Millions of Americans adopted pets during the thick of the pandemic, with dogs and cats joining nearly 1 in 5 U.S. households, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
If you’re a human member of one of those households, you have no doubt discovered by now the many rewards of four-legged companionship.
Unfortunately, carefree travel is not one of them.
Taking Fido or Fluffy on the road with you has its own hassles and fees (so many fees), while neither you nor your lovable fur ball may feel comfortable with the idea of relying on a boarding facility.
Putting your animal-loving friends and relatives on pet-watching duty isn’t always feasible, either, since they might have vacation plans of their own, especially on holidays, during the summer, and in the wake of a global health crisis that gave us all an itch to leave home.
That’s probably why these are boom times for pet sitters, who tend to dogs and cats in the animals’ home environments (some pet sitters open their own homes to canine and feline guests, though technically that’s a boarding operation).
“Pet ownership is up, as is travel,” Beth Stultz-Hairston, president of industry association Pet Sitters International (PSI), points out in an email, “and PSI members tell us they welcome this influx of pet-sitting requests after the pandemic lull.”
We’re sure they do. But amid the increased competition for sitters, how do you go about finding one who’s reliable, responsible, and, perhaps most important, available?
Frommer’s reached out to experts in the field for answers.
Where to Look for a Pet Sitter
“Your veterinarian’s office, dog trainer, local animal shelter, or pet-owning neighbors can be helpful places to begin your search for a pet sitter,” according to Dr. Carly Loyer, research manager on the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team.
To find a professional pet sitter, you can search by zip code at the websites of industry organizations such as Pet Sitters International and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS).
The benefit of going with a pro, says Stultz-Hairston of Pet Sitters International, is you know you’re getting someone who “is insured, maintains any necessary business licenses, is trained in pet care, and prioritizes continuing education to stay up to date on best pet care practices.”
The important insurance coverage for a pet-sitting business to have is a policy for Care, Custody, and Control (CCC). When meeting with possible sitters, ask to see proof of insurance via an insurance membership card or certificate.
To verify coverage, you can call the insurance company and someone should be able to give you a yea or nay if you provide the policy number (though the insurer obviously won't give you any further info about the business).
If the pet-sitting business is bonded, meanwhile, you'll be protected in the event of anything in your home getting damaged or stolen by the service provider’s employees or contractors. If you’re hiring an independent pet sitter who doesn’t have employees, though, insurance coverage is probably sufficient.
What About the Apps?
Mobile apps such as Rover and Wag! operate similarly to other gig-economy services like Uber. Users browse listings for independent pet sitters, boarders, walkers, and trainers, many of whom often advertise lower rates and greater availability than the established pros. Background checks and user-generated ratings and reviews provide some security—though not as much as you’d get from a licensed specialist.
Loyer of the ASPCA recognizes the potential usefulness of the apps as a place to start your search, but advises against booking before doing your due diligence.
“Apps can be a great way to find people available in your area,” Loyer says, “but from there you should do your own vetting to ensure you are comfortable with the person you select and that your pet responds well to them, too.”
Both Loyer and Stultz-Hairston point out that loving animals is not in itself qualification enough for a pet sitter.
“Many caregivers identify themselves as pet lovers,” Loyer says. But “there is a large difference between someone who has owned pets and someone who works professionally with animals. If you have a pet who is well socialized and can adapt to change easily this might not be an issue. However, if your dog or cat has any underlying behavioral issues—reactive to loud noises, storm phobia, anxious when owners leave, nervous energy—then having a pet lover versus experienced pet handler may result in unexpected issues.”
With any new people who could potentially take care of your pet, you should arrange for a meet-and-greet in your home so you can see how everybody interacts.
What to Ask Potential Pet Sitters
Before your scheduled meet-and-greet with a would-be sitter, spend some time thinking about what your pet needs, based on the animal’s energy level, walk schedule, medical or behavioral issues, and taste for human contact. That will help you find a sitter who suits your individual pooch or kitty.
During the interview, Loyer recommends asking open-ended questions about the sitter’s experience with previous clients. Loyer’s examples:
If my dog started to eat something on the street, what would you do?
Have you ever had to deal with an emergency with a client? If so, how did you handle it?
What would you do if my dog had an accident in the home?
How do you spend your time with pets you watch? Do you play with the cat the entire time? Do you prefer to take dogs for a long walk, or do a shorter walk paired with a play session indoors?
These sorts of questions “will give you an idea of the quality of care your pet will get,” according to Loyer.
If your pet is a dog, you might consider making a walk part of the meet-and-greet, too, so that you can see how the sitter handles that part of the job.
In all cases, it’s a good idea to ask for references and check with past clients about the sitter’s reliability.
How to Find a Pet Sitter Who’s Available
Of course, finding the ideal caregiver won’t do you much good if the sitter’s schedule is booked solid. That’s of particular concern during times (like now) when both pet ownership and wanderlust are higher than ever.
When it comes to pet-sitter availability, the key piece of advice—and we cannot stress this enough—is that you should book a sitter as soon as possible.
Stultz-Hairston of Pet Sitters International recommends making your sitter search one of the first steps in your travel planning—if not the very first step.
“We hear from many of our [pet sitters] that clients contact them to ensure availability before making vacation plans,” Stultz-Hairston told us.
At the very least, you should start looking for a sitter as soon as you have your travel dates, particularly in the summer and around the winter holidays, when competition is fiercest.
If your preferred sitter is unavailable, Stultz-Hairston advises asking that person for a referral. “Many pet sitters network with other local professionals so that they can confidently recommend clients they can’t accommodate,” she told us.
Barring that, you can seek recommendations from any of the sources mentioned above—your vet, your pet-owning neighbors, pet care apps, and so on. But, again, start the process as soon as possible so that your desperation won't make you settle for a sitter who doesn’t inspire your full confidence. After all, we’re talking about someone who will temporarily be in charge of your best four-legged friend—and will have access to your stuff.
Ideally, you’ll find a dependable pet sitter you can rely on whenever you travel. That will keep you from having to screen a bunch of people and is better for the animal, according to Loyer of the ASPCA.
“Giving your pet a predictable schedule and consistent care provider goes a long way in helping to keep pets both mentally and physically healthy,” Loyer says.
That’ll do wonders for your peace of mind, too.
For more helpful resources relating to pet sitters, including advice on dealing with separation anxiety, getting your home ready, and reducing dangers, visit the websites of Pet Sitters International, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters.