Hiring someone to watch over your pets? It’s not quite as easy as saying ‘Go fetch.’ This is what you need to know

A boy looks at his pet tortoise.
(Jose Luis Pelaez / Getty Images)

Everything was set for my vacation when I realized my aging dog had too many medical issues to be boarded, sending me on a frantic search for a pet sitter.

My dog and home survived my eleventh-hour hire (my plants, not so much), but I still I wish I knew then what I know now.

“I’ve hired pet sitters, and I’ve hired a nanny. It’s the same process for me,” said Dr. Tim Hackett, an emergency and critical care vet and director of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo. “Make sure they have good training, references and know what to do in a crisis.”

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To begin the search, you might ask for recommendations from your vet, dog trainer or local Humane Society office or check the databases for the National Assn. of Professional Pet Sitters or Pet Sitters International .

Those are, by no means, the only ones. You can find other options by searching online or asking friends and family.

To begin, start with a telephone interview and ask lots of questions.

“Are they familiar with common problems that dogs or cats may run into while their owners are away?” Hackett said.


Determine whether the sitter will stay overnight or stop by once or twice a day, and discuss specifics such as the frequency and duration of walks.

“I know people who, as they’ve grown their dog-sitting business, they watch two or three [homes] at a time,” said Jennifer Holmes of Fort Collins, a pet sitter and vet technician who is trained in animal CPR and emergency first aid. “I do one at a time, because I think the quality of care is better; they can have my full attention.”

Some pet parents may want to run a criminal background check, but if you do, know that California has some limits on when and how an employer may obtain information about arrests and convictions, said Michael Kalt, a partner at Wilson Turner Kosmo in San Diego and the government affairs director for the California State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Given these potential uncertainties, the [pet] owner might find it simpler to hire a sitter through a service that has already investigated and bonded the sitter,” he said.


Invite the sitter to meet your pet and study how they interact. Discuss expectations, such as whether the sitter will water your plants and get your mail; and your house rules, including whether smoking is allowed and whether the caregiver is invited to partake of your food or drink.

I learned an important lesson when our return flight was delayed and the sitter replied to my text by saying she had already left my house.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she said of my dog.

“Fine” was a relative term. Besides the accident he had while being cooped up, he was hungry when I finally got home.


It’s imperative to have a friend as backup. Make sure your sitter has the number, and that both have keys to your house.

Include these details in a contract. Samples can be downloaded from the Internet (Google “pet sitter contract”), but customize it with clear instructions, adding contact information for you, your vet and the emergency clinic.

Also, if you have security cameras in your home, make sure you are familiar with California’s privacy and wiretapping laws.

A California statute prohibits the use of some types of cameras anywhere a person has a reasonable expectation or privacy. Rulings also have differed on whether the use of a hidden video recorder violates the state’s eavesdropping statute, which requires consent of all parties before a confidential conversation can be recorded.


Finally, no matter how young and healthy your pet, leave a medical directive with the caregiver that outlines how much treatment you want for your dog or cat if he were injured or ill and how much you would be willing to spend.

I first heard about pet medical directives when I hired Holmes as a dog sitter after learning from my initial less-than-satisfying experience with someone else.

She insisted we draft one before leaving town, explaining that her 12-year-old dog died the day after she flew to the West Indies. She had the foresight to leave a directive with the vet and had told the couple watching her dog what to do.

It not only made it easier on the sitters but Holmes said that having her wishes carried out also helped her find closure when she returned.


I now have a network of experienced pet sitters whom I trust, and we all have the same expectations. That makes going on vacation and coming home that much more relaxing.




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