Designing Pet-Friendly Spaces

Because pets can be such an important part of life for some of our clients, they are a worthy topic for a design column. As you read this statement, you are probably smiling remembering an unusual situation regarding a client's dog, cat, bird or other pet from your own experience.

This kitchen is easy for me to remember, as the designer was my dear friend and teacher, Lorey Cavanaugh, and the client was me or my 65-pound boxer, Caesar. This was the kitchen that not only launched our friendship, but was my entry into training for this profession.

In addition, the designers in my office have worked with clients who have had a variety of pet-related needs, and a few of those stories are the subject of this column.

Client Needs

While measuring the height and length of Fido might not be necessary when planning the design, assuming the size of the dog or other pet based on its breed might not be accurate. Rather, meeting the pet face to face will help you categorize him as small, medium or large. In addition, measure the living environment of the pet its bed, aquarium, cage or whatever.

A discussion about the number of pets and their eating habits is also part of the design program. Determine where food and water dishes are kept and take note of their size and configuration with a quick sketch. How often does the homeowner shop for pet food? What type of storage does the food require? What additional vitamins, medicines or grooming aids must be stored, and where? Take note of the size of the food containers and where they are stored. Are larger or bulk food containers kept outside of the kitchen? Is water, heat or refrigeration required for food preparation or storage?

In addition, the pets' "habits" should be discussed. If a litter box is used, where is it stored? Is the pet allowed or exercised outside? If so, is there a pet door planned for pet access to the outdoors?

A pet could easily live in the home longer than a client's human children. Cats live an average of 14 to 17 years, rabbits 7 to 12, and parrots anywhere from 40 to 100 years, so space planning for a pet's eating, grooming, playing or exercising, and sleeping is critical and should not be an afterthought.

Does the homeowner want the pet's food containers hidden behind cabinetry doors or left out and easily accessible? The use of cabinetry accessories such as pull-out drawers, a pocket door or lift-up door can be used to conceal a dog's food dishes. A raised toekick below a raised oven or dishwasher allows a place for a pet's dishes to be recessed when not in use.

We recently worked with a client who had an attractive dog gate made that was designed to be permanently installed. It was meant to keep her dog in the kitchen and out of the formal living area of the home, which featured hardwood floors.

Depending on the pet's size, a floor-mounted utility sink basin or shower near the dog's entry into the house is a great concept to include in a design, because it allows for regular grooming or washing paws on a rainy and muddy day. A hand-spray with a 72" hose would be the perfect accessory here.

One of our more customized designs included the transformation of an old garage into a dog's room for a client's numerous prize show dogs. This area features a raised bathtub placed at a comfortable height for bathing the dogs, a separate washer and dryer for the dogs' bedding, a walk-in closet for grooming tables and transportation cages, three exterior dog-runs with motorized doors, and a bunk room, full bathroom and refrigerator for the visiting trainers and the dogs' food and other dietary needs. A charcoal gray ceramic tile floor and laminate cabinets and counters were selected for their easy maintenance qualities.

Currently, we are working with a client who had planned to have a traditional desk in a kitchen, but is instead utilizing it as the dog's area, with the open knee space planned to fit the dog's bed. For another client, we simply increased the walk aisle on the back side of the island to allow for flexibility in the placement of her small dogs' beds.

Indoor Air Quality

Along with the joys of pet ownership come the side effects of potential odor and allergy problems. Flooring and finish materials, as well as products and systems that clean the air, can help improve indoor quality.

Typical pet allergens that need to be dealt with are skin flakes, or dander, as well as urine or protein from saliva. For those who are allergic, pet exposure can cause sneezing, wheezing, inflammation to eyes or nose, shortness of breath or asthma attacks.

While hair and fur are not typically a problem, they can collect pollen, dust and mold. Bird feathers and droppings from birds and other caged animals can be allergens, as well. Furthermore, droppings can be a source of bacteria, dust, fungi and mold.

And while fish are ideal for allergy sufferers because "they don't have hair, fur or dander, or an excrement that creates allergic problems," according to, large aquariums can add to the humidity in a room, which can contribute to mold and dust mites.

There are products available such as odor neutralizers, laundry detergents, carpet and upholstery sprays or powders, and shampoos and lotions that can neutralize and remove pet allergens. In addition, room air cleaners or air purifiers are useful in controlling airborne particle matter such as animal dander. In general, they act by recirculating the air in a room through a collector such as a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) or electrostatic filter or ionizer. These are available as free-standing appliances that can be activated in the space most often occupied by the pet.

However, air currents from forced air heating and air conditioning tend to spread allergens through the house, so a whole-house system is more effective.

While smooth and non-porous surface materials are often selected to minimize collection of dust and dander, as well as for ease of maintenance, surprisingly, carpet may be a better choice for a client with hair and dander sensitivities. The carpet traps pollutants until vacuumed up, whereas on a non-porous surface such as wood or tile, the pollutant can recirculate into the air from the draft created by simply walking on the surface.

In terms of floor care, a University of California at Davis study found participants with documented hypersensitivity had improved "quality of life" when they used a central vacuum system compared to their own conventional vacuum. This might be worth sharing with your clients.