Pet sitters do much more than provide water and food to your pet while you’re away from home. A good pet sitter also spends quality time with your pet, gives him exercise, and knows how to tell if your pet needs veterinary attention. What’s more, pet sitters typically offer additional services.

But just because someone calls herself a pet sitter doesn’t mean she is qualified to perform the job. This information can help you find the best pet sitter for your and your pet.

When you must be away from home–say for travel or an emergency–and do not wish to leave your pet in a boarding kennel, who takes care of your pet? If you’re like many pet owners, you ask a friend or neighbor to stop in and pour some kibble and water in your pet’s bowls. But is this what’s best for your pet? There’s a good chance your friends and neighbors lack proper pet-care experience and have even forgotten to show up. They may also resent frequent requests to look after your pet while you’re gone. What is the solution? Consider hiring a “pet sitter”–a professional, qualified individual paid to care for your pet.

A pet sitter offers both you and your pet many benefits.
Your pet gets:

the environment he knows best.
his same diet and routine.
relief from traveling to and staying in an unfamiliar place with other animals (such as a boarding kennel).
Attention while you’re away.
You get:

Happier friends and neighbors, who aren’t burdened with caring for your pet.
The reassurance that comes from knowing that your pet is being cared for by an expert.
Someone to bring in your newspaper and mail so potential burglars do not know you are away.
Somebody who will come to your home so you do not have to drive your pet to a boarding kennel.
other services provided by most pet sitters, such as plant watering and pet grooming.
Where do I find a pet sitter?
Begin with a recommendation. Check the Yellow Pages under “Pet Sitting Services.” You can also contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (800-296-PETS) or Pet Sitters International (800-268-SITS) for a referral. Both organizations provide pet-sitter accreditation to those who demonstrate professional experience, complete pet-care-related home study courses, attend professional conferences, and abide by a code of ethics.

What should I look for?
It is important to learn all you can about prospective pet sitters’ qualifications and services. Before selecting a pet sitter, interview the candidates over the phone or in your home. Learn the following:

Can the pet sitter provide written proof that she has commercial liability insurance (to cover accidents and negligence) and is bonded (to protect against theft by a pet sitter or her employees)?
What training has the pet sitter received?
Will the pet sitter record notes about your pet, such as his likes, dislikes, fears, habits, medical conditions, medications, and routines?
Is the pet sitter associated with a veterinarian who can provide emergency services?
What will happen if the pet sitter experiences car trouble or becomes ill? Does she have a backup?
Will the pet sitter provide related services such as in-home grooming, dog walking, dog training, and play time?
Will the pet sitter provide a written service contract spelling out services and fees?
If the pet sitter provides live-in services, what are the specific times she agrees to be with your pet? Is this detailed in the contract?
How does your pet sitter make certain that you have returned home?
Will the pet sitter provide you with the telephone numbers of other customers who have agreed to serve as references?
If you like what you hear from the pet sitter and from her references, it’s important to have the prospective pet sitter come to your home to meet your pet before actually hiring her. Watch how she interacts with your pet–does your pet seem comfortable with the person? If this visit goes well, start by hiring the pet sitter to care for your pet during a short trip, such as a weekend trip. That way, you can work out any issues before leaving your beloved pet in the pet sitter’s care for longer periods.

How can I help the pet sitter and my pet?
Of course, even the most trustworthy, experienced pet sitter will have trouble if you haven’t also kept your end of the bargain. Here are your responsibilities:

Make reservations with your pet sitter early, especially during holidays.
Ensure your pet is well socialized and allows strangers to handle him.
Affix current identification tags to your pet’s collar.
Maintain current vaccinations for your pet.
Leave clear instructions detailing specific pet-care responsibilities and emergency contact information, including how to reach you and your vet.
Leave pet food and supplies in one place.
Buy extra pet supplies in case you’re away longer than planned.
Leave a key with a trustworthy neighbor as a backup, and give him and your pet sitter each other’s phone numbers. Be sure those extra keys work before giving them out.
Show the pet sitter your home’s important safety features such as the circuit breaker and security system.
Finally, have a safe and fun trip. And remember to bring your pet sitter’s phone number in case your plans change–or you just want to discover how Fluffy and Fido are doing.