In the dog (and cat) house

 

`It's not only the children who cry when the time comes." Isobel Dougan is talking about the petowners who leave their dogs and cats at Windgates, her family kennels and cattery near Bray, Co Wicklow. There's been wuffing and meowing on this site since 1937. Isobel's mother, Bridget Dougan, took over the business in the 1960s; now Isobel looks after the feline end of things, while her brother Eoin tends to the canines.

The weather at times would have us think otherwise, but, yes, it is the traditional holiday season. It's the time of year when cats and dogs hide under beds at the first dreaded sighting of the battered suitcase or rucksack sitting in the hallway. Many petowners resort to subterfuge, smuggling their luggage out to the boot after dark, or when their pet is distracted by tucking into its supper. Several owners eschew kennels in favour of leaving their pets with friends or other family members; others arrange for neighbours to come in and feed cats or walk dogs.

Whatever about leaving a supposedly independent cat in an empty house, many owners feel that a dog would pine if left alone, with only a short visit from a neighbour each day. But what do you do when you've run out of willing friends, relatives and neighbours? You look up the phone book and find yourself a kennels, or rather, you find your pet a kennels.

Although a Control of Dogs Act was passed in 1986, which allows the Minister for the Environment to make regulations covering kennels which hold more than five dogs, so far none have been drawn up. This means in theory that anyone can set up a kennels, as no licence is required and there is no official national list of registered premises. So what are these boarding kennels like behind the scenes?

It is afternoon at Windgates, outside Bray, Co Wicklow: a complex of fenced-in runs, prefabs and sheds. It's very quiet, but not for long. Walking towards the buildings where the dogs are kept, a Mexican wave of barking starts up. "We let the dogs out for a run from 8.30 in the morning," Isobel explains. "The neighbours wouldn't like it if we started any earlier!"

Small dogs are kept together in one building. When we enter, the noise is quite phenomenal. With this sort of burglar alarm on the premises, it seems unlikely Windgates will ever suffer a break-in. Every dog in this building has its own little enclosed run, each of which open off the corridor. There's a gate to keep them in and each gate has a slate attached to it, with the owner's name chalked on. Some also have their leads hanging on a peg outside.

A dozen dogs hurl themselves at their gates as we walk up and down. Some of them are doing very impressive high jumps. "We haven't lost a dog yet," Isobel confides with patent relief, something which would undoubtedly be a nightmare scenario for all concerned.

Most of the dogs look wildly happy to see us. But one small brown terrier is sitting down in a far corner and growling. "He only came in yesterday. He's still getting used to the place." All the others greet us with ecstasy. One white West Highland Terrier in particular is like an apoplectic yoyo, jumping up and down at the sight of Isobel.

The larger dogs are kept outside. They have much more gravitas than their smaller brothers. There's not much noise out of these lads. They stand at their gates and stare out like sentries: Dalmatian, German Shepherd, Boxer and Bearded Collie. Isobel puts her hand in through the bars and strokes the German Shepherd.

Windgates can accommodate up to 40 dogs and 16 cats. The price of an overnight stay for a dog ranges between £4.50 for a terrier-sized dog to £6 for an animal in the Irish Wolfhound category. "Well, we don't get too many Irish Wolfhounds," reports Isobel. Cats are a flat rate of £3 a night.

Dogs are let out for a run in a fenced enclosure every day while their kennels are being cleaned, "but we wouldn't be able to walk 40 dogs every day". Some of the bigger dogs get a short walk. Cats stay in their cages all the time.

Dogs and cats must have up-todate vaccinations before Windgates will take them, and have the vet's card to prove it. The cards are kept on a rack in the hallway.

Not surprisingly, the busiest time for the kennels is during the traditional holiday seasons: Christmas, Easter and the summer months of July and August. "But sometimes we get people leaving in pets if they're moving or getting work done on their house. Having workmen around usually means that doors and gates get left open most of the day, so they feel that their pets are safer here."

Over in the cat house, it's a very different atmosphere. It's totally silent when we go in. There are cages for 16 cats here, eight on each side. The cages are like bunks, four up and four down on each wall. Each one is lined with newspaper and has a big cardboard box in one corner.

"The cats love the boxes. They climb in and hide." This is very much a girls' place. There's flowered wallpaper on the back walls of the cages: roses and daisies and lilies.

Some of the cages have baskets in them as well, left by the cats' owners. There are also blankets and cushions. "Sometimes, people leave items of clothing, like scarves or old jumpers, so their cat has a familiar smell with them." One cage has a toy mouse in it, another has a small furry bear. Several have little coloured balls.

At first, it seems like the place is empty, and then the cats start waking up. One by one the heads start popping up over the top of the boxes. A tabby emerges from a Jaffa orange box. A big white cat catapults itself from a box that has "Oven Chips" emblazoned all over it. It's like the scene from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, when they metamorphose unexpectedly out of the jars.

There is one storybook black and white puss, with white paws and whiskers who comes out of a box that held Green Isle peas and sits at the front of the cage, looking out and yawning. "That one has been here for nearly two months," Isobel explains. "His owner is moving house."

Soon the sound of purring reverberates through the place. All the cats are awake now, rubbing up against the wire and arching their backs. One new arrival peeks out from behind her box, but won't chance it as far as the net. Isobel confesses that she doesn't know the names of any of the cats or dogs that are temporarily lodging at Windgates. "There are so many of them and they're always coming and going. I never call them by their names." Which just shows, whether you're pet or person, there's nowhere like home.

Rosita Boland's account of a tour with a group of foreign students will appear next Tuesday.