Monday, December 23, 2013

Pet-sitting professionally: how pets, owners and pet-sitters can all benefit

James and Jemma are full time house sitters, living rent-free in exchange for caring for some very loved pets.
When I went through vet school I used to relish pet-sitting gigs. I couldn't have my own pets, so it was a good chance to snuggle with someone else's, and staying in an actual house that actual grown-ups inhabited provided a blissful reprieve from squalid share-housing. One one memorable occasion I looked after four Abyssinians, a moggy and two Keeshounds. 

Pet-sitting is an arrangement that works for the animals too, as when their owners are away they can stay in their own environment, can stick to their routine, and have the benefit of a warm body on the couch to keep them company. 

So I was fascinated to learn that some people do this all the time. I spoke to James and Jemma, aka ‘the house sitting couple’ about their lifestyle, and they have provided excellent tips for would-be pet-sitters.

So what is it that you do?

We’re a couple who are spending a few years travelling and ‘house sitting’ as we do it. We’ve spent the last year and a half house sitting in France and Portugal and are currently working out where we’ll go and what we’ll do in 2014.

How did you become "professional" house-sitters?

We stumbled across it really. We’d been looking for an affordable form of accommodation that would be suitable for working in as well (we both work from home). At the time travelling in a converted mini-van was looking like the best option, but then house sitting started getting written about in the travel section of a few news sites and we began investigating. I’m quite glad we found out about house sitting, as spending 8+ hours a day working and sleeping in the same space would probably have lost its magic very quickly.

As housesitters, what kind of tasks do you do? Do you get any unusual requests?

Aside from pet care (which usually involves feeding, cuddling and, for dogs, walking) the main other requests are collecting the mail, watering the plants, cleaning the pool and if we’re house sitting during a cold winter, keeping an eye on the pipes and making sure they don’t freeze over.

In terms of unusual requests the most unusual was probably to sell that person’s car while they were away. We do get plenty of emails from people who have pet sheep, goats, ferrets and even skunks as well.

What sort of animals have you cared for? 

We looked after a farm of 18 alpacas in the South of France last year which, as you can imagine, was a little different to our normal ‘pet sits’. Although the alpacas were pets (they all had names and we had to be able to tell them apart) they were kept for the value of their wool so understandably the owners wanted to give us quite a bit of training before leaving us to look after their business.

We learnt how to herd and how to separate the alpacas and we also worked alongside a vet on a few occasions. We say work, we mainly helped to hold it while he did all of the medical work!

The alpaca herd. James and Jemma had to learn to tell each of these apart.
Although alpacas are definitely the most unusual animal we’ve looked after, many people get a pet sitter because their pet has very special needs and they want it to have one-on-one attention. For example, we looked after a cat with a very weak heart that needed medication three times per day. The owner felt a cattery wouldn’t give the cat the level of attention he needed and so we were asked. We’ve also looked after animals with specialist diets, some of it which we’ve had to cook for them – again a level of attention that’s really one-on-one.

Where are the places that you have house sat?

We’ve spent a lot of time house sitting in France, simply because it was always somewhere we wanted to live and there are a lot of house sits there. We’ve also house sat in the UK and Portugal, but have received invitations to house sit all over the world such as Australia, the US, Canada and Singapore. We will have to take them up soon!

What are the skills and traits one needs to be a good house sitter?

You absolutely have to be an animal lover. For the people we pet sit for, these aren’t their pets, they’re their babies. That means they’ll be sleeping in the bed with you and waking you up first thing to play.

Pet-sitting provides the opportunity for you to cohabit with species you might not normally live with. Definitely a plus.
Why is housesitting a good way to travel?

House sitting is a very affordable way to travel, especially long-term. When we were house sitting in France we took on four house sits, the shortest being three weeks and the longest five months. In the end we managed nine months of living without any rental or hotel costs to worry about.  

We really like having animals to look after whilst travelling. Taking a dog for a walk in a new city is a great way to get to know a place and you feel like you’re experiencing it as a local, not as a tourist.

Any down sides? Have you ever been asked to look after an aggressive animal, had to stay home for very long hours, or had to find temporary accommodation in between sits?)

We’ve haven’t had any aggressive animals so far. The type of people that tend to get a sitter tend to treat their pet exceptionally well; like family really.

The downsides for us have generally been dealing with people, for example the homeowner might change the dates of their holiday and now you need to re-organise yours (this hasn’t happened often, just an example).

These days we get everything down in writing: the dates of the house sits, the dates of the handover, what responsibilities are required etc. It’s good for both parties actually as it means they (the homeowner) have to think through about what’s involved and then you can make a proper decision as to whether it’s something you want to take on or not.

You must meet some amazing animals and owners who are very committed to their care. What sort of insight has this given you into the human animal bond?

The cat we looked after that needed medication is a good example. The cat’s owner was a doctor that had given up her work to transition into study veterinary medicine so she could try and understand the cat’s condition better. [ed. WOW, that is committment!]

Pet-sitters have to be prepared to spend quality time with pets...even if that means lounging in the driveway!
Can you share any tips about establishing oneself as a housesitter for veterinary students?

Being a veterinary student will definitely be a huge advantage. Mention that in the first line of your email when applying for a house sit!

The first thing you should do is create a profile on a house sitter exchange website. The one we use the most is trusted housesitters, as it has the largest number of house sits and we’ve found we tend to get a good response from homeowners on there.

When creating a profile you have the option of requesting ‘references’. If you’ve never house sat before, these can be character, employment or landlord references. If you’re able to get a reference from someone that leads the veterinary course at your university, that would definitely help add points to your character reference. Also, if you’ve house sat for friends or family, these do count as pet sitting references, so be sure to include them as well.
Don’t be put off by the sitters that have a ton of references – for a home or pet owner thinking of taking you on, it’s quality not quantity.

Finally, begin applying for house sits. As a tip, we took on a few house sits locally before applying for those abroad. We found that when you’re new to house sitting homeowners are more willing to take you on if they can meet you first.

Thank you James and Jemma!