GUESTWORDS: Pet Sitters

By Susan M. Seidman

   For all animal owners who travel, a reliable pet sitter is a major asset. For those who keep cats, a sitter is virtually indispensable.
    What about boarding our pets while we’re gone?
    For dogs, this can be a fine solution. Some friends of mine swear by it. A lot depends on the personality of the dog and the quality of the boarding kennel. The most trustworthy facilities are recommended by word of mouth. Every prudent owner should, of course, pay an inspection visit before leaving his dog there for the first time.
    Certain dogs, however, don’t kennel well. They’d be far better off in a home environment — perhaps staying with a friend or relative of the owner during his absence. And even the dogs who adapt easily to kennel life would usually be happier staying in their own homes, entrusted to the attentive care of a responsible sitter.
    For cats, boarding is never a desirable option. (Full disclosure! While I’m fond of dogs, my petkeeping experience has been exclusively with cats.) Most felines hate to be displaced from their family homes and don’t adjust well to any change of scene. Boarding should be reserved for unforeseen emergencies only — and then never in a commercial kennel where dogs predominate. Once or twice, when I was hospitalized on short notice with no time to arrange for a sitter, I had to board my cats at their veterinarian’s. Normally I book a caretaker in advance whenever I expect to be away from home overnight or longer.
    Over the 35 years I’ve lived full time on the South Fork, I’ve developed a pretty reliable sitter system. My basic arrangements apply equally to dog and cat care.
    I use a walk-in sitter for short absences from home: one, two, at most three nights. The sitter visits the house twice a day to feed and water my cats, attend to the litter boxes, check that all is in good order. She gets a typed list of everything I expect her to do and that she might conceivably need to know: safety precautions, veterinarian’s number, a phone number to reach me in emergency.
    It’s not hard to find animal lovers qualified to work as walk-in sitters. Many leave their business cards at local veterinary hospitals, grooming salons, and pet-supply stores. Some advertise in our local papers. All should supply references, easily checked, from their pet-owning clients in the community.
    Sitters’ fees vary, depending on how many dogs and/or cats are involved, the number of daily visits and exercise outings, and the need for medication, grooming, or other special care. If cost is a deterrent, one can try to work out a reciprocal arrangement with a pet-owning friend or neighbor who also travels. I’ve never had the opportunity to do this. But I tend to prefer a straightforward business arrangement to relying on favors from someone I might feel morally indebted to.
    When I expect to be away for more than two or three days, however, I arrange for a live-in sitter. I don’t feel comfortable leaving my pets home alone for days and nights on end, their solitude relieved only by brief caretaker visits. So I look for someone who will sleep in the house and spend most evenings there, even if my cats have to be left on their own during the sitter’s daytime working hours. The ideal candidate — not always available! — is a person “in and out” throughout the day: perhaps working part time, doing self-employed work from home, retired, or on vacation.
    What does a resident sitter cost? In our South Fork resort area, it can depend on time of year. Luckily, I’ve rarely had to pay for a live-in sitter when I travel in summer. Out-of-town friends or relatives, or warmly recommended friends of friends, have usually been available to settle in and take tender loving care of my pets in exchange for a rent-free beach holiday.
    But like many of us, I like to get away for a few weeks in the dead of winter too. Then, I need to employ a local resident to move into my house for the duration.
    Pet sitters qualified and willing to live in — “do overnights,” they call it — almost never advertise this. (Why would they? They’d hardly be left with any time free to spend in their own homes!) Their availability becomes known strictly by word of mouth. You might hear of someone through your pet-owning friends or the staff at your veterinarian’s office. But this research takes time. And even a highly recommended candidate might turn out to be already booked for another pet-sitting job on the very dates you’ll be away. This has happened to me more than once.
    Solution? I’m the one who does the advertising! Whenever necessary, I’ve placed a classified ad under “Pets” in a couple of local weeklies at least two months before my planned trip: “LIVE-IN CAT SITTER needed from _____ to _____. Must be mature, responsible, experienced caring for cats. References essential.” And then my phone number.
    It works! Each time a dozen or more respond. I’m ready with a barrage of questions to fire over the phone: How much experience do you have staying with other people’s cats? Are you at least 25? (I won’t engage anyone younger.) Who will look after your own pets while you’re living with mine? How many hours will you be away from my house at work each day? Phone numbers of at least two references, please. Then, assuming all else sounds satisfactory, What daily fee do you charge?
    This phone vetting streamlines my applicant list fast. Each time it produces one best candidate. After I’ve checked her references — all but one of my sitters have been women — we set up an initial meeting. I also file the name of at least one other qualified respondent as backup, in case a last-minute illness or family emergency cancels my first choice.
    For the sitters I’ve chosen to hire, as well as for the unpaid friends who take on the same responsibilities in the summer, I prepare two detailed documents. One covers house-sitting, the other cat care. The basic data is stored on my computer and easily updated for each of my absences. Together, they add up to far more information than the sitters care to read — or need to know in normal circumstances. But I feel secure only if every contingency has been provided for.
    Summarizing my three cardinal guidelines: First, plan and book a sitter well in advance. Second, scrupulously check all references of anyone not already well known. Third, insist the sitter review all the written instructions before departure date, preferably by mailing them to her, so any questions can be cleared up in advance.
    A time-consuming effort? Right! But a great reward: peace of mind. Freed of worries about my pets’ safety and well-being, I can relax and enjoy my travels thousands of miles from home. Best of all, once a new sitter has been tried and served well, repeat arrangements for future absences become that much easier.
    After three decades, I can flatly claim that my pets have never had a bad sitter experience. True, one young woman I hired neglected to water my houseplants. Another had let somebody’s dog into my basement, because weeks later I found dried dung on its floor. A third forgot (I presume) that she left a pornographic tape in my videocassette recorder.
    But none of this had the slightest effect on my cats. I always came home to find them perfectly well cared for and content. Sometimes even demonstrably glad to see me again.



Susan M. Seidman, the author of “Cat Companions: A Memoir of Loving and Learning,” which came out last year, and “The Pet Surplus: What Every Dog and Cat Owner Can Do to Help Reduce It,” from 2001, is a freelance writer who lives in East Hampton.