jackets are NOT breathable for your dog and may make your dog feel hot especially when there’s not a lot of breeze but there IS a lot of sun. You may choose to carry a normal more breathable harness (not life jacket) and lock them into the cockpit with just the harness so they don’t overheat. This is your personal preference, but another reason it’s a good option for doing some day-sails and testing out what works for you and your pup. 

General gear you might consider:

Must haves: life jacket, food and water dishes, probably a dog bed or specific sleeping location

Good ideas to use: Cooling pad or jacket/shirt, doggy sunglasses or goggles, non-skid shoes or towels for navigating the deck, warm blank, coat, waterproof collar, identification tag with boat details

Being out and about


Exercise can be another challenge and is different for all types and sizes of dogs. Perhaps you’d prefer a smaller dog that usually needs less exercise? Or maybe a large dog is good for you as you prefer to go for jogs or swims every morning. Regardless of type, your pup is going to need some exercise, which may factor into how you spend your days on the boat. It may shorten a day trip you had planned or it may make it impossible for you to do a side trip off the boat. What about visiting other boats? Many boat owners may not want your dirty dog with their dog hair aboard, especially if they run charters. 

Going for a swim!

So how can you exercise your dog? We play fetch in the salon. We go for walks on the beach or in town if it seems friendly. We will swim with the paddleboard off the boat if the anchorage isn’t too busy. Some people buy specific toys you can fill with treats to help keep their minds occupied. While underway, exercise can be a bit trickier and in general, our pup doesn’t mind snuggling up at her older age of 10. But that still doesn’t slow her down too much! If we want to stretch her legs, we wait for good weather and take her for a walk around on the deck. Sometimes bringing a toy or some treats.

Once again, be aware of how your dog behaves on your dinghy or paddleboard or kayak. Can you have control over your dog as you pull up to the dinghy dock or beach? What if the dock is tall and your dog is too big and heavy to lift that high? What if you have multiple dogs to hold onto while you try and dock? Do you have a swim platform or do they need to be lowered down? Can they jump off your boat of their own free will while you’re working on something else? These are things you’ll have to figure out. Create a routine when it comes to leaving the boat with and without them to help with behavior and also make them more comfortable. 

Curtis and Roxy out for a sunset paddle

Where is your dog allowed and not allowed to go? There are two categories for this. Country regulations and general onshore happenings. 

Country Regulations

Regarding country regulations, each country is different and the biggest impacts are rabies and breed. Are you coming from a rabies-free country? Is your dog a banned breed in that nation? You can read up on this often on the ministry of agriculture websites for each country or just by googling. Websites with tons of info are as follows: 

www.aphis.usda.gov Meant for dogs traveling from the USA but still loads of information on each country. There is a drop-down menu for you to select which country you are interested in going to. 

www.pettravel.com has included lots of good information but may not be kept as regularly up to date. Lots of forms and regulations change on a regular basis and it may be a good idea to check out the country’s specific website or even email the persons in charge to confirm everything you’ll need upon arrival. 

You can also choose private companies like IPATA (International Pet and Animal Transportation Association), to sort out your travel plans and documents for you if you don’t have the time or find it overly complicated. There may even be a few places that require this type of bureaucracy. For example, the Galapagos Islands are well protected and you may have trouble getting your pet checked in there at all.  At the least it will require a lot of planning ahead of time.

Challenges You May Face Taking Your Pet to Shore

When it comes to taking your pet ashore, you’ll want to be aware of the local perception of pets. Even if a breed is allowed, people may feel easily frightened or may approach you in an uncomfortable way. Restaurants or even specific beaches may not allow your dog. Join cruising forums regarding pets and check Active Captain to find out more information on specific places or bays. 

You may need to heighten your awareness of your surroundings when arriving in a new place. You’ll want to be respectful and considerate of cultural norms when it comes to taking your pet ashore. There may not be trash cans scattered about for you to dispose of their droppings. The environmentally conscious person may choose to purchase biodegradable doggy bags. Often found at your local pet store or can be ordered online. In my experience, they often come in the color green. 

Changes in Your Pet

Lastly, can moving your dog on a boat change their personality? I’m referring specifically to dogs that have grown from the puppy stage. Our dog had to gain a whole new appreciation for her balance skills. And it does seem she gets a bit sadder when we leave the boat without her (probably because we are around her all the time). She doesn’t have her dog best friends next door but still enjoys finding and playing with other dogs, but chances like this are fewer and farther in-between. Her life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows as sometimes she gets ignored for the pertinent boat project or long passage at sea. However, she gets to be with her people way more frequent than before and, while we are in the tropics, gets to do a lot more swimming, which she loves. The smells of new land bring excitement to her cute little doggy face. She seems happy and that is the end goal for both parties!

In Summary

This may seem overwhelming and often it is! We lose out of some spontaneity and sometimes struggle to plan a day of adventure around the safety of our pup. Having a dog on board can be very rewarding, but it created many challenges and obstacles that I would prefer to avoid. Do you already have a dog or are you considering adopting one for your new liveaboard lifestyle? There is much to consider and it is best to do your research and choose what is safest and best for both you and your (potential) pet.

  • Julie Craig-Muller
    Posted at 13:12h, 23 October

    What an adorable, happy baby!
    Did you ever try taking a sample of his urine and rubbing it on a mat?
    We are very new to sailing, have not cruised yet, but have two dogs who go everywhere with us. Our boat is small, 33 feet, and we both still work, so weekends will our game, maybe next summer.

    • sweetruca
      Posted at 17:37h, 23 October

      Yes we tried that method! I think we’ve tried just about everything in the books. The one thing you could try that I did not is starting them early! Practice with a fake turf mat at home and teach them a term to go on command. Keep at it and you may have success! Weekend trips will be a good warm up for them but you have to stay consistent on your training. Let us know how it goes and don’t be afraid to reach out if you have more questions 🙂