Thursday, April 29, 2010

Photographing your pet sitting clients' pets

I take hundreds of photos of the dogs that board at my house. But when it comes to pet sitting visits to my clients’ homes, I don’t feel it is ethical to walk around taking photos. There are ways to go about it without invading the client’s privacy.

It is a great idea to have a photo of the pet in case he gets out and you need to make flyers. The client contact program I use, Bento (made by Filemaker Pro), also allows me to post photos on each client’s page. I realized what a nice feature this was when my turtle vet took photos of my box turtles, Fred and Ethel, and added them to the patient file. Every time I call, they can pull up the photo and immediately remember their clients.

First, ask permission. Ask the client if you can do this, and maybe even bring your camera to the first meeting. Have them help you pose Fido and Fluffy, and then send them the photo later via email. This is a nice reason for follow-up contact after your initial get-together.

You can also post the photos on your web site. Don’t identify any personal information, which is why you shouldn’t include last names or pictures of the furniture or front of the house. Try to get a close-up of just the animal.

Some of my clients enjoy receiving photos via email while out of town. One client asked me to use Skype and set up their dog in front of the computer to say hi! Another asked me to put a live webcam in my house so they could check on their dog. Since I board dogs in my home, I decided that was too much information; I don’t want to be on-camera in my own living room! There are limits to customer service!

One time I emailed my client a photo of the wreckage his dogs wrought upon the dog beds during the night. Stuffing everywhere, and two dogs sitting happily in the middle of the room. He got a good laugh out of that one.

A camera is a great and fun tool for a pet sitter to have. Be sure you use it carefully and don’t invade you clients’ privacy.
Photo above: Cleo, a bullmastiff.

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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Can a pet sitter make a living?

A doggie daycare owner complained on one of the discussion lists this week that he only has two clients so far and he has been open an entire month. People on a pet sitting discussion group got into a conversation the other day about what other jobs they have to help make ends meet.

Does this mean you can’t make a living as a pet sitter? Or as a dog daycare owner? Of course not. But the hard truth is you aren’t going to have a long list of clients the day you start. It took me three or four years before I felt like I had enough clients to keep me busy. And I still panic sometimes when I have a slow week.

As the years go by, I realize that the peaks and valleys are predictable, and I take advantage of the slow times to build my business or take a much-needed break. Starting your business in January or February is setting yourself up for a slow start, because it is a slow time of year for pet sitting. At the same time, you’d like to have a few months of experience once the summer rush starts. 

Side jobs
So what do pet sitters do while they are waiting to make a living? My first career was as a graphic designer and now, in addition to pet sitting, I am a pet portrait artist, writer and web site designer. I started boarding dogs in my home and that has gradually gotten bigger than the pet sitting part of my business, and provides the bulk of my income now. Any one of these various jobs is not enough to pay the bills.

Pet sitters wrote about how they sell Avon, candles, groceries and other products on the side to supplement their income. Several pet sitters work as Mystery Shoppers, where they go to stores and report back to the company about the service they received. Maritz Research and Consumer Impressions are two companies that provide this service. One fellow pet sitter works as a bartender part time, and another cleans houses.

A number of pet sitters have other pet-related businesses, like making and selling gift products for cat lovers, dog trainer, selling homemade food and treats, pet taxi service, grooming or poop scooping (yes there really are businesses that do only that!).

Don’t give up on your career as a pet sitter. Do what you have to do to pay the bills, and patiently build your business. If you want to make a full-time salary, you have to work at it full-time. If you are not actually doing visits, work on marketing, networking, and building customer relations.  

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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved. The paintings above are examples of my pet portraits. Contact me for more information on a portrait of your pet!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pet sitters: When to call the client; when to go to the vet

Example Number 1: the limping Aussie
A prospective client and I watched the dogs frolicking in my back yard as they got acquainted. An Australian Shepherd started to limp a little. The client asked, “What would you do about that?”

I answered that I would separate her from the other dogs and let her rest for a few hours and see how she is. If she still limped, I’d separate her overnight. At some point, I may decide she was actually injured rather than just sore from playing too hard. Then I would call the owner. If the owner says, “Oh yeah, she does that occasionally,” then I wouldn’t take her to the vet unless they requested it.

“Good,” the woman replied, “I wouldn’t want you running off to the vet for every little thing.”

Example Number 2: The Boston terriers
Yesterday I arrived at the home of two very active Boston Terriers, Bo and Bella. Bo is a slow eater, Bella wolfs down her food. This particular morning Bo didn’t eat at all, and just went over and got in his bed. I made a note of it, and left his food next to the bed for him.

When I returned last night, the food was gone (maybe thanks to Bella) and Bo ate his dinner normally. Since the owners were returning last night, I just left them a note about him skipping a meal. If he hadn’t eaten again, and they weren’t on their way home, I would have called them.

Assess the dog’s overall behavior before you decide he is sick. Many dogs will skip a meal. See if you can get him to get up and come to you, wag his tail, show interest in a treat, or go outside. Your evaluation will be subjective; it is your judgment call as to what you need to do.

Example Number 3: The cat
This one happened just a week ago, and it has happened to me before. I arrived and the cat was lying in an unnatural position, partly in and out of his food dish. He had lost control of his bowels, and was stiff and staring. Spooky was still alive, but clearly dying. I called the owner immediately. I took the cat to the vet and had him euthanized for the owners, and followed their wishes about disposal of the body. RIP, Spooky, who died at 19 years old.

Example Number 4: the poodle
Brandy was circling frantically, and I thought she needed to go out. Then I saw she had peed, something she never does in the house. Just a moment later, she fell over and had a seizure.  I scooped her up, ran for the car and headed to the emergency vet.

The owners were out of the country and I had no way to reach them. I let the vet treat her, but declined major tests like an MRI. The next day (Monday) I took her to her regular vet, who said she had no history of seizures. He started her on medication.

When the owners came home, I had to present them with a $700 vet bill. They were grateful, and glad I had declined the additional tests. Brandy lived several more years with the medications, and had seizures for the rest of her life. I was glad I knew how far the owners would be willing to go in caring for their dog.

Age, health, and finances all enter into a decision to treat a critically ill pet. Be sure you discuss this with owners before they leave town. In this age of cell phones and email your clients are never completely out of reach, even when they are out of the country. I also ask for a local emergency contact person.

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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Horse care for set sitters, part 2

Once you’ve accepting a pet sitting assignment caring for horses, you need to know the basics of feeding each particular animal, how to identify signs of illness, and what to do if a horse escapes.

Feeding basics for horses. Almost every horse gets hay twice a day. In a perfect world they would eat all day long. They have small stomachs and can’t digest a big meal, so they graze. Your client will tell you what kind of hay and how much to feed. Hay separates from the bale in “flakes” and a good rule of thumb is one flake per meal. A very large horse may get two. Some owners have a scale in their barn, and I weigh the hay to get the right amount.

There are many types of hay: bermuda, alfalfa, oat, timothy, orchard grass, and many more. If the owner feeds two different types of hay, be sure you understand which is which. Some hays are too high in protein for a particular horse. Other hay may be just for the horse to have something to munch on throughout the day. Feeding the wrong hay could make him sick.

Watch for mold in the hay. If it is blackened or powdery, pull that part out and don’t feed it.  You might need to switch to another bale.

Pellets or bagged horse feed. Hay can also be compressed into pellets. Some owners will soak the pellets in water before feeding. You may be asked to feed a scoop of senior feed, supplemental grain, or even a bran mash (soaked bran). Get clear instructions, and be careful not to overfeed.

LOCK UP THE FOOD. If a horse can open a door, he will, and they are very good at it. Be sure you latch every gate and doorway completely. If a horse gets in and eats several pounds of grain, call the vet immediately. This is an emergency.

Treats. If the owner allows you to feed treats, hold your hand open with the palm flat, and the horse will use his lips to pick up the treat. Some common goodies are peppermints, carrots and apples. An apple is the perfect size and shape to get stuck in a horse’s throat so cut it in two or three pieces or make him take bite out of it rather than letting him take it whole. Most horses know how to do this already.

How to identify a sick horse. You may arrive and find horses lying down out in the pasture. They are not necessarily sick, though they sure look like it. Usually they will hop up as soon as they hear you.

The most common emergency is colic. A horse that eats too much fresh grass or high protein feed will get gas colic. This can usually be successfully treated. 

Some horses get impaction colic, where sand in their gut gradually forms a stone until suddenly one day the intestinal tract is blocked. Surgery is the only hope to cure this horse.

Signs of either type of colic are similar. The horse will be uncomfortable, looking and biting at his sides and maybe kicking a little. He may stand with his head to the ground and his mouth open, like he’s trying to belch. As the pain gets worse he will lie down and roll.

What to do: Call the owner and veterinarian. While you wait, walk the horse, which may help get his bowels moving. Watch to see if he passes manure. This is critical, and is a very good sign. Observe whether it is soft and runny or solid and normal. The vet will want to know.

If the horse tries to roll, urge him to get up and walk. You’ll see him pause and buckle his front legs, maybe paw the ground first. Interrupt him before he goes down and keep him moving.

Don’t feed him any food or water. If it is gas colic, a simple shot of banamine may be all that the vet needs to do. The vet may also hydrate the horse with an IV or put oil down into his stomach to get things moving. You may be in for a long night.

If a horse escapes. This is no fun, but I have been lucky. It only happened once, and the horse just went over to the nearest stall and stood outside of it next to her buddy. May you be so fortunate.

Horses will usually try to find another horse if they get out when you aren’t there. Or they will stop at the nearest green, juicy grass (watch him for signs of colic if this happens). Hit the street with your halter and lead rope and talk to the neighbors. You may want to walk one of the other household’s horses with you, because they will call out to each other. Once you find him (really, they don’t usually go far) be ready with some cookies, apples, carrots or a little grain in a bucket, and you will catch him in no time. Food is magic.

If a horse gets away from you and bolts, he will usually go a couple hundred feet and stop. Use the same methods mentioned above to catch him. Food usually works. If he starts to take off again as you get near, stop and stand sideways instead of full front, so you won’t appear threatening, and don’t make eye contact (this also works with dogs). You could even kneel on the ground. Gradually move closer. If he drops his head and starts to lick and chew with his mouth, he is starting to relax. A high-headed horse is a scared horse. Remember to watch his ears for a hint as to what he is paying attention to (hopefully, you).

I hope this and my last article, about safety around horses, have been helpful to you. Contact me if you have questions about horse care! 

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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.