How to start up a boarding kennel

Boarding kennels offer pet boarding services to owners who are going on holiday, or who want their animals cared for during the day when they're at work. Check out our guide for starting and running your own animal boarding business.

Research your target market

The aim of carrying out market research before starting up is to make sure that your boarding kennel business has every chance of succeeding. There will be demand for boarding kennels and catteries in most areas of the UK, but it may be the case that it is lower in some less wealthy areas of the country.

Competition

Setting up in business in an area that is already well served by boarding kennels is likely to result in difficulties in breaking into the market. So the first thing to do is to check the entries on Yell.com and other business directories to see how many similar businesses there are in your area. It may then be helpful if you marked these establishments on a map of your local area so that you can see how close they are to one another and to see if there are any areas that are less well served. Bear in mind that many people treat their pets as one of the family and can become very loyal to a kennel that has looked after their animal well in the past. So it may be quite difficult to win business away from any existing kennels.

Get information about the type of services that existing kennels offer and the prices they charge.

Location

The location of a boarding kennel is important for a number of reasons. When starting your business, you may choose to buy an existing kennel (see below), rather than set up from scratch as it can be difficult to get planning permission for new boarding kennel businesses.

Give careful consideration to how close the kennels are to residential areas. This is important for a number of reasons, such as:

  • the catchment area for your business. Unless you're specifically choosing to locate your kennels near to an airport or ferry port, you will probably find that the majority of your customers will come from your surrounding area, so it is important that there is a sufficiently large local population
  • noise pollution. Noise pollution is a potential problem for all boarding kennels - that's why many are located in fairly isolated areas. Just because a kennel has a licence, there's no guarantee that this licence will be renewed, so if you are buying an existing kennel make sure you check whether there are any ongoing complaints over noise levels
  • if the kennel is easy to find. Boarding kennels that are too far off the beaten track may lose business as customers are not able to find them. Delivery drivers may also experience similar problems

It's often an advantage to be situated near to main link roads. Pet owners may want to drop off and collect their animals when they're en-route to or from their holiday. If you're near to an important road link you may attract some customers from far afield who pass your kennels on the way to an airport, seaport or other holiday destination.

Customer profile

Your 'customer profile' has two aspects, your human (and paying) customers and your animal (and arguably most important) customers.

Your human customers are likely to be:

  • people wishing to board their pets while they are on holiday. These will come from all age groups and social and economic backgrounds. The one thing they are guaranteed to have in common, however, is a desire to see that their family pet is happy and well looked after when they are away
  • people who are working abroad on a non-permanent basis. These could include members of the armed forces, employees of multi-national companies and so on
  • working people who are reluctant to leave their pets during the day - demand for day boarding, or 'pet creche' services, has grown in recent years
  • animal charities. Some charities may ask boarding kennel proprietors to house rescued animals from time to time. These charities are usually given a sizeable discount
  • police forces. Occasionally, police forces may need to board some of their own dogs, for example, dogs that have been deemed unsuitable for police dog work and are waiting to be re-homed

Registered quarantine kennels provide services for people who need to import a rabies-susceptible pet animal - like a cat, dog or ferret - that doesn't qualify under the EU pet movement rules. However, since these rules were introduced the quarantine boarding market has almost disappeared completely, so it's fairly unlikely that you'll be providing this service unless you have a particularly good reason to enter the market. Bear in mind that things may change if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement.

Your animal customers might include:

  • dogs of all breeds, sizes and temperaments. It is advisable that you accept only dogs that have been vaccinated - you should check their veterinary certificates beforehand
  • cats. If you are going to accept cats, then the same issues apply to them as to dogs - the main one being that, again, they must be vaccinated
  • other domestic animals. You may be asked to board such pets as rabbits, guinea pigs and so on
  • exotic pets such as snakes, lizards and spiders
  • larger domestic animals. It is possible that you may be asked to board animals like pot-bellied pigs. You will obviously have to decide for yourself if you have the capacity, expertise and inclination to take such animals

You may also have non-boarding business if you decide to offer other goods and services like puppy training, grooming or pet food sales.

Decide what to offer

It's likely that you already have a good idea of the type of boarding kennel that you're planning to run. If you intend to start your business from scratch you will be able to decide on the best layout for the kennel or cattery buildings. However, if you are thinking of buying an existing kennel then you will have to fit your plans and ideas around the buildings that are already there. Maybe you plan to convert a suitable existing building, such as an old barn.

Conventional kennel buildings usually feature a corridor through which to access each individual unit. Each individual unit will have access to some form of run and of course there will be strong perimeter fencing to prevent escape. As dogs often chew wooden structures, licensing authorities usually insist that alternative materials such as concrete or steel and wire mesh are used. Cats are often housed in chalets, also with access to an enclosed run. The run may be open to the elements, covered or a mixture of both.

Some of the things that you may want to consider are:

  • what animals you will accept. You may decide that you only wish to accept dogs or to cater for both cats and dogs. Alternatively, you might be intending to set up just a cattery. Perhaps you intend to accept other animals like rodents, caged birds and even reptiles
  • what the total capacity of the kennel will be. From a financial point of view, it would seem that the ideal would be to fit in as many animals as space will allow. However, you should remember that there is a large amount of work involved in running a kennel and that to cope with very large numbers it is almost inevitable that you would have to employ staff to help you. Therefore, you may decide to keep numbers to more manageable levels. It is difficult to say what the ideal capacity would be - you may wish to visit existing boarding kennels to see what sort of numbers they accommodate
  • the standard of accommodation you will offer. Some kennels provide fairly basic accommodation, while others style themselves as 'pet hotels' and charge a premium price for a luxury service
  • whether you'll accept day boarders. Demand for 'pet creche' services has grown in recent years
  • whether you'll offer other services aside from boarding, such as a grooming parlour or puppy training. If you are going to provide this type of service, think about whether you'll have to employ a specialist groomer or trainer - or if you will be able to deal with it yourself. Another service that is sometimes offered by boarding kennels - and which you may consider offering - is sales of food and other pet products

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Your day

Running a boarding kennel is often hard, physical work. You should think hard (and honestly) about whether you are cut out for this type of work - just liking animals probably isn't enough. Remember also that although the working day ends in the early evening, because your living accommodation will almost certainly have to be 'on-site', you will be in close proximity to the animals for twenty-four hours a day. If an animal is sick you'll probably be on duty all night.

The structure of a typical day will be something like:

  • let the boarders out and clean their living quarters
  • clean the feeding and drinking vessels
  • feed any boarders, as appropriate. Cats are usually fed twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening; dogs are usually just fed once a day. Feeding routines are, however, a matter of personal preference
  • attend to any problems with new boarders
  • let the animals back inside and then clean the outside runs
  • walk/exercise dogs
  • do a stock-take of food and cleaning materials, check the fencing, walls, flooring and so on to make sure there are no escape routes
  • check the condition of the bedding
  • check the animals' health records and visual health condition
  • groom any animals that need doing
  • attend to customers, delivery drivers and so on
  • deliver and collect any boarders, if you offer this type of service
  • administer any medicines and treatments, and arrange or oversee vets' visits
  • the last job will always be to make sure that all the animals are secure and that everything in the kennel is running smoothly

Don't forget as well that you will have to take care of any admin that needs doing, including keeping your books up to date.

Seasonality and additional services

The most common reason for people to board their animals in a kennel is when they go away on holiday and, as a large percentage of animal owners also have children, your busiest times will be at school holiday periods. These are two weeks at Easter and Christmas, six weeks in the summer with three week-long half term periods.

You could try to lessen the effect of these seasonal fluctuations by targeting different markets. For example, many people take weekend breaks, during which they may ask a neighbour or family member to feed their pet. If you offered special rates for weekend boarding and/or a pick-up and return service, people may be tempted to use your kennels instead.

You may also consider offering other services to stand alongside the boarding side of the business. One of the more popular of these is a grooming parlour. It is very likely that you will provide a certain level of grooming to the animals that are boarded with you and the charge for this will often be included in the boarding fee. However, you could offer this service to non-boarders and charge the full fee for it. You may find that to successfully provide a grooming service, you will have to employ staff with the relevant qualifications. To reduce further the impact of seasonality on your business you could also consider offering a puppy training service and perhaps a 'pet creche' service for people who are reluctant to leave their pet at home all day while they're at work.

You may also be able to boost your income by selling pet food and other animal related products. If you plan to do this on a large scale, you may have to check first with your local authority to see whether they will allow you to do so.

If you think your income is likely to be very seasonal it can be wise to make sure you start your business at the right time of year. Starting up just at the beginning of your quietest time of year could mean that you have to go for several months without much income to cover your regular expenses and overheads, which might include loan repayments.

Occupancy levels

Your 'occupancy level' is the percentage of your maximum possible capacity that's filled at any one time. Bear in mind that your maximum capacity may well have to take into account a couple of permanently empty units to be used as isolation kennels in an emergency.

A number of things can affect a kennel's occupancy level, particularly the time of year. You should expect some quiet times throughout the year. It's likely that your kennels will be fully booked for a fairly small percentage of the year, maybe around 10 weeks during the peak school holiday periods. The remaining weeks are likely to vary from nearly full down to nearly empty.

Your bookings and occupancy for a typical year might look roughly something like this example:

  • 100% booked - about 10 weeks
  • 75% booked - about 12 weeks
  • 50% booked - about 18 weeks
  • 25% booked - about 9 weeks
  • 10% booked - about 3 weeks

During the peak summer period you might decide to impose a minimum length of stay - perhaps one week - to maximise occupancy levels. It's not uncommon to have a minimum charge of two nights accommodation at all times of the year.

These figures are a very rough guide and you should make your own estimates taking into account your own particular situation. You might, of course, be closed for several weeks of the year, during which time your occupancy level would be 0%.

Once your business is up and running it's a good idea to keep occupancy records. These will give you valuable information about how your business is performing and could help you to identify particularly quiet periods so that you can work to improve occupancy.

Price your services

Make sure that the fees you charge are enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings.

Fees can vary quite widely from one kennel to the next depending on things like regional location, standards and facilities, reputation and whether or not the owner needs to operate on a fully commercial basis. It's worth checking out the going rate in your area for the type and standard of service you intend to offer - try searching online to get an idea of this.

Many kennels have different prices depending on the type and size of the animal, for example:

  • Small dog from £16.00 per night
  • Medium dog from £17.00 per night
  • Large dog from £18.00 per night
  • Very large dog (if taken) from £19.00 per night
  • Cat (if applicable) from £10.00 per night

(Figures included for illustrative purposes only)

Because your customers are mainly members of the public, prices quoted generally include VAT (if applicable).

You might decide to charge extra for very difficult dogs, for example those that are prone to anti-social behaviour.

If you board dogs and cats over the Christmas and New Year period then you might decide to increase your charges for these days - some boarding kennels double their charges for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Others have several 'high season' periods - typically Christmas and Easter fortnights and the summer holidays - when their charges are higher.

If you decide that you are able to take other types of animal, you may choose to negotiate a rate with the individual pet owner rather than have a set tariff. For example, you may charge the same for a rabbit as you would for a cat (although rabbits and other small animals are often charged for at a lower rate) and the same for a domestic pig as you would for a very large dog.

Think about how you will charge your customers. You may decide to charge a deposit when a customer makes a booking, with the balance payable on collection, or you may decide to charge the full fee in advance. Think too about what your fees will include. For example, will your daily fees cover insurance or will you charge extra? Will you offer discounts if customers provide their own pet food? Maybe you'll charge extra for winter heating, bathing, calmer/relaxant, to cater for special dietary requirements, and so on.

If you're going to offer any other non-boarding services then think about how much you'll charge for them. These could include things like a day care 'dog creche' service, dog walking and pet transport ('pet taxi' service).

Special offers and discounts

You may wish to make special offers from time to time. Probably the best time to do this is during the periods when your business is at its quietest.

It's quite common for boarding kennels to offer discounts to regular customers and to people wishing to board their animals for a long stay (for example over a month). Many also give discounts to people who board more than one animal. You could consider offering free trial stays to build up a regular customer base. You might offer special weekend boarding rates to attract custom from the increasing numbers of people who take weekend breaks.

Promote your business

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • sponsor a local event such as a dog show
  • pay for a display advert on Yell.com
  • use social media, forums and blogs to stay in touch with customers

Almost all types of advertising and promotion have a cost, whether it's financial or your own time and effort - or both. You need to make sure that the beneficial effects of your advertising efforts are worth the time and money spent on them. It's up to you to decide which types of advertising work best for you - sometimes this is down to trial and error.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing kennels, rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place.

It is a fairly common way to enter the pet boarding industry. Sometimes the established business is sold along with the owner's accommodation, on the same site. Combining a business purchase with a house move gives you plenty more to think about.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Note that just because a kennel currently has a licence, it does not mean that it will automatically be renewed once it expires. Licences are annual. Contact your local authority to find out whether there are any reasons why the licence would not be renewed (for example, there may have been complaints about noise levels). Also meet local neighbours, to uncover any kind of problems on that front.

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