When pet owners are on vacation or working long hours, they hire pet sitters to come to their homes and visit their animals. During short, daily visits, pet sitters feed the animals, play with them, clean up after them, give them medications when needed, and let them in and out of the house for exercise. Dog walkers may be responsible only for taking their clients’ pets out for exercise. Pet sitters may also be available for overnight stays, looking after the houses of clients as well as their pets.
Pet Sitter Career History
Animals have been revered by humans for centuries, as is evidenced by early drawings on the walls of caves and tombs— cats were even considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians. Though these sacred cats may have had their own personal caretakers, it has only been within the last 10 years that pet sitting has evolved into a successful industry and a viable career option. Before groups such as the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS), which formed in the early 1980s, and Pet Sitters International (PSI) were developed, pet sitting was regarded as a way for people with spare time to make a little extra money on the side. Like babysitting, pet sitting attracted primarily teenagers and women; many children’s books over the last century have depicted the trials and tribulations of young entrepreneurs in the business of pet sitting and dog walking. Patti Moran, the founder of both NAPPS and PSI, and author of Pet Sitting for Profit, is credited with helping pet sitters gain recognition as successful small business owners. Though many people still only pet sit occasionally for neighbors and friends, others are developing long lists of clientele and proving strong competition to kennels and boarding facilities.
Pet Sitter Job Description
If you live in a big city, you’ve seen them hit the streets with their packs of dogs. Dragged along by four or five leashes, the pet sitter walks the dogs down the busy sidewalks, allowing the animals their afternoon exercise while the pet owners are stuck in the office. You may not have realized it, but those dog walkers are probably the owners of thriving businesses. Though a hobby for some, pet sitting is for others a demanding career with many responsibilities. Michele Finley is one of these pet sitters, in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. “A lot of people seem to think pet sitting is a walk in the park (pun intended),” she says, “and go into it without realizing what it entails (again).”
For those who can’t bear to leave their dogs or cats at kennels or boarders while they are away, pet sitters offer peace of mind to the owners, as well as their pets. With a pet sitter, pets can stay in familiar surroundings, as well as avoid the risks of illnesses passed on by other animals. The pets are also assured routine exercise and no disruptions in their diets. Most pet sitters prefer to work only with cats and dogs, but pet sitters are also called upon to care for birds, reptiles, gerbils, fish, and other animals.
With their own set of keys, pet sitters let themselves into the homes of their clients and care for their animals while they’re away at work or on vacation. Pet sitters feed the animals, make sure they have water, and give them their medications. They clean up any messes the animals have made and clean litter boxes. They give the animals attention, playing with them, letting them outside, and taking them for walks. Usually, a pet sitter can provide pet owners with a variety of personal pet care services—they may take a pet to the vet, offer grooming, sell pet-related products, and give advice. Some pet sitters take dogs out into the country, to mountain parks, or to lakes, for exercise in wide-open spaces. “You should learn to handle each pet as an individual,” Finley advises. “Just because Fluffy likes his ears scratched doesn’t mean Spot does.”
Pet sitters typically plan one to three visits (of 30 to 60 minutes in length) per day, or they may make arrangements to spend the night. In addition to caring for the animals, pet sitters also look after the houses of their clients. They bring in the newspapers and the mail; they water the plants; they make sure the house is securely locked. Pet sitters generally charge by the hour or per visit. They may also have special pricing for overtime, emergency situations, extra duties, and travel.
Most pet sitters work alone, without employees, no matter how demanding the work. Though this means getting to keep all the money, it also means keeping all the responsibilities. A successful pet sitting service requires a fair amount of business management. Finley works directly with the animals from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., with no breaks; upon returning home, she will have five to 10 phone messages from clients. Part of her evening then consists of scheduling and rescheduling appointments, offering advice on feeding, training, and other pet care concerns, and giving referrals for boarders and vets. But despite these hours, and despite having to work holidays, as well as days when she’s not feeling well, Finley appreciates many things about the job. “Being with the furries all day is the best,” she says. She also likes not having to dress up for work and not having to commute to an office.
Pet Sitter Career Requirements
As a pet sitter, you’ll be running your own business all by yourself; therefore you should take high school courses such as accounting, marketing, and office skills. Computer science will help you learn about the software you’ll need for managing accounts and scheduling. Join a school business group that will introduce you to business practices and local entrepreneurs.
Science courses such as biology and chemistry, as well as health courses, will give you some good background for developing animal care skills. As a pet sitter, you’ll be overseeing the health of the animals, their exercise, and their diets. You’ll also be preparing medications and administering eye and ear drops.
As a high school student, you can easily gain hands-on experience as a pet sitter. If you know anyone in your neighborhood with pets, volunteer to care for the animals whenever the owners go on vacation. Once you’ve got experience and a list of references, you may even be able to start a part-time job for yourself as a pet sitter.
Many pet sitters start their own businesses after having gained experience in other areas of animal care. Vet techs and pet shop workers may promote their animal care skills to develop a clientele for more profitable pet sitting careers. Graduates from a business college may recognize pet sitting as a great way to start a business with little overhead. But neither a vet tech qualification nor a business degree is required to become a successful pet sitter. And the only special training you need to pursue is actual experience. A local pet shop or chapter of the ASPCA may offer seminars in various aspects of animal care; the NAPPS offers a mentorship program, as well as a newsletter, while PSI sponsors correspondence programs.
Certification or Licensing
PSI offers two accreditations: accredited pet sitter and accredited pet sitting service. Pet sitters receive accreditation upon completing home study courses in such subjects as animal nutrition, office procedures, and management. Because the accreditation program was developed only within the last few years, PSI estimates that less than 10 percent of pet sitters working today are accredited. That number is likely to increase, though there are no plans for any kind of government regulation that would require accreditation. The National Association of Professional Pet Sitters offers the certified pet sitter designation to applicants who complete a home-study course and pass an examination.
Michele Finley has a different view on certification. “I really don’t think such things are necessary,” she says. “All you need to know can be learned by working for a good sitter and reading pet health and behavioral newsletters.”
Though there is no particular pet-sitting license required of pet sitters, insurance protection is important. Liability insurance protects the pet sitter from lawsuits; both NAPPS and PSI offer group liability packages to its members. Pet sitters must also be bonded. Bonding assures the pet owners that if anything is missing from their homes after a pet sitting appointment, they can receive compensation immediately.
You must love animals and animals must love you. But this love for animals cannot be your only motivation— keep in mind that, as a pet sitter, you will be in business for yourself. You will not have a boss to give you assignments, and you will not have a secretary or bookkeeper to do the paperwork. You also won’t have employees to take over on weekends, holidays, and days when you are not feeling well. Though some pet sitters are successful enough to afford assistance, most must handle all the aspects of their businesses by themselves. So, you should be self-motivated, and as dedicated to the management of your business as you are to the animals.
Pet owners entrust you with the care of their pets and their homes, so you must be trustworthy and reliable. You should also be organized and prepared for emergency situations. And not only must you be patient with the pets and their owners, but also with the development of your business. It will take a few years to build up a good list of clients.
As a pet sitter, you must also be ready for the dirty work—you will be cleaning litter boxes and animal messes within the house. On dog walks, you will be picking up after them on the street. You may be giving animals medications. You will also be cleaning aquariums and birdcages.
“Work for an established pet sitter to see how you like it,” Finley advises. “It’s a very physically demanding job and not many can stand it for long on a full-time basis.” Pet sitting isn’t for those who just want a nine-to-five desk job. Your day will be spent moving from house to house, taking animals into backyards, and walking dogs around the neighborhoods. Though you may be able to develop a set schedule for yourself, you really will have to arrange your work hours around the hours of your clients. Some pet sitters start in the early morning hours, while others only work afternoons or evenings. To stay in business, a pet sitter must be prepared to work weekends, holidays, and long hours in the summertime.
Exploring Pet Sitter Career
There are many books, newsletters, and magazines devoted to pet care. Pet Sitting for Profit: A Complete Manual for Professional Success (Howell Book House, 1997), by Patti Moran, is just one of many books that can offer insight into pet sitting as a career. Magazines such as Pet Sitter’s WORLD magazine (http://www.petsit.com/psi-member-magazine) can also teach you about the requirements of professional animal care. And there are any number of books discussing the ins and outs of small business ownership.
Try pet sitting for a neighbor or family member to get a sense of the responsibilities of the job. Some pet sitters hire assistants on an independent contractor basis; contact an area pet sitter listed in the phone book or with one of the professional organizations, and see if you can “hire on” for a day or two. Not only will you learn firsthand the duties of a pet sitter, but you’ll also see how the business is run.
Nearly all pet sitters are self-employed, although a few may work for other successful pet sitters who have built up a large enough clientele to require help. It takes most pet sitters an appreciable period of time to build up a business substantial enough to make a living without other means of income. However, the outlook for this field is excellent and start-up costs are minimal, making it a good choice for animal lovers who want to work for themselves. For those who have good business sense and a great deal of ambition, the potential for success is good.
You are not likely to find job listings under “pet sitter” in the newspaper. Most pet sitters schedule all their work themselves. However, you may find ads in the classifieds or in weekly community papers, from pet owners looking to hire pet sitters. Some people who become pet sitters have backgrounds in animal care—they may have worked for vets, breeders, or pet shops. These people enter the business with a client list already in hand, having made contacts with many pet owners. But, if you are just starting out in animal care, you need to develop a list of references. This may mean volunteering your time to friends and neighbors, or working very cheaply. If you are willing to actually stay in the house while the pet owners are on vacation, you should be able to find plenty of pet sitting opportunities in the summertime. Post your name, phone number, and availability on the bulletin boards of grocery stores, colleges, and coffee shops around town. Once you’ve developed a list of references, and have made connections with pet owners, you can start expanding, and increasing your profits.
Susan Clark runs a professional dog-walking business in Brooklyn, New York. She suggests another way of breaking into the business. “I started my business,” she says, “by visiting pet stores and asking if they would supply me with their mailing lists; in return, when I went door to door with my own postcards I would include their business cards. Many pet store owners were kind enough to agree to this arrangement. I have to say though, the majority of my business came from two other sources: word of mouth and referrals from other dog walkers in the neighborhood. I knew a great deal of dog owners in the area because I would go to the dog runs with my own two dogs. The minute I mentioned I was thinking about opening up a dog-walking service, I was in business. My dog walker and boarder were incredibly supportive and also sent business my way. I was very fortunate, and have never forgotten their generosity so I do the same for other new dog walkers in the neighborhood.”
Your advancement will be a result of your own hard work; the more time you dedicate to your business, the bigger the business will become. The success of any small business can be very unpredictable. For some, a business can build very quickly, for others it may take years. Some pet sitters start out part time, perhaps even volunteering, then may find themselves with enough business to quit their full-time jobs and devote themselves entirely to pet sitting. Once your business takes off, you may be able to afford an assistant, or an entire staff. Some pet sitters even have franchises across the country. You may even choose to develop your business into a much larger operation, such as a dog day care facility.
Pet sitters set their own prices, charging by the visit, the hour, or the week. They may also charge consultation fees, and additional fees on holidays. They may have special pricing plans in place, such as for emergency situations or for administering medications. Depending on the kinds of animals (sometimes pet sitters charge less to care for cats than dogs), pet sitters generally charge between $8 and $15 for a 30-minute visit. The average per-visit rate is $13.20, according to Pet Sitters International (PSI). When PSI conducted a survey of annual salaries, it discovered that the range was too great to determine a median. Some very successful pet sitters have annual salaries of more than $100,000, while others only make $5,000 a year. Though a pet sitter can make a good profit in any area of the country, a bigger city will offer more clients. Pet sitters in their first five years of business are unlikely to make more than $10,000 a year; pet sitters who have had businesses for eight years or more may make more than $40,000 a year.
Some pet sitters prefer to work close to their homes; Michele Finley only walks dogs in her Brooklyn neighborhood. In a smaller town, however, pet sitters have to do a fair amount of driving from place to place. Depending on the needs of the animals, the pet sitter will let the pets outside for play and exercise. Although filling food and water bowls and performing other chores within the house is generally peaceful work, walking dogs on busy city sidewalks can be stressful. And in the wintertime, you’ll spend a fair amount of time out in the inclement weather. “Icy streets are murder,” Finley says. “And I don’t like dealing with people who hate dogs and are always yelling to get the dog away from them.”
Though you will have some initial interaction with pet owners when getting house keys, taking down phone numbers, and meeting the pets and learning about their needs, most of your work will be alone with the animals. But you won’t be totally isolated; if dog walking in the city, you’ll meet other dog owners and other people in the neighborhood.
Pet Sitter Career Outlook
Pet sitting as a small business is expected to skyrocket in the coming years. Most pet sitters charge fees comparable to kennels and boarders, but some charge less. And many pet owners prefer to leave their pets in the house, rather than take the pets to unfamiliar locations. This has made pet sitting a desirable and cost-effective alternative to other pet care situations. Pet sitters have been successful in cities both large and small. In the last few years, pet sitting has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and other national publications. Woman’s Day magazine listed pet sitting as one of the top-grossing businesses for women.
Because a pet sitting business requires little money to start up, many more people may enter the business hoping to make a tidy profit. This could lead to heavier competition; it could also hurt the reputation of pet sitting if too many irresponsible and unprepared people run bad businesses. But if pet owners remain cautious when hiring pet sitters, the unreliable workers will have trouble maintaining clients.
For More Information:
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
- National Association of Professional Pet Sitters
- Pet Sitters International