Spotting pet sitting red flags: a proactive guide for sitters

Pet sitters, sharpen your instincts. Learn to identify warning signs of a challenging pet sitting experience.
pet sitting a sleeping dog
Kirsty Carter

Kirsty Carter

Spotting pet sitting red flags before committing to a sit is crucial to your own and the pet parents’ satisfaction. Don’t wait until you are caring for the pet to learn about difficult behaviour and weird idiosyncracies. Learn to identify warning signs before the sit starts, using our tips below.

Difficult behaviour when pet sitting

Pets don’t know who you are or why you are staying and their owners are leaving. Causes of difficult behaviour can be complex and it is unlikely that you will be able to make changes in the short time you are house sitting. It is therefore important for the owner to share with you the challenges and their proven management strategies.

Some examples of difficult behaviour to watch out for:

  • Aggression
  • Excessive barking or other vocalisation
  • Separation anxiety
  • Destructive chewing
  • Inappropriate toilet behaviour
  • Jumping on people
  • Excessive grooming
  • Digging
  • Food aggression

We’ve come across most of these behaviours during our house sitting journey. We’ve lost devices such as Apple pencils and remote controls to chewers; watched huskies try to dig their way out of a backyard; and seen a ball-obsessed golden retriever leap into the canals of Rotterdam in search of softballs over-hit from an adjoining park.

Ask the right questions for a stellar pet sitting experience!

As new house sitters we learned that, unfortunately, not all owners are forthcoming about  these issues. So we learned to ask the right questions and make discriminating decisions.

Some simple questions to ask owners about their pets:

  • How do they respond when you go away?
  • Do the pets have any unusual or difficult behaviours and how do their humans manage them?
  • Are they toilet trained?
  • How do you manage meal time?

Some simple strategies we use to mitigate some of the more challenging behaviours:

  • Arrive early while the owners are still there so that the pets have time to get to know us before the owners leave.
  • Follow any reasonable strategies specified by the owners.
  • Don’t take an opportunity if you are not able or willing to manage the behaviours and resolution strategies.

Pet sitting aggressive or unsocialised pets

Understanding a pet’s behaviour is crucial for a successful pet sitting experience. Insufficient information, lack of clear communication or transparency about a pet’s temperament and behaviour poses a risk to the sitter and the pet.

Signs such as growling, barking or aggressive postures during an introduction to a pet are clear indicators of the pet’s lack of socialisation and potential for aggression.

Pet sitters should discuss upfront with pet owners any contingency plans. In the event of difficult situations or unexpected behaviours, having a clear plan can prevent harm to the pet, the sitter and others. Lack of such planning may indicate a potential risk that pet sitters should carefully consider before accepting the assignment.

Monty the aggressive cat

Early in our house sitting experience, we looked after a small Tonkinese cat named Monty. When we first met Monty he was hiding under a bed and wouldn’t come out. His human, John, told us that Monty was very shy and might not interact much. John told us about his experience with a previous sitter who had been very insistent that Monty spend time with her, resulting in a very hostile cat. We agreed that Monty should be left alone to socialise whenever he wanted.

We didn’t see Monty, except for meal times, for several days. He would appear while we prepared his food and follow us from the kitchen to the laundry where he ate, slinking a metre behind us, hissing and snarling. We would talk to him gently and just get out of his way.

One day we were sitting on the sofa and Monty appeared from the bedroom, walked straight down the stairs, jumped on Lawrie’s lap and started purring as if there had never been a problem. We were all good mates after that!

Unsanitary or unsafe environment

Signs of Neglect

If you have an opportunity to visit the home before the sit, we recommend you do. Pay attention to the overall cleanliness of the pet’s living space, noting any lack of hygiene or sanitation. Look for signs of unattended mess, accumulated waste and indications of insufficient grooming.

Insufficient Supplies or Facilities

Assess the availability of essential pet supplies such as food, water and toys. Evaluate the adequacy of shelter and overall living conditions. Ensure there is a designated, secure area for pets to exercise.

Confirm the owner’s plan for replenishing food, snacks and other pet needs while they are away. Some owners will expect the sitter to buy these items. This is not a reasonable expectation.

Gus the ageing border terrier

We took a sit in the beautiful West Sussex area of the UK in late 2022, caring for border terriers Gus and Myrtle. Between the time we had agreed to do the sit and the time we arrived, Gus had developed an incontinence problem relating to age. While at home he needed to wear a nappy. This was a new experience for us. We’d never heard of dog nappies.

The owners provided plenty of nappies and appropriate cleaning materials to keep the house and Gus in good order. They also let us know Gus would need to go out to pee frequently and that he would let us know when he needed to go.

Gus was a delight to care for. He had a few accidents, mostly overnight. Having the tools and the knowledge provided by the owners was invaluable.

Sadly, a few weeks after we arrived back in Australia Gus’s humans let us know that Gus had passed away.

pet sitting dogs with medical conditions

Pet sitting for humans with unreasonable expectations for pet companionship

Sometimes owners will ask house sitters not to leave their pet for even a reasonably short period, such as one or two hours. These are often pets whose family is usually at home most of the day and owners are eager to replicate the pet’s experience with the sitter. 

If Fluffy needs you to be there most of the day and is fed three times per day, but you want to be able to explore the area, think twice about doing the sit. On the other hand, if you are basically a home body and are not planning on doing much exploring this might be a good fit for you.

Pet sitting for hosts who are poor communicators

Effective communication is paramount in the sitter/host relationship. Inconsistencies or unclear instructions from hosts can create confusion and compromise the well-being of the pet. Pet sitters must receive clear guidelines regarding feeding schedules, medication and any specific care routines.

Ambiguity about a pet’s behaviour and preferences is another potential red flag. Clear communication from the owner regarding the pet’s personality, comfort zones and any potential triggers is vital.

Access to emergency contacts is also critical. Look beyond the immediately obvious to allow for unforeseen circumstances. Pet sitters should insist on obtaining reliable emergency contact information so they can act promptly in case of any issues or emergencies.

Chaos in the Canary Islands

Another early pet sitting experience that taught us a lot about communication happened in the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of Africa. The Islands are a popular resort destination for British holiday makers and expats.

We agreed to sit three dogs for an English couple who had retired to Tenerife. When we arrived we encountered numerous unexpected issues that the owners had neglected to tell us. These included the addition of two extra dogs, drop-off daycare for a friend’s dog and the habit of one dog of defecating in the house. The drop-off dog was a particularly shy and nervous individual who was clearly in mortal fear of his daycare humans and spent most of the time hiding in the garden.

The owners had no concerns about these extra tasks and lack of critical information. Most of the dogs in their care were rescue dogs with behavioural issues of some sort, who they wanted to help. Their inexperience engaging house sitters was perfectly aligned with our inexperience as house sitters.

We stayed in the sit and enjoyed the beautiful island and its Spanish heritage. In hindsight, however, we would have refused the extra tasks or left.

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