How to Select a Cat Sitter

 |  Jun 10th 2009  |   14 Contributions


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This is Part 3 of a series on Fluffy's Staycation: What to do with cats who stay behind while you travel. In conjunction with this series, PetSmart is sponsoring a giveaway in which the lucky winner will win an overnight stay and TLC at a PetSmart PetsHotel. To enter, just leave a comment on this post, and on every post in this series. Each comment serves as your entry in the giveway; no more than one entry per post per household, please. Details here.

We used to live in a great house in a resort town and anybody we knew would practically pay us to cat sit for us because it was a perfect weekend getaway spot.

I usually relied upon my aunt and uncle for cat sitting duties. They were the best cat sitters EVER. They were both animal lovers, and did a great job, leaving a detailed "report card" behind to describe how the cats behaved over the weekend. Once, my aunt relayed the story of how our cat Rocky climbed into bed with them and fell asleep on top of my Uncle Clyde. My aunt said that it was the first time in 42 years of marriage that she'd seen my uncle sleeping with a cat. And it was the first time Rocky had slept in the people bed when people were in it.

NOT EVERY FRIEND/FAMILY MEMBER IS GOOD CAT SITTER MATERIAL

But not every friend or family member has what it takes to be a great cat sitter. Two members of my husband's family delivered up my worst cat sitting experience. Everyone we knew was out of town on the weekend we wanted to get away. We debated hiring a pro when my husband suggested that we invite two of his relatives (let's call them John and Mary) to do the honors.

I wasn't convinced that they were a good choice. They don't have cats, and Mary is a space case who seems to live part of her life in an alternate universe. But hubby talked me into it. After all, how hard is it to put down kibble, Fancy Feast and water over a 36 hour period? (We didn't even ask them to clean the litter boxes -- we had several self-cleaning boxes, and had put out an extra one that would provide sufficient capacity until we returned.)

Upon our return, we saw that John and Mary did take the time to write a note thanking us for the generous gift certificate we left them for our favorite local restaurant, and they even noted how friendly "Roger" was (they never could get Rocky's name right). They added that they hadn't seen Mao and thought he might have snuck outside.

It was apparent that they had failed to grasp the concept of cat sitting. The food dishes were completely empty (which was very unusual, because our cats refuse to eat the kibble "crumbs" at the bottom of the dish unless they're famished) and not a single can of cat food had been opened. The water dishes were bone dry. Evidently, on Mary's home planet the cats don't need food or water for sustenance. I said a lot of words from the Bad Word List.

Since we were only gone for a day and a half, no harm was done. Mao showed up within minutes of our return. But it illustrates that often, licensed and bonded cat sitters are a better choice than friends or family members.

DOES UNCLE ROY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?

If you're thinking of asking friends or family to cat sit for you, first evaluate whether they're a good choice for the job:

  1. Are they "cat people"? If you have to think about it, even for a moment, a professional sitter is probably a better choice.
  2. When they're in your home, do they pet your cats at an arm's distance and discourage them from jumping up on them because of the cat hair or allergies? If so, they're not cat people. Go with a pro.
  3. When you explain your cats' unique preferences ("break up the wet food so it isn't just a big glob straight from the can and garnish with 4 Temptations") do they listen intently, or do they interrupt and say "yeah, yeah, I know how to feed cats," or "you're kidding, right?" If they're not listening intently and taking copious notes, go with a pro.

If you've eliminated everyone you know from contention, hire a pro.

Here's a cautionary tale from Catster Aldo in Baltimore:

"I say, always go with a pro! Mommy had an elderly neighbor feed us for a week while Mom was out of town. She agreed to it because his wife said that it would "give him a sense of purpose," even though she had a terrible feeling about it. No offense intended to elderly folks, but he could barely see.

"Well, Mom was gone two days when a friend called and said "I saw Squeaky outside your house! At least I think it was Squeaky. Sure looked like her to me." Mom had to cut her vacation short and drive 500 miles in a panic, and yes, poor Squeaks was outdoors and terrified."

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HOW TO FIND A CAT SITTER
Ask family, neighbors, friends, local rescue groups and shelters and your veterinarian if they know a cat sitter they would recommend. If there are young vet asssistants at your veterinarian's office that you trust, and you live nearby, ask if they'd be willing to drop by before and after work for the price that a cat sitter would charge.

Several pet sitting organizations have member directories:

And depending on where you live, Yelp and Catster Local can help you find sitters in your area.

Once you have a list of potential sitters, review their websites to determine what services they offer and to learn more about the pet sitter before you contact her. If you only have cats, search for one that is cat-oriented.

INTERVIEWING THE CAT SITTER
Schedule an initial meeting with the cat sitter in your home prior to engaging her services. Don't wait until the last minute to schedule an interview. You should aim to have your cat sitter interviewed and selected several weeks before your travel date.
Pet Sitters International provides an interview checklist here

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Here's what to look for in a cat sitter interview:

  • How does she interact with your cat?
  • How does your cat interact with her?
  • What's your initial gut reaction to this person? (Trust your instincts!)
  • Is it someone with whom you would entrust with the keys to your home?
  • If your cat requires medication, watch the potential cat sitter administer it.
  • Does this person engage with your cat as a cat lover would?
  • Does she handle the cat knowledgeably and confidently, as a vet or vet tech would?

Additionally:

  • Ask for references.
  • Request proof of bonding and liability insurance coverage.
  • The cat sitter should have a contract that you can review beforehand which spells out the terms and conditions of the engagement.
  • You may be asked to sign a contract at the initial meeting, but don't feel pressured to do so if you want to think it over or are considering other candidates.

Make sure that the person you are interviewing will be the person coming to your home. It's not uncommon, especially around peak vacation and holiday periods, for some pet sitters to send substitutes to care for the clients' pets. If that's the case with your sitter, you should insist on meeting the substitute. If that's not possible, select another sitter. If you engage the services of a pet sitting service (vs. an individual pet sitter), you also need to ensure that the person you meet and interview will be the person sitting your cat.


QUALIFICATIONS

The ideal cat sitter is someone who has training in pet first aid, care, and handling, is a rabid cat lover, and is trustworthy and responsible. Often, you can find sitters who are former vet techs--good if you have cats with special needs. Certification or accreditation indicates that an individual has met certain objective criteria through a course of study and testing.

A certificate can demonstrate a certain level of professionalism, and prove that they've mastered important care and handling skills, but it doesn't vouch for an individual being trustworthy and responsible, or even a cat lover.

Most courses for accreditation or certification are conducted by correspondence or online. The two biggest groups in the U.S. providing this are:

Keep in mind that an individual can be a member of these organizations without being accredited or certified by them.

And, whether she's accredited or not, your sitter should be bonded and carry liability insurance.

Whether to choose a cat sitter who is certified vs. one who's not is like deciding between hiring someone who is a college graduate, or one who's not but has equivalent work experience. A college degree does not necessarily prove that the grad will be better at the job than the non-graduate. You have to look at the whole package. Same with sitters.

REFERENCES
Honestly, I don't know how valid this is unless you know the references personally. The sitter is unlikely provide as a reference a client who sued him for killing her cat. And who's to say that the references you're given aren't just friends and family of the sitter?

Certainly, call the references, but don't stop there. Yelp and Catster Local can help. You can read reviews from both delighted and disgruntled clients.

If your cat has special needs--for example, if she's diabetic--ask specifically for references from clients with the same needs, in this example, diabetic cats. Ask the reference when he used the cat sitter's services, and how often he uses the sitter. If he doesn't use that sitter every time he travels, find out why.

THE CONTRACT

The contract should cover the following:

Live-in vs. Commuting: Will the sitter stay in your house 24/7? If not, how many visits per day are required? If she's staying 24/7 and you'll be away on a long trip, how much time can she spend away from the house to tend to personal errands?

Duties: Will the sitter also be required to bring in the mail, water plants, adjust lights? Never assume they will unless spelled out in the contract.

Payment: Discuss payment methods and agree to terms. Be sure to settle on the per-day or per-visit fee, amount to be paid in advance (if any), terms for final payment, etc.

House Rules: Whether or not your sitter will be living at your home while you are away, let him or her know what your expectations are regarding use of your home and your appliances, food, and so on. Also set terms for visitation by the sitter's friends.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE..

  • Provide contact information for you and for your vet. I also include the contact info for an emergency vet.
  • Provide your sitter with the names and phone numbers of at least one local contact who can help in an emergency.
  • Leave detailed instructions for the pet sitter regarding feeding habits, medications, etc. I keep a binder with a page for each cat. It has their photo and name, dietary preferences, medications, medical history and preferred playtime activities.Petsitters.biz recommends that you cover the following in your instructions:
    • Feeding: Provide feeding instructions for each pet, including who, when, where, what, and how; for example: What are your preferred feeding times? Where should the food be placed? What food should be given to each pet? What should the sitter do if multiple pets compete for food? Should the sitter wait around until the food is gone and then clean up the dishes immediately, or should the food be left out unattended for the evening or overnight?
    • Medication: If a pet is on medication, leave complete instructions for administering the medication; for example: Where is the medication stored? At what time(s) each day is the medication given? What is the dosage? How is the medication administered?
    • Exercise: Provide detailed instructions for exercising your cats. Should your cats have interactive playtime each day?
    • Household Tasks: Provide detailed instructions for routine household maintenance tasks. How often should the litter box be cleaned, and how? Where should the daily mail be placed? Will you want your sitter to take out the garbage? If the phone rings, should the sitter answer it? Also, if your home has a burglar alarm system, ensure that your sitter is properly trained in how to operate it and what to do in the case of a false alarm.
  • Plug in a Feliway Diffuser to calm your cats in your absence.
  • Secure your cat doors.
  • Contact your vet and leave a letter on file authorizing treatment and providing payment information so your cat can receive care if necessary while you're gone. This might include a cap on the dollar amount of services you're willing to pay for.
  • Depending on how well you know your neighbors, let them know you'll be gone and that a pet sitter will be visiting your house while you're away.
  • Purchase extra food and other supplies, in case your trip is longer than you anticipated.

MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF

These products can help:

The Cat Sitter's Handbook - Personalized Guide is designed to offer owners peace of mind by informing the cat sitter about the peculiarities of a cat and her daily requirements. The easy-to-use handbook format allows owners to fill in appropriate information about their cats' food, outside schedule, toys, rules, favorite chair, medication, etc.

Music Cats Love: While You Are Gone
A CD/MP3 of Calming music and soothing stories for your cat. It features over one hour of relaxing music mixed with soft nature sounds and short stories, creating a peaceful environment for cats who are left alone.

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If you have a good cat sitter story--whether it's a cautionary tale or a funny anecdote, tell me about it. If published in The Cat's Meow, you'll get five additional entries in the PetSmart giveaway.

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