If you have ever lived with a pet, chances are you’ve needed a pet sitter at some point.
When I was growing up, I don’t think that professional pet sitters were even a “thing”. It seems to me that we and everyone else we knew just asked a neighbor or relative take our pet while we were away, or to stop in and give them food and water every so often.
That paradigm has clearly changed, and the pet sitting industry is booming. This is largely due to a big increase in the number of companion animals living with us, as well as a shift in our attitudes toward our companion animals, whom we now tend to think of as family members. We also travel more frequently than we used to, and many of us dislike the idea of burdening our friends and family with repeated requests to help out. Then there’s the nagging concern, especially among those of us who are a bit more neurotic about our pet’s well-being, that our neighbors or friends may not prioritize our pet’s care to the degree we would like (I’ve experienced first-hand the disappointment of having a neighbor agree to stop in to feed my cats for just one morning, and then fail to do so).
So, the benefits of hiring a pet sitter are clear – but does it matter what kind of pet sitter you hire?
There are two main categories of pet sitters available today: traditional professional pet sitters, and on-demand pet sitters that contract with tech companies like Rover or Wag. I’ve attempted to dig into some of the pros and cons for each, and apologize in advance for the length of the post, but there are quite a few considerations. I thought about breaking this up into several posts but decided to leave it as is for the sake of continuity.
The Trust Factor
When you go the traditional professional route, your pet sitter will most likely always be the same person, so you and your pets will build a relationship with this individual, and you won’t have to wonder who is going to be coming into your home each time around. Some animals are gregarious and love meeting new people, but for many, it takes a while for them to learn to trust someone new. The consistency of having the same person visit each time is simply less stressful for many pets. This does not mean that you will necessarily get a different sitter each time if you go with an on-demand pet sitting service; you can request any sitter you’d like, and people often stick with one particular sitter. However, many of the people who contract to work for the on-demand services do so to make side money, and they may have other obligations that prevent them from always being available when you need them. I spoke with a potential client recently who was using an on-demand dog walking service, and she said that while she was satisfied with their services overall, she wasn’t crazy about having different people in her home all the time. She also had an issue when someone new neglected to read the notes in her dog’s profile stating that the dog had a torn ACL, and that she shouldn’t engage in any rigorous exercise; the dog could barely walk for several days because the walker over-exercised her. I think instances like this are probably the exception, and I’m sure most on-demand sitters are diligent and careful. However, the more different people you have coming through, the more likely it is that you’re going to get one who isn’t paying attention – it’s just basic probability.
Most professional pet sitters are insured; are licensed in states where this is a requirement; are certified in pet first aid/CPR; and many will have pursued other industry training from organizations like Pet Sitters International, National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, and Dog*Tec. There is debate within the pet sitting community as to whether industry certifications really make for a better pet sitter; some think that it is simply a good marketing tool. Either way, if your pet sitter has taken the time and money to engage in many or all of the above-mentioned best-practices, it’s a good indicator that he or she takes their job seriously and are in it for the long-haul. This is true whether you’re looking at a traditional professional sitter or an on-demand sitter. There are on-demand contractors who do pet sitting full-time and who may engage in ongoing training, but I don’t get the impression that they are in the majority. I think you’re going to be more likely to find this level of commitment in the traditional professional pet sitting community.
Both the traditional pet sitter and the on-demand pet sitter have their advantages and disadvantages in this area. For the traditional professional pet sitter, caring for pets is usually their primary source of income; they do this full-time, and don’t have other employment or school obligations that might prevent them from being available whenever you need them. On the flip side, if it’s a one-person shop, this individual only has so many hours in the day, and if they’ve built up a decent-sized clientele, their schedule may fill up, particularly on and around holidays. Here’s where the on-demand service can come in handy: If your preferred sitter isn’t available, you don’t need to do a bunch of research to find a temporary replacement, or complete a bunch of new paperwork. Your profile is already in the on-demand service’s records, and it’s just a matter of checking their site for someone whose profile appeals to you and seeing if they’re available. Of course, you have no way of knowing how good this new person will be, but in a pinch, it’s nice to know that you can probably find a replacement sitter quickly.
Ease of Doing Business
Most on-demand pet sitting services on the market today were founded by people in the tech industry. Their online platforms were developed with the goal of making it super easy to book a pet sitter. There is something very appealing about only having to visit one website and being able to quickly and easily search through multiple profiles. In the traditional professional pet sitting world, you’re stuck going to Yelp or Google reviews, and then slogging through each business’ website looking for pricing, credentials, and other signs that this is someone who might be a good fit for your pet sitting needs.
I do think it’s important to keep in mind that traditional professional pet sitters vary greatly in their tech, marketing, and organizational skills, so you might come across someone who is an absolutely amazing pet sitter, but who hasn’t done a great job of building their website. Conversely, Rover, Care, and Wag are pretty darn sleek, and they go to great lengths to make sure their sitters create the most appealing profiles possible. A prettier website and a flattering profile don’t necessarily mean that the person is going to be the best pet sitter, but alas, looks do seem to matter in our decision-making process.
This is the one thing that kept me up at night when I first started Northwest Pets DC. What would happen to the pets in my care if I got hit by the bus? How would I make sure their people were notified so they could arrange to have an emergency contact take over?
My original assumption was that the on-demand pet sitting services must have protocols in place to deal with this unlikely but not impossible event, but I did some research and learned that this isn’t necessarily the case. One of the on-demand services I contacted explained that “Unfortunately, just like any situation where someone is hurt and can’t contact someone, we can only hope that someone will notice a lack of communication and notify us of a sitter being hurt. We have no way of constantly watching a sitter and knowing if one gets hurt.”
I’m happy to say that I was able to develop what I think is a pretty solid solution to this concern when my own pet sitter and I came to an agreement to back each other up in the event of a worst-case scenario. It’s pretty simple – my pet sitter/backup is listed as one of my ICE’s (In Case of Emergency) on my phone, and has access to my pet sitting calendar, in which each entry has contact info for my clients. So if I’m walking along and a piano falls out of a window onto my head, the paramedics will see instructions on my phone to contact my pet sitter, who can then spring into action, notify my clients, and potentially step in to take care of their pets if the clients’ emergency contact is unable to.
These are just a few of the considerations that come to my mind when thinking about the pros and cons of each type of pet sitting service. I happen to fall into both categories – I run my own professional pet sitting service, but I also have a profile on Rover.com. I confess that I have not received any inquiries via my Rover profile, but I would certainly be open to serving clients on that platform. My goal here was to try to be as unbiased as possible, and I hope I succeeded.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.