Living

The Perks of Being a Pet Sitter

How to have pets in your life without committing to owning one

Earlier this year, I had to put my beloved Lab rescue, Zoey, to sleep. She had been my constant companion and my constant joy for 12 years, and I am bereft without her. I want to get another dog eventually, but first I want to travel a bit and not worry about my pet at home.

So, I’ve been looking around for opportunities to be with dogs and cats for a weekend or longer without committing to them: I’ve considered fostering a rescue animal until a permanent home is found for it, volunteering at a shelter, socializing small puppies destined to be therapy dogs and agreeing to house a pet while a veteran is deployed or a family is in a shelter.

I’ve also considered pet sitting for friends and acquaintances — an activity that I find makes you very popular.

Gail Menkes, 66, of Staten Island, N.Y., has been pet sitting in her home since she retired from a full-time paralegal position a year ago. Feeling that she wouldn’t be able to put another pet to sleep after her last dog died, she decided that pet sitting would be a better option for her both to make money and to get her “dog fix.”

She’s since found that it’s great for her social life. “It is amazing how many neighbors I did not know but have met while walking with a dog,” she says. “And there are so many things that I have learned about my own neighborhood that I was never aware of before.”

Linda Peckel, 61, a freelance writer living in Ansonia, Conn., likes to pet sit for friends because it gets her away from her regular routine.

“I started cat sitting for a friend who lives in the Adirondacks of New York a few years ago because it gave me the opportunity to spend a month in a charming house in a little mountain community, set right by a lake,” Peckel says.

Your Pet Sitting Self-Assessment

If you’re interested in pet sitting, whether you want to do it on a casual or professional basis, keep this advice from Beth Stultz-Hairston, vice president of Pet Sitters International (PSI), an educational association for professional pet sitters, in mind:

Recognize that pet sitting may go “beyond simply walking pets, feeding them and cleaning up litter boxes. Some pets may have specific dietary or physical activity restrictions, or they may need medications or shots administered,” she says.

Some questions to ask yourself:

What breeds of cats and dogs do you like and can you handle? Professional pet sitter Jan Brown of Foster City, Calif., says “You have to know your comfort level. For instance, can you handle walking big dogs like Great Danes or potentially aggressive breeds?”

Are you willing to care for animals that have chronic illnesses or are sickly or old? “I sometimes feel like I am an animal hospice worker, since many of my friends’ pets are older and ill,” says Peckel, who once had to make arrangements to put a dog to sleep. “The dog was in such a bad state that I had to call the owner on vacation and she decided it was time.”

Do you have an affinity for puppies and kittens? They often require constant attention to keep them out of trouble and can’t be left alone for longer than a few hours at a time.

Are you open to staying overnight at the pet’s home or do you prefer to bring the pet to your home? “I will go to the owner’s house for in-home visits as often as they need me to, but I will not sleep at the premises,” says Menkes. “I only do overnights in my own home.” If the pet is staying with you, have you pet-proofed your home and are you prepared that the visiting pet may cause some damage?

If you already have an animal and you’re sitting for the pet in your home, will the visiting pet be welcomed by your own pets? If your own pet has the tendency to be territorial around you or around the home, you might want to have a system in place for keeping the pets apart, at least initially.

Can you work your schedule around the pet’s needs, only leaving him or her alone for short periods of time or returning to the pet’s home for two to three visits a day? “Most pet owners will give you a schedule for their pets’ needs,” says Peckel. “It’s important to stick to the schedule as closely as possible, since the animals are already stressed that their owners are gone. I want the pets I care for to feel safe and comfortable.”

Meet and Greet

Be sure you meet both the pet and his or her owner before you agree to watch an animal, advises Brown. “You might even want to do a trial run visit while the owner is at work and not yet out of town, just to make sure it will work.”

One cat Peckel sat for, Jedi, hated her at first — but then again, she says, the cat hates everyone but its owner.

“I got to know her while my friend was still around and once she went on her trip, we gradually developed an understanding,” she explains. “In fact, the last time I went to visit, Jedi came out to see me and even wanted to be petted.”

Summing up, Peckel says that “pet sitting allows you the opportunity to spend time with pets, without being tied down. You can earn some money, or you can barter. But you have the freedom to travel, and sometimes, you get to travel somewhere wonderful to pet sit!”

Pet sitting also gives retired or unemployed animal lovers some income (PSI estimates that pet sitters can make close to $20 per hour, more for overnight care) and the opportunity to get out of the house and get some exercise.

Dog walking in particular is “the perfect way for people over the age of 50 to remain physically active,” explains Menkes. “Even a short walk will do you good. It is a proven fact that being around an animal lowers your blood pressure and relieves stress and anxiety. What could be better than that?”

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