Updated: Sep 16, 2020
In our last podcast, Emily and I discussed how to safely evacuate, travel and leave our pets with a petsitter. Because the three things have similar answers, we were able to handle them fairly well for purposes of the podcast. Because of the amount of information provided in the podcast, however, I elected to write these as three different blog posts. This one is how to leave your dogs with a petsitter and ensure that everyone stays safe and healthy in your absence.
Hiring a pet sitter can be a nightmare! I had one prospective pet sitter come out to my place and ask if I had snakes (like own them? or are they loose in my natural desert environment?) I didn't know how to answer. I own 14. acres, and I live in the desert - of course there are snakes! There are birds and a few tyrannical squirrels, a few seriously diabolical ravens, a smattering of leery and tailess lizards, and the odd snake. She asked if I ever saw them. Again, was this a trick question? It turns out she couldn't watch my animals because she's terrified of snakes, and even though my vacation was scheduled for November, the minute possibility of an encounter with a snake was too much.
Even if we find someone who isn't scared of snakes, or crickets, or dirt roads, or cats with green eyes, our work is just beginning!
A large part of a pet sitter's success depends on us, the pet owner setting them up for success. We often make changes in our household without thinking them through or really articulating why we do them, but if they're not done, then bad things can happen. An example is being careful around the door because a dog or cat bolts if given an opportunity, or keeping two dogs apart when they're fed to avoid fights. I would not expect or ask a pet sitter to be responsible for the first situation, and I would carefully arrange things so that the pet sitter always does the second.
For example: your dog bolts through doors. In that case, you need to set up the house so that your dog never has access to the door without a leash on. It is unfair to expect a house sitter to remember to squiggle through doors. If two dogs cannot be fed in the same room, tell the house sitter that dog A's bowl is in the living room, and dog B's is in the bedroom, and the door must be closed between the two. The ensures that they are fed separately, and also guarantees that the dogs don't see a different picture with the pet sitter and do something novel that leads to a dog fight.
Explaining everything fully is your responsibility, as is setting your sitter up for success.
I pet sit my neighbor's cats upon occasion, and honestly, they're like ghosts! Half the time they equipped out when the neighbors were packing and the other half they seem to materialize outside without ever seeming to cross the threshold to see one of them I have to pretend to go outside, lurk behind their shut door and then open it really quick to catch the cat slinking across the room. I literally spent a week assuming one cat was stuck somewhere in a wall - I could hear it, but I never once saw it.
Always provide numerous phone numbers, including people who are familiar with your house and your dogs, your vet, your groomer, etc... My neighbors always know when I'm leaving, and everyone here watches out for everyone else, so I know their always ready to help out if things go sideways. Tell your neighbors when you leave, just so they'll know that a strange vehicle will be in your driveway. It's also nice if you can get them to stop by and say hi., if possible. My neighbors have brought over beer and hung out with my pet sitters. Not only is it welcoming but it lets everyone know that people are noticing things.
Speaking of which, you get what you pay for. There are few young teenagers that I would trust with my pets, and so I use an online service that insures everyone and everything. They provide background checks, and protect everyone in case someone gets hurt or something in my home gets damaged. I could also opt for additional veterinary insurance if I wished. Most cities have pet sitting organizations that do all of the checking for you. They're expensive, but my pets are worth it to me.
When you leave town, tell your veterinarian your wishes regarding treatment. Is the sky the limit? Do you want to stop at $200? If it's serious do you have a signed DNR on file with a euthanasia form? Things happen, and when they do, you want everyone to know what to do. Who does your pet sitter call? You? Someone else? All of this will help everyone feel better in the event there is an emergency.
If you have other animals, what are the instructions for them? If a fish goes belly up do you want to know? Do they bury it with a 21 gun salute, or flush it down into the great sewage system in the sky? If you have a hamster and it stops eating, do they rush it to the veterinarian? You have to have all of this clearly spelled out.
At my house, burdened as I am with suicidal poultry, taking care of the occasional dead bird does sometimes come up. I used to do rock top burials, but getting the chicken to stay on the boulder once thrown led to uncomfortable repeated attempts and lifeless chickens tumbling onto my head. Now, I simply give them to Billy and allow her to do her thing. I also had a pet sitter address the decomposing remains of a squirrel killed by one of my dogs. Perhaps your pet sitter isn't as robust about dead things, if so, you need to know and have a plan B that you're both comfortable with.
Do your dogs come when called? Few things are more terrifying to a pet sitter than losing a pet. Ensuring that the pet sitter spends time teaching your dog to come to them could save your pet's life. Also, tell your pet sitter what treats work best in the event of an escape, and what methods are most effective at corralling the escapee. This includes all the animals. The hamster, the pet bunny, the rogue and suicidal chickens, the wily and annoying sheep, everyone.
I had a situation this year where my mom had to go to the ER. I was there, and I had opened the back door. I was unaware that the back door would only stay closed when the dead bolt was closed. When I returned to feed her cat I discovered that the back door was standing open! I was horrified! The cat is terrified of everyone but my mom, so the odds of me capturing the cat, had she escaped was nil. Thankfully, the cat was more scared of the open door, and two days after I closed it, she let slip a plaintive meow that told me that I wasn't feeding an empty house!
Do collars fit well, and are leashes and crates in good condition? Having their primary caretaker gone can be stressful for some dogs, and they may act differently. Ensuring that everything that you use to keep your pet with you and safe needs to be in tip top shape for a pet sitter. If in doubt put everyone in a martingale or slip-lead collar for walks. Better safe than sorry.
Know the kind of things that happen at your place. Does one dog always attack another if you throw the ball? Tell your sitter! At my place chickens die, sheep mangle themselves, dogs turn up mysteriously lame. This is normal. It is important that your sitter know this so that they can: dispose of dead chickens if needed, fix suicidal sheep, and know when lameness warrants a vet visit.
In these days of ubiquitous contact, how often do you wish to be contacted, and under what circumstances? Will you have cell service? Do you want daily updates, or as long as there's not excessive bleeding or broken bones, do you want to not hear from home? How do you want to be contacted? Phone calls where you can talk to your pets, a few quick photos sent via text, or long, detailed diaries sent via email?
What's the protocol if your pet gets out? Do they get out sometimes and find their way home? Are they indoor outdoor cats and do what they please? Does your dog love to hang out with the neighbor? Do you want signs posted and the authorities alerted, or will they wander back on their own? This is information your pet sitter needs.
Also, be aware that even in your care, accidents happen. Many accidents are foreseeable, but they may only be foreseeable to you (your puppy loves electrical wire, or your bored dog eats rocks) or they may be completely random (a torn cruciate because of a bad jump after a ball, or a torn ear on a piece of wire). The foreseeable is on you, and a random accident is on fate or luck. It's important to remember that a pet sitter knows less about your pets and household than you do.
If they're taking care of your house they'll need to know how your water systems work, what plants to water, etc... I also provide instructions on the various remotes, and WiFi password. I tell them that the toilet is evil and only flushes when it wants, that the hoses down by the sheep kink if you look at them wrong, and that anything on the property with feathers is bent on self-destruction. I also explain how the spa works, how the heating and cooling work, and how the shower works.
I leave detailed feeding instructions, tell them how the dogs and other stock access water, and when and if to give treats or human snacks (the sheep love stale corn chips!). I do not want my dogs overfed; overfeeding is a huge pet peeve for me, and I've had pet sitters who felt that my dogs didn't get enough to eat, and so they added a bit. This is annoying! I was not happy. Also, if you feed by eye, be aware that your sitter may not. I use specific cups per dog, and I explain that the cup is not rounded. I also leave treats with directions not to over feed those.
A good pet sitter is worth their weight in gold, especially, if like me, you own livestock as well as a number of dogs. Having someone are for your house is no small matter, so take care when hiring a pet sitter for your pet, and safe travels!