What to consider when looking for a pet sitter
Expert tips to help you make the right choice for your best animal buds
As the lockdowns that defined the pandemic become distant memories, many pet owners are facing a gradual return to the office or planning a long-awaited vacation. Whatever the scenario, the thought of leaving your best friend with a stranger is enough to induce some anxiety.
Dr. Anneliese Heinrich and Dr. Colleen Fisher, two veterinarians with expertise in animal behaviour, have useful tips to help you decide who should take care of your animal while you're away, and how to ensure your pet is ready for the experience.
Narrowing down the options
Sorting through the plethora of options for a pet sitter can feel daunting. There are popular websites such as Rover and Trusted Housesitters, community groups on apps like Nextdoor that are filled with locals ready to step up, daycare or boarding facilities and your vet's office.
"The first thing you want to do is figure out the needs of the pets involved," said Fisher, who has been working with animals for over 30 years. "Does the pet have any specific medical or dietary concerns? That helps us decide how much of a professional we need." Exotic pets, such as reptiles or birds, can have very specific needs, she added.
According to Fisher, it's important to find someone who is knowledgeable about the particular species of your pet. "In some cases, it could very well be a family member or friend who's comfortable with that pet, who knows that pet." When you are looking outside of your immediate circle, she said, referrals from friends or family — even a vet, trainer or groomer that you trust — can help you find the option that is appropriate for you.
Another crucial consideration is the personality of your pet, said Heinrich, a resident of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. "For the most part, I recommend companies … rather than private homes," she said, because professionals tend to have more experience — and are often insured for these services. You might also be able to get a better view of a facility than a private home. However, many pets are going to be "more comfortable with someone coming into their home rather than going elsewhere," she said. "So, always defer back to the individual pet and what their behaviour and personality dictates would be the best solution for them."
Heinrich said pet owners should consider if their animal prefers being with other animals or being alone, and use that information to decide which environment is the most suitable for them. At a boarding facility, for example, your pet might have less interaction with other animals, she said. "If you have a pet that is aggressive or uncomfortable with new people coming into their home …, the best solution for that pet might be [to] go to a boarding facility."
Hiring a pet sitter
If you decide the best option is to hire a pet sitter and send your best friend to their home — or invite the sitter into your home — there are questions Fisher encourages every pet owner to ask. You want to know why they do what they do, and about their education and experience with animals, she said. Ask the person to describe how they handled a challenging situation in the past, the vet advised. "In the case of an emergency, do they insist on using their own veterinarian?" And if they themselves have an emergency, she continued, do they provide a backup that can care for your animal? Of course, you will also want to be looking at references and reviews from previous clients about their experiences.
The pet sitter should be bonded, have the proper liability insurance and they should be willing to have an in-person interview. "I am always looking for positive interactions," said Fisher. "If I see a pet sitter … not understanding positive reward techniques or being impatient with my animals, those are red flags. I want to know that they know how to approach an animal."
If a pet sitter is coming into your home, Heinrich suggests asking them to undergo a criminal record check — "just for your own personal safety, and the safety of your pet and the belongings in your home," she said. "I would definitely be asking for references from past clients and potentially other employers." You also want to make sure "their philosophies with regard to pet care line up with yours."
Once you have hired a pet sitter that seems like the right fit, the next step is ensuring they're aware of your pet's needs, and the layout of your home if they're coming over. Fisher said that you'll want to let the sitter know if, for example, you typically let your dog run loose in the yard, but the fence is currently broken. "We want to make sure that both the pet and the person involved are going to be safe … We want to make sure your smoke detectors are working properly, we want to make sure that they have emergency contact information for you or another decision-maker."
Boarding your pet
According to Heinrich, there are several ways to spot a good boarding facility. Look at the amount of space, she said, and see if your animal will have the opportunity for some alone time, or if they'll always be exposed to other animals. "A lot of these places will not have staff overnight, and that's not necessarily a problem." But you'll want to know how long staff are gone for at night, she said, and if the facility has a relationship with a veterinarian in case of an emergency.
The smell of the facility is also a tell-tale sign. "Does it smell clean?" Fisher asks. "Are the food containers covered so you don't have to worry about pests and things like that?" She also suggests checking to see that the bedding and ventilation is appropriate.
When it comes to the animals your pet will be interacting with at the boarding facility, both Heinrich and Fisher agree that vaccination requirements are of prime importance. "You want to make sure [the facility] requires appropriate vaccination for all their attendees," said Fisher. Issues like kennel cough can't be spotted just by looking, she explained.
If a boarding facility has verified online reviews from users, that can also help you make your final decision.
Preparing your pet for the change
While some animals handle change in stride, others may respond with fear or aggression. That's why it's important to prepare your pet once you've hired your pet sitter or chosen your boarding facility.
You can introduce your pet to the sitter ahead of time, said Fisher. "Structure is really crucial for dogs — but also for other pets … Give them a feeding schedule, so they know when breakfast and supper are [and] so they know when they're going to get a walk." You want to create a routine the pet can rely on, she said, so even if there's a little stress about who's giving them their food, they still have an idea of what to expect.
If your pet is heading to another location, such as a sitter's house or a boarding facility, Heinrich recommends sending along items to make your pet feel at home. "A favourite bed or toys of their own, even dishes and food — things that have the scent of home and are just familiar, comforting objects," she explained.
Signs of a happy conclusion
You have done your due diligence as a pet owner and made the most informed decision for your animal. Now, how do you know if their experience with the pet sitter or boarding facility has been a positive one?
You want to see if your pet is nervous when that person approaches them, said Heinrich. If their tail is tucked between their legs, or they're skirting away to avoid that person, it's a bad sign, the vet explained. "House soiling [when] your pet is normally house trained might indicate that they weren't let out enough or that they were scared during that experience … It's fairly normal for pets to not eat as much when they're in a new environment, or when the environment is out of sorts, so that's not the most reliable indicator."
What you want to see is a happy pet who seems to be themselves. "We all know what our pets look like when they're happy and when there's a threat," said Fisher. If they're jumping up at you and also jumping up on this new person, the vet explained, that's their way of saying "it's been fun."
Jacqueline Martinz is a freelance writer in Toronto. She loves exploring the city and staying active with her dog, Oliver.