Here's what you need to know about keeping your pets safe and happy while you're gone.
How long can a cat or dog be left alone?
Surprisingly, cats are not as independent as we think. And dogs -- well, they're exactly as dependent as most owners suspect.
"Most dogs are more emotionally needy than cats. They require a lot more human attention, while cats can function better alone,"says Amy Vilis, owner-operator of Vancouver's Creature Comforts pet-care service. "A dog cannot be left alone at night -- it's not safe. Cats are usually fine overnight, but they should never be left unsupervised for more than 24 hours."
Dogs' needs are fairly obvious: food and water, exercise, bathroom breaks and lots of love and praise. Cats' needs are more low-key. Besides topping up a cat's food and water dishes, a cat sitter's primary duty is to ensure everything is fine -- primarily by checking the litter box.
"If no one is around the house for too long, cats can become anxious," explains Vilis. "They won't use the bathroom or they'll go outside their box, and they may stop eating and drinking. Cats are small, so they can become dehydrated and get sick very fast. Someone needs to be there to respond within that 24-hour window."
What are my pet-sitting options?
"Whenever possible keep your animals in their own home environment. It can be hard for dogs to adjust to kennels and it's far worse for cats"says Vilis.
Consider asking any of the following people to move into your home to care for your companion animal. (For most cats, daily home visits will suffice if overnight stays aren't possible. Some cats, however, may strongly prefer having someone live in the house with them.)
• Friends -- especially animal lovers, or their responsible teen children
• Relatives -- especially university or college students who would be appreciative of having their own place for the weekend
• Neighbours -- especially those who also have cats or dogs
• Business contacts -- like that keen intern at the office
• Volunteer contacts -- that retired grandfather who volunteers with you at the food bank, for example. Anyone who volunteers with those in a vulnerable sector will have passed a police screening, which is reassuring since you're giving them the keys to your home!
• Professional pet or house sitters
Tip: Offer cash, or provide a gift card as a thank you to your house sitter. Even if someone is a pet lover, they're going out of their way for you.
How to find a professional sitter
Obviously you want the Mike Holmes of pet sitters, someone who'll do it right -- or make it right, if anything goes wrong.
Be sure to find a professional pet-care agency that has an A-rating with your local Better Business Bureau, as well as liability insurance.
"Ask to see the insurance summary certificate. Look for $2 million in liability, as well as an employee dishonesty bond,"says Vilis. (The dishonesty bond protects you in case the staffer steals from you; the liability covers damages resulting from almost anything else.)
When do you not need a pet sitter?
Dogs always need overnight care. Period.
Most cats are fine on their own, if you're just overnighting. Always set out at least two bowls of water (in case one gets tipped or dirty), as well as more than enough dry food.
And always leave a spare key with a back-up sitter, or hide one safely where he or she can find it, should you need to ask him or her to enter your home to check on your cat due to an unexpected delay in your return.
When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and ask someone to stay with your pet. Even if you're only gone for a day or two, a lived-in house will keep your pet happy, and also reduces the threat of mail theft (which can lead to identity theft), deters vandalism and break-ins.