Life in the Van: Pets

[NOTE: I’ve blogged all these how-to posts before, but am gonna re-run them on occasion, since folks may have missed them, and many of them have been updated or expanded since they were first posted.]

“Can I bring my dog or cat along in the van?” is one of the most common questions asked by newbies on the various vandweller forums, often appearing two or three times in a single day. It can be enormously controversial, and the discussion sometimes gets intense and emotional. So it is worth looking at in some detail, in a way that is brutally practical.

Let me be blunt about my view upfront: having a pet in the van is not as easy as placing a food and water dish on the floor, cracking open the windows, and closing the door. It requires a lot of planning, logistics, and some serious expense, and if those issues cannot be successfully met, it causes all sorts of difficulties and complications that are best avoided. So my simple advice in those cases is: don’t try to keep a pet if you are living fulltime in a van.

I’ve always been an animal-lover. Back in my younger days before I took up van dwelling, I made my living doing live animal shows for school classes, and I had a large collection of snakes (including venomous), lizards, turtles, frogs, salamanders, tarantulas, scorpions, spiders and tropical cockroaches. It not only gave me a good excuse to keep a lot of really cool animals, but by writing a number of magazine articles and books about caring for exotic pets, it gave me my entry into the publishing industry where I make my living nowadays.

After a few years, doing live animal shows became more and more difficult (the insurance costs became prohibitive), and I gave it up. I reduced my animal collection to just a few snakes and poison-dart frogs, and a colony of Central American Death’s-Head Cockroaches.

Years later, when I made the decision to give up my apartment and live fulltime on the road, I had to make a choice: being an animal lover, I wanted to bring at least one of my pets with me, but I knew that living in a campervan would present difficulties which I did not have to face in an apartment. In the end, I decided that my Central American Cockroaches would be the best selection, since they were tough and adaptable, they were the easiest to care for, they took up the least physical space, and I liked the little fellers. So when I hit the road in my campervan, a couple dozen Blaberus discoidalis went along with me, living in a plastic sweater box lined with a kitty-litter-like substrate made from corn cobs.

Within just a few months, I realized my mistake.

Feeding the little guys was easy enough: being omnivores they would eat almost anything, and they did fine on a diet of dry dog food mixed with Cheerios, supplemented every few days with table scraps. A few slices of apple or potato gave them all the water they needed.

Since Death’s-Head Cockroaches are tropical animals and since I hate the cold and like the warm weather, I assumed that temperature control would not present much of a problem. Like many other vandwellers, I was snowbirding during the year, traveling north in the summer and heading south for the winter to chase the warm weather. I liked my weather around 80-85 degrees, which is also what the Cockroaches liked. If it got chilly at night, I’d place one or two chemical  hand-warmers  in their cage and they’d all gather round and press up against it to stay cozy. On the occasional really cold winter nights, I’d take their sweater box and put it inside the foot of my sleeping bag with me, where we’d all be nice and toasty.

But, contrary to my original expectations, keeping the little guys warm in winter was the easy part. The biggest difficulty came in summertime. Keeping cool in the hot parts of the year is the single most difficult task in all of vandwelling, and there really is no good simple solution. And if beating the heat in summertime is a challenge for humans, it is enormously harder for pets, even for tropical cockroaches. For me, the breaking point came during a stretch of unexpected October weather in Las Vegas when it got above 105 every day for the entire week. Human vandwellers can, of course, simply not be in the van when it is hot outside: we can spend the day in an air-conditioned library or museum or mall or wherever, and return to the van when the sun goes down and cools off. Pets, however, do not have that option. About two-thirds of my cockroach colony succumbed from the heat. I ended up giving the rest away to a local pet shop.

You probably do not have a colony of pet cockroaches (though I assure you that I loved my pets every bit as much as you love yours). But whatever pet you do have–dogs, cats, hamsters, parakeets–you will run into precisely the same problem that I did. For a vandweller, it is not keeping your pet warm in winter that presents the greatest challenge, it is keeping it cool in summer.

And, sadly, there simply is no good solution for that. Air conditioners are really the only equipment capable of keeping cool temperatures for hours at a time, and they use an enormous amount of electricity which requires either shore power or a generator or a very large solar panel system (and that means big expense). They are not practical for most people. Insulation doesn’t work very well at keeping heat out of the van, and isn’t effective anyway without an AC; if you are not actively cooling the air, the best you can do is keep the inside temp of the van equal to the outside temp, which, depending on where you are, may not be enough. The metal skin of the van will also radiate additional heat into the interior: to deal with that you will need reflective insulation on the body of the van as well as one or two ventilation fans to give a high rate of airflow between the inside and outside (merely cracking the windows may not do the job).

The windows themselves will be a significant source of sun, and you’ll need reflective panels in each of them to reduce the heat inflow. Parking in the shade will also help, though your solar panel system may not like this very much, and in any case you will need to find a particular place to park where there is shade all day long as the sun moves across the sky, which is a particular problem if you are absent all day for work or whatever.

Many pet-owning vandwellers will recommend devices to keep the inside cool, such as swamp coolers or ice fans. But these things simply do not work.

Even snowbirding and moving with the weather, leaving the hot areas and heading for cooler conditions, isn’t a foolproof solution. No matter where you go, there will occasionally be stretches of unseasonably warm weather, and all it takes is an hour or two of unexpectedly high temperatures to kill your pet. And for vandwellers who have jobs and must live in a fixed area year-round, moving to better weather is not an option anyway.

In addition to all of this, keeping a pet in the van presents a whole range of difficulties which have nothing to do with temperature control. The basic problem is that a van is not an apartment. That may seem pretty obvious, but it is something that most potential pet-owners do not really understand. Another oft-forgotten point is that pets are living things: they are not simple playthings which we can use when convenient and then put on a shelf, forgotten, for the rest of the day. Pets require comfortable conditions 24 hours a day, every day, all year round, even when we are not playing Frisbee with them or taking them for walks.

People who live fulltime in their vans but who dwell year-round in the same city, because they are tied down by job or family, will have the most difficulties (unless they are able to afford doggie day care). The most obvious problem is the lack of space. The interior of a typical van is less than 40 square feet. Smaller than a prison cell. Smaller than a bathroom. Smaller than some walk-in closets.

You, of course, will not be in the van for most of the day. You’ll be at work, or out having a beer, or whatever. Your pet, alas, will not be. He will instead be cooped up inside the van, all day, every day, for a minimum of 8-9 hours while you are at work. For a pet rat or pet bird in its cage, that may not matter. But for a dog or cat, it will matter a great deal. Even if he is not freezing or roasting with the weather, your pet will be far from happy: he will be locked inside a tiny space with nowhere to go and nothing to do, all day. While this may be convenient for you, it is terribly unfair to him.

And with hours on end with nothing to do, your doggie will find something to do, and you probably won’t like it. Ripping apart the bedding, digging out and eating anything remotely edible, chewing up things that are not edible (such as laptops, cameras, solar panel controllers, etc etc etc): the amount of destruction that a bored and frustrated animal can do is surprising. Not to mention the health effects from being cooped up for long periods of time with no way to exercise or move around. (Birds in particular are very susceptible to health issues caused by lack of stimulation.)

Vandwellers who stay mostly in rural boondocks or who urban-camp and can be in the van with the pet all day, may not have this problem. But they will nevertheless face difficulties of their own.

One challenge will be “stealth”. People may not pay much attention to a parked van: they may not even pay attention to a human sitting in the front seat of a van. But if there is a dog or cat in the window, or if a dog barks inside the van as someone passes by, they absolutely will notice that. Your stealth ability with a pet is virtually zero. Everybody in visual range (including cops, security guards, and employees) will say “Awwww, look at the doggie”, and all of them will remember your van. And if you need to be stealthy about where you sleep at night, that is a situation you do not want.

It also leads to a further problem. Leaving a pet in a car, even for a short time with the windows cracked, is quickly lethal in hot weather. The general public knows this, and if they see a dog or cat inside a vehicle when the weather is warm, they will not only notice it immediately, but they may take action to “rescue” the pet. This could range from calling the police or store manager to report the situation, to breaking the window of your van themselves to rescue the dog or cat. Many states now have Good Samaritan Laws specifically for this situation, which give legal protection to anyone who acts in good faith to remove a pet from this unsafe situation, absolving them of any criminal responsibility and relieving them of any liability for damage to the vehicle. So any time you leave Fido in the van, for even a short period of time, you may very well come back to find a broken window, a confiscated dog, and the police waiting for you. Even if you can prove to a certainty in a court of law that your pet was safe, you will still have to deal with all the legal wranglings of doing so, and you may or may not get your pet back.

Other situations must also be considered. Your pet will need to relieve himself several times a day. With a cat, having a litter box in the confined space of a van is not the most pleasant of situations, especially if you are absent for long periods each day and cannot empty it after each use. If you have a bird or rat or other small animal, you will need to be religiously diligent about cage-cleaning. Your pet might be relatively odorless in an apartment or house, but in the restricted confines of a van, the situation will be quite different.

Dogs of course will not poop in a litter box, but they will poop on your carpeted floor. Again, not a desirable situation. You will have to find a park or other suitable place for your doggie to go, and this will be a logistical necessity. If you are a rural boondocker, your problem is solved, but another problem arises. Many public lands, including state and national parks, either restrict the areas where pets are allowed or ban them outright. (And many require dogs to be on a leash at all times.)

We all love our pets, and for most people they are akin to family. There are indeed many vandwellers who do keep their pets with them and who assert that they are safe and happy (though of course nobody can ask the dog what he thinks of the situation). It can be done, but it requires significant planning, expense, and logistics to deal with a long list of issues and challenges that are not easy to meet. Alas, the harsh brutal practical reality is that, for vandwellers who do not have the resources or ability to deal with all of those issues, keeping a pet in the van is not only unrealistic, but terribly unfair to the animal.


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