At first glance, the lobby of the Grand Dogaroo might be mistaken for that of a boutique hotel, decorated with quilted silver wall panels and an ornate gold and crystal chandelier.
In fact, it's a fancy pied-à-terre for pets, with a heated swimming pool and services ranging from grooming treatments to canine cupcake selections. The 8,000 sq ft facility on Waterloo Road is a pet hotel with accommodation for up to 50 dogs and cats.
But there's more to the facility than good looks; it's the first pet hotel in Hong Kong to earn ISO 9001: 2008 certification - a measure of quality management.
While the Dogaroo Group opened the hotel in 2010, staff spent more than a year working on protocols to secure ISO certification, including those for emergencies such as quarantine procedures when an animal gets sick on the premises.
The team developed a work flow that would make pets as comfortable as they were at home, says group executive director Eric Ko Yiu-chung. "We also had inspectors coming at random to test out any loopholes of the system," he adds.
Pet boarding facilities have multiplied in recent years in response to an explosion in pet ownership. Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department figures show that the number of licensed dogs has jumped from 67,098 in 2000 to 317,024 at the end of 2009 - a 372 per cent increase. Licensed hostels for dogs and cats grew over the same period from five to 25.
Animal lovers who regard their pets as family may be taken with pet boarding facilities offering fancy trappings, which can help assuage guilt and anxiety when they have to leave pets behind on trips.
But rather than choose a facility that appeals to them personally, owners should first consider their pets' interests, experts advise.
"Comfort, hygiene and the staff training and attitude are the [qualities] you should look out for when boarding your pets," says Jane Gray, deputy director of veterinary services for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). "Animals often get stressed due to lack of attention. So it's important to have caring and well-trained staff."
Gray suggests that owners should first look around a facility before sending off their pets for boarding.
"It's really important to choose a registered boarding facility, ones that are licensed by AFCD because unlicensed ones might not have the required level of disease control and size of cage," she says. "Don't just look at the pictures on the internet, you should try to visit the premises to meet the staff and see if the animal will have enough space to play."
Holidays such as Christmas and the upcoming Lunar New Year are peak periods for pet boarding services and popular facilities like Grand Dogaroo are almost booked to capacity as pet owners make arrangements to travel.
Catering executive Janis Ng sends her golden retriever, Buster, to the hotel every couple of months when she goes away on business, and will be checking in her beloved pet this month and next. "Because Buster has trained with Dogaroo staff since he was little, I feel secure when they take care of him. I trust their knowledge and caring hearts," she says.
The Dogaroo Group, which comprises two boarding facilities (the second is on Tung Choi Street), a dog training centre, a pet photography studio, all in Mong Kok, as well as a pet cafe in Stanley, began as a training service.
An Australian-certified dog trainer, Ko opened the training centre in 2005 and, egged on by pet owners, introduced a boarding facility two years later.
"Hong Kong people take their pets seriously," he says. "I've seen some tearing up when they leave the dog with us, even for a short stay."
Attitudes have changed in the past decade, with owners spending more money and time on their pets. "Before, people might have fed leftovers to their pets. But nowadays, they are knowledgeable about food trends and grooming products for their pets; for example, organic food and pet aromatherapy."
With such concern about animal well-being in mind, he invested in a heated exercise pool for dogs when fitting out his second pet hotel. Occupants at Grand Dogaroo are taken for daily swimming sessions by an experienced trainer.
"Swimming helps release their energy, tires them out and helps firm their joints and muscles. It's good for older dogs and ones suffering from arthritis," Ko says.
The hotel also puts ozone in the water to clean the animals as it helps kill bacteria, remove odour and prevent skin diseases.
Conveniently located sites on Hong Kong Island or in Kowloon aside, many owners are attracted to boarding facilities in the New Territories that offer cage-free accommodation and pick-up and drop-off services. To reassure pet owners, some even e-mail photos of the pets' daily life to their owner.
The latter service is one reason Jason Schlabach sends Eli, his Cavalier King Charles spaniel, to PetWorld in Yuen Long whenever he is away on work trips or visiting family back in the United States.
"They send me half-a-dozen photos of Eli every day and that's comforting and reassuring," says the American architect, who relocated to Hong Kong three years ago.
"Really what I valued the most was the communication," he says. "Whenever I have questions or changes in my itinerary, they are quick to get back to me. Eli seems happy playing fetch and interacting with the staff. He gets to run outside and jump and play with other dogs."
Many owners' main concern is that their pets would not be properly cared for, says Stacy Tucker, owner of the Ferndale Kennels and Cattery in Sai Kung. "They worry the dogs will be sad and scared away from home."
Such concerns are justified, says Gray of the SPCA. "Although each pet reacts differently, the stress of boarding might trigger underlying diseases - especially in their heart or kidneys. Cats are more sensitive to a completely new environment. They can get quite stressed and not eat, or hide at the back of the cage. If they starve for a few days, they can get liver failure and eventually die."
Although not as sensitive as cats, dogs are also affected by separation from their owners.
"Especially if they were not well socialised before, they get stressed being around other dogs," Gray says.
To address owners' concerns, kennels often provide extra play time to help pets relieve stress. "We add extra play time with groups of dogs if they are friendly, always supervised, and watched," Tucker says. "We also let the dogs out in batches to hang out with us at the office so they get lots of pats and company."
For owners who want to ensure their pets get more of a workout, DB Dog Dayz in Sai Kung provides kennel-free lodging where dogs are walked in the nearby country park up to three times daily. But the service comes with conditions.
"We require that all dogs be friendly with other dogs as well as around children," says owner Andrew Ng Wai-kwok. "They don't live in the kennels but roam freely throughout the ground floor and garden and often through the rest of our house, too. We require all dogs in our care to be completely house-trained as well as de-sexed and fully vaccinated."
Ng set up the business eight years ago because he could not bear to place his two dogs in kennels when he travelled. Recognising a gap in the market, he quit his job as a computer cable engineer to start the kennel-free boarding service.
"I absolutely love what I do and I'm so happy that I get to work with dogs all day," he says. "It is wonderful for our kids to grow up with the companionship of the dogs. I get to spend more time with my family and the dogs and thank goodness I don't work in an office job in Central."
For a new twist on pet boarding service, some owners are now sending their dogs to a temporary foster family when they travel.
Former air hostess Tanusha Pillay started Royal Pets about six months ago to provide an alternative pet boarding service. The South African resident has recruited a network of about 10 foster families who can take up to two dogs or cats in their homes, and the venture also taps a panel of about 15 freelance dog walkers and cat sitters.
"We insist on an introductory meeting between the pet owners and foster family prior to the boarding," Pillay says. "Dogs can sleep on their own beds or, on request, some dogs even sleep with the families."
Business was so good for Pillay over the Christmas holidays that her network of foster families was unable to meet all requests and she ended up taking dogs into her own home.
"It's a new concept and it gives pet owners peace of mind," she says.
Despite the caring services, Gray warns that some pets do not adapt well to boarding. "No matter how good the facilities are, they won't be as good as home," she says.
"So it's wise to get your pet's health checked out and get them vaccinated, especially ones over 10 years old. It's good if you pack a jumper that has your smell or its own bed and toys that will calm your pet down - things that give him or her a memory of home."
Groom and Board
Ferndale Kennels and Cattery
Run by veterinary business veteran Stacy Tucker, the facility has 33 individual kennels for dogs and the same number for cats. Pick up and delivery service to Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are available at the owner's expense. Photos of the boarded pets will be sent to owners daily. Prices range from HK$150 to HK$300 per dog per day. Boarding cats costs HK$120-HK$150 per day.
Grand Dogaroo Pet Hotel
The 8,000 sq ft hotel provides up to 50 kennels for dogs and is equipped with a heated pool and playground for dogs as well as a dog cafe and training centre. Prices start at HK$260 per day for dogs under 10kg and can go up to HK$450 for larger dogs. The rate for cats is HK$360 per day.
Royal Pets HK
Up to two dogs or cats can be boarded with a foster family for HK$190 per day. Dog walking and cat feeding are also available.
DB Dog Dayz
Kennel-free accommodation and up to three daily walks at Sai Kung Country Park. In warm weather, around-the-clock air conditioning is available. Prices start from HK$225 per day and can go up to HK$250 for public holidays and peak season.
Rates start from HK$150 and can go up to HK$430. Dogs will enjoy cuddle time, personal care, chicken meal, daily chew and grass run. Owners will receive photos of their pets every day.