2007-01-04 / Pets

Pet sitters provide needed animal care

By Joann Groff joann@theacorn.com

JANN 
            HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers    LEADING THE PACK--Professional  pet  sitter  Catherine Cobb walks  her  clients'  dogs  along a Calabasas street. Pet sitting provides an alternative for owners who are short on time. JANN HENDRY/Acorn Newspapers LEADING THE PACK--Professional pet sitter Catherine Cobb walks her clients' dogs along a Calabasas street. Pet sitting provides an alternative for owners who are short on time. When his master works long hours or the family takes a business trip or vacation, sometimes Fido can get left behind without a walk or enough fresh water to drink. More and more people are turning to pet sitters, dog walkers--even personal trainers--to make sure their dogs, cats, birds and fish get the care they need.

Catherine Cobb runs Fido Fitness, a business that provides dog walking and exercise, as well as house calls and a bed and breakfast for overnight guests.

"There's been a rise in people focusing on their pets," Cobb said. "A lot of people are focusing on their careers, deferring child-raising until later in life. In the meantime, they have their pets, and they are putting a lot of time and attention into their pet care."

Cobb cares for animals within a 10-mile radius of her Calabasas home, although she'll travel farther for a fee.

"One-on-one attention is an important aspect," Cobb said. "A boarding kennel obviously wouldn't have that same kind of attention. My clients feel good about the decision and they know that the dogs are getting more personalized care."

Jennifer Hawes, owner of the pet-sitting service Home Is Where the Pet Is, agreed. "It seems to me that pets have become part of the family, like children basically," Hawes said. "It's much less stressful for the pet, for them to be in their own surroundings with the same smells and same routine. It's not to say that any boarding places aren't good, they are. But everybody knows their pet, and I know for me, I'd prefer they be in my home."

Hawes and her team also provide walking and hiking services, as well as house visits at least twice a day for $20 per visit.

Not all pet sitters receive positive reviews, however. When Deborah Munroe's mother-in-law died in November and the family needed to head back to Georgia for a week, Munroe was referred to a pet sitter to care for her two dogs and cat.

"Rather than go with a professional pet sitter, I used a word-of-mouth referral," Munroe said. "The woman who came by seemed fine, and she said she'd be by twice a day to care for my animals."

After a couple of days, Munroe called the woman's cellphone, but her calls were not returned. After several days without word, Munroe called a neighbor to check on her animals.

"My mailbox was full of mail, and there were three newspapers in front of my house," Munroe said. "My animals were starving---she hadn't been there at all."

After finally reaching her pet sitter, Munroe demanded an explanation. After lying repeatedly, the woman began to cry and finally admitted to "maybe missing a day," Munroe said.

Munroe said that for the rest of the trip, she was worried that the woman would let her dogs outside or steal from her home.

"I realized a lot of things in hindsight," Munroe said. "And now I had a girl who I didn't know at all with a key to my house. . . . When you have someone coming into your house, you never know what could happen."

For those who aren't comfortable with a traditional kennel, but would still prefer to take their dog somewhere to stay, the Topanga Pet Resort could be a solution. The large property in the hills of Topanga is run by Keith and Patricia Tomlinson and was restricted for guide dog training until last year, when they opened to the public.

Dogs who visit have a roomy sleeping area with bedding and an adjoining exercise run. Families of dogs can stay together.

"We've been here 15 years," Patricia Tomlinson said. "What a special place--here in Topanga, in the country with the bushes and trees and grass. Our dogs are out five hours a day, playing, in and out. I know most people take their dogs maybe for an hour to their dog parks, and they are so tired--imagine five hours."

The Tomlinsons live on the property and supervise the boarding and training programs. They can accommodate dogs for extended stays as well.

Boarding rates, which include food, dispensing of medications and up to five hours of playtime with new "friends," run about $35 to $40 a night.

As for the Munroes, they drove to their vacation home in New Mexico for New Year's, just so they could take their animals along.

"I think now I'd be a lot more careful and ask a lot more questions," Munroe said. "My advice is to always have a backup plan with a neighbor if you can. And check referrals. I checked one, but it wasn't enough."

Munroe also said she'd tell the sitter to expect calls from her, perhaps on a daily basis.

Pet Sitters International is an organization that accredits sitters and helps people find someone reliable.

"I'm not sure if you used a pet sitter who is licensed or bonded if it would be better because there are unethical people everywhere," Munroe said. "But it seems you have more legal clout if they are licensed. If not, there's not much you can do if they don't do their job."

For information about Pet Sitters International, visit www.petsit.com. For Fido Fitness information, go to Calabasasdogwalker.com. The Topanga Pet Resort site is at Topangapetresort.com.

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