Sunday, December 24, 2006
Holiday pet sitters keep animals, owners content
By: ALEXANDRA DeLUCA - For the North County Times NORTH COUNTY ---- This week, many North County residents will brave endless airport security lines, congested highways and freezing temperatures to spend the holidays with far-away family. But what about their furry, four-legged family members? Local pet owners are increasingly turning to professional pet sitters to take care of Fido and Fluffy in their own homes. In-home pet care has several advantages over traveling with pets or boarding them at a kennel, said April Cook, 29, president of Dogs On The Run, a Carlsbad-based pet-sitting business that has 30 employees and serves all of San Diego County. "The biggest thing is it reduces stress for the pet," said Cook, who said staying in familiar surroundings minimizes pets' separation anxiety and allows them to continue their regular diets and exercise routines.
Cook said that by keeping pets at home, owners also don't have to worry about their pets contracting airborne illnesses that can be common at boarding facilities, such as kennel cough and upper respiratory infections. "People care about their pets more today than ever," said Cook, who, like other pet sitters, said the demand for pet-sitting is greater now than ever.
"A lot of people these days are waiting longer to have children, so their pets are their babies," pet sitter Susan McBride said. "They look at them more as part of the family."
"Pets are family members," said another sitter, Janean Huston. "It doesn't matter if it's a dog, cat, horse or alpaca. They're something that we cherish." Huston, 43, owner of Hounds to Horses, a pet-sitting business that she operates with her husband, Bill, out of their Harmony Grove ranch, said pet sitters also give homeowners the peace of mind of knowing that their homes are being looked after while they're away.
"Not only is our goal to make sure your animal is healthy, it's also to make sure your home has a lived-in look," said Huston, who, like the other pet sitters interviewed in this article, does not charge extra to take in the mail and newspaper, turn lights on and off, open and close curtains, take out the trash and water plants.
Like many pet sitters, Huston said December is one of the busiest times of the year for business. "Typically, Fourth of July weekend, Thanksgiving and December are the biggies," Huston said.
"Over the holidays, I'm lucky if I sleep," said McBride, 38, owner of Animal House Pet Care, a Carlsbad-based pet-sitting business she operates with a partner and four other employees that serves all of North County. McBride said she calls her regular clients in October to ask if they will need her services during the holidays. "I was booked for Christmas and New Year's Eve by Labor Day," McBride said.
Many pet sitters said they alter or postpone their own holiday plans in order to accommodate the increased business during December. "Being a pet sitter, you don't get to celebrate holidays," said Cook, who said she and each of her employees visit four or five pets each day during December. "Last Christmas, I saw my family for one hour," said McBride, who said a typical workday during the holiday season starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m.
"My Thanksgiving was scheduled from 2 to 4 in the afternoon," Huston said. "On Christmas, I have a small window to open presents at 4 p.m."
Anita Gunton, 50, owner of the Escondido-based A Dog's Life pet-sitting service, said many of her clients prefer for her to stay at their homes with their pets overnight. "I have 10 overnights in a row right up to New Year's Eve," Gunton said.
Most pet sitters said they offer two types of services: daily visits, which typically last for a half-hour to 45 minutes and include feeding, exercising or playing and grooming the pet; and overnight stays, during which the pet sitter sleeps over and spends 10 to 12 hours at the client's house.
"It depends on how needy the pet is," said Cook, who, like the other pet sitters, said about half of her clients prefer overnight stays.
The amount of contact clients prefer to have while they're away also varies, although most pet sitters said they communicate with pet owners on a daily basis.
"I e-mail them every day they're on vacation and send pictures," Gunton said.
McBride said she usually calls clients from their land lines so they know she's at their home, and also keeps a journal of a pet's activities for the clients to read upon their return. "They're always greeted by a smiling picture of their pet," McBride said. "Sometimes I'll bake cookies or leave flowers to welcome them home."
When it comes to finding a pet sitter, most pet sitters said the best place to begin is by asking friends who they use. "You'll find out who to hire and who not to hire," Gunton said.
Another way to find a pet sitter is through a professional organization such as the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (www.petsitters.org) or Pet Sitters International (www.petsit.com). Both organizations have a search engine on their Web sites that allows pet owners to search for local pet sitters by entering their ZIP codes.
References are a must, Huston said. "Call them, don't just look at them," Huston said. Huston said a pet sitter should also be fully insured and bonded. "You're dealing with a live animal, which is unpredictable, and you're giving someone a key to your home," Huston said.
Many pet sitters said they suggest that clients meet with several pet sitters and choose the one they feel most comfortable with.
"I always tell them to interview a couple of people," Cook said.
"It's just like hiring a baby sitter," McBride said.
"Do an interview," Gunton said. "Have them sit on your couch, play with your (pet), see how they interact."
"Make sure that you just click with them," said Huston, who, like the other pet sitters interviewed for this article, said she does not charge for an initial consultation. "We always have a complimentary 'sniff and greet,' " Huston said.
Huston said meeting face to face gives the pet an opportunity to get comfortable with the pet sitter and also gives the pet sitter a chance to get familiar with the client's home, such as where the food is kept or where the litter box is, and to go over instructions with the client. "It's good to see what you consider one scoop (of food)," Huston said. "It helps to get a visual."
Pet owners should not be embarrassed to leave detailed instructions, to be specific about how they want their pet taken care of or to inform their pet sitter about their pet's personality quirks, Gunton said. "I totally understand," she said. "I have my own oddball animals."
Finally, pet owners should sign a contract with the pet sitter before they leave that specifies exactly how much they will be charged, what dates the pet sitter will come and what services will be rendered.
Although most local pet sitters charge about $20 for a daily visit and $75 to $80 for an overnight stay, they said the peace of mind they provide pet owners is priceless.
Alexandra DeLuca is a freelance writer.