Lost cat sign

Whenever I’m asked how I feel about pet sitting as an alternative to traditional kennel boarding, I always reply strongly in its favor. I treat my own pets to the safety and comfort of an in-home stay whenever I’m out of town… so why wouldn’t I recommend the same for my patients?

But as with any kind of service on offer, its success or failure depends to a very large degree on the service provider’s skills, resources and ethics. By which I mean to not-so-subtly imply that not all pet sitters are as skilled, resourceful and ethical as others — just as not all boarding kennels or even (gasp!) veterinarians are the epitome of perfection too.

What Could Go Wrong?

I feel compelled (and qualified) to comment on this issue not just because the summertime travel season is on the horizon but also because, as a veterinarian, I’m often treated to a front-row seat when it comes to pet sitting disasters. Consider these excerpts sourced from the personal stories of friends, family, clients and colleagues:

  • “The dogs got into a fight while I was away. The sitter, who’s also a veterinary technician, took it upon herself to clean the wounds and administer antibiotics — all without consulting me or my veterinarian!”
  • “Sasha's a nervous cat, and we knew she would escape, which is why we isolated her so the sitter could see how much food was being consumed and what was happening in the litterbox. Turns out the sitter never even went in the room the whole week! ‘So sorry. Forgot there was another cat. I’ll give you a discount.’ Good thing Sasha had the toilet, or who knows what would’ve happened!”
  • “Came home early and thought we’d walked into a party scene from Risky Business. At least the dogs looked like they were having fun.”

Not impressive enough? How about this doozy:

  • “The neighbors called while I was away to say my dog was roaming the streets. The pet sitter was clearly home and not answering. When I opened the front door, the sitter was passed out drunk on the sofa.”

Wow. Just… wow.

What to Look for in a Pet Sitter

Not to scare the bejeezus out of you, but these things happen. To mitigate the risk, here are some simple tips I recommend:

1. References, references, references: It’s always easier to check out an Angie’s List or Yelp, but the truth is that asking for references and calling them yourself is a way better approach.

2. Basic professionalism: Business cards, good telephone manners, prompt email replies, references at the ready, even a website. It all means you’ll pay more, but…

3. Certification: Both the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) and PSI offer certification programs. Certification essentially functions as a seal of approval from organizations that have a vested interest in promoting only the top tier. You may also want to look for sitters who are licensed, bonded and insured.

4. Forms, questionnaires and checklists: Every sitter needs a protocol. He or she should have a prepared set of questions, so they can determine precisely what is expected for the care of your pets and your home. It only makes sense. Anything else seems disorganized and sloppy, and I don’t want my patients falling through those gaping cracks.

5. Emergency planning: Make sure you know what your pet sitter’s emergency protocol is. Is it different from yours? Is there a reason for that? Does that make sense to you? And here’s a question you should always ask: “What was the worst emergency you ever had to deal with as a pet sitter? How did you handle it?”

6. Additional training and specialty services: Does he or she attend conferences? Read trade publications? Have any additional training, expertise, or experience? Plenty of sitters now specialize in certain kinds of work. I know a canine rehab sitter that works with a veterinary neurologist, for example, so she's great for pets with mobility problems. Another that sets up a “puppy cam” for your peace of mind. I even know of one that works to help your pet start on a weight loss plan established by your vet. But most importantly, can the sitter perform every service you need? Pilling, injections, fluid administration, home cooking, exercising, etc.? Make sure.

7. Backup sitting: A pet sitter is only as good as his or her backup sitter. Unfortunately, it’s my experience that plenty of pet sitters don’t have contingency plans in case of their own potential inability to comply with the terms of a pet sitting agreement. So when their back goes out… so too does your pet’s care. Scary, right? Similarly, some less-reputable sitters send others in their stead at the first sign of an impending personal moment. And that’s not necessarily what you want either. Always make sure you know who takes over, when and how.

8. Financial considerations: Are they bonded and insured? How much does this matter to you?

A Few To-Dos Before You Say Goodbye

Whether you're using a new pet sitter or leaving your pet with a sitter for the first time, I recommend you start off with a short vacay before heading off on a long European vacation. A dry run is good for you and your pet and the sitter, and it only makes sense.

Before you go, make sure you have a plan for communicating with the sitter. There is no substitute for a daily check-in by phone, email or some other way. If you’ll be on the Inca Trail or otherwise truly indisposed (the Inca Trail actually has some Wi-Fi hot spots!), be extra sure of your sitter’s qualifications.

And don’t forget: Your sitter needs to know how you would approve of and pay for emergency veterinary care, if needed. Call up your veterinarian and your preferred emergency/specialty hospital to find out what they’d require by way of your say-so and payment in the event of an emergency. And make sure your sitter will follow through!