‘Til Death Do Us Pet Sit: 5 Tips for Watching Senior Pets

By Elle Peterson of Panda’s Pets. Link here.

I walked up the familiar stairs of my client’s home, past the big, ceramic pots of colorful flowers and onto the giant ‘Welcome, Please Wipe Your Paws’ mat at the door.  I looked for Sugar’s smiling face in her favorite front window where not even the stealthiest of mail carrier could escape detection, but she wasn’t there.  Her owners warned me before I was to arrive (but conveniently after they had already left) that Sugar went downhill fast and things were going to be “difficult” this time.  Inside the house I called for her cheerfully but took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst.  I passed a pile of towels and cleaning supplies as I made my way into the living room where the smell of many accidents lingered in the air.

Sugar was sitting up on her bed with a big smile, the same happy eyes, a little extra grey around her muzzle.  Her whole body wiggled as she shifted side-to-side on her front legs.  Her hind legs were stiff and awkwardly crossed.  They dragged beside her as she scooted eagerly towards me.  There was no need to bring the leash this time and instead I grabbed the towel draped beside her and used it as a sling under her belly to hoist up her hind end.  We made a sloppy dash out the back door and down the steps into the yard.  She struggled to pull all 90 pounds of Labrador with her front legs and I struggled with the towel, fumbling to maneuver her back legs as she peed all over herself and all over my shoes.  It was going to be long week for us both and it didn’t make things easier knowing it was the last time we’d spend together.

What I experienced pet sitting for Sugar in her final days has stayed with me for over a decade.  In an industry where word-of-mouth referrals make or break your reputation, how well you adapt and empathize with the needs of aging pets will set you apart from your competition and earn you loyal clients that tell their friends and neighbors.  If you’re new to pet sitting or senior pet care these 5 tips will help you build, maintain, and appreciate those relationships.  I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with senior pets and any advice you have for our fellow sitters.

Senior pet dog looking forlorn

1. Be grateful you’re around for the twilight years.

It’s not hard to find someone willing to pet sit when times are good, dogs are young, grass is green and the sun is shining.  Hopefully, in the years you’ve spent with these pets you have established the kind of bond that makes you want to be a part of their golden years.  But in some cases you might have to dig deep and really put yourself into that grateful state of mind.  Maybe this is a new customer with an old pet, a curmudgeon cat, or a dog that has hated you for years no matter how you’ve tried to win her over… whatever the reason, senior pet care can be an incredible gift or a frustrating burden depending on your level of commitment and preparation.  Make the best of the hard times and know you’re providing a service of tremendous value to both your client and their senior pet.

dog getting face rubbed

2. Set realistic expectations.

This is a mantra I return to repeatedly when coaching new pet sitters.  If you find yourself wanting to be the pet sitting hero (agreeing to 6 visits a day, exactly 4 hours apart, texting photos after each visit… yes, that happens) it will be extremely hard to deliver.  Only make promises you can keep.  It’s better to set trial schedules, maintain an open dialog, and change the plan as needed than to come up short on what you promised (or what you failed to specify).  Communicate and agree upon a realistic schedule during the consultation.   A misunderstanding can mean your customer thinks you didn’t perform as promised (or as they had ASSUMED – which is equally binding in their mind even if you’re unaware of it!)

3. Rates change with circumstances.

Aging pets are going to require additional care.  Some of your clients will be understanding of this (and even generous!) but you’ll also have some that are reluctant to accept you’re going to be spending more time, doing more work, and therefor deserve more money.  If you’re having to clean up accidents routinely (this really applies to puppies, too) then it might be necessary to add a 3rd or 4th visit to the schedule.  If there’s a new medicine and care routine that takes an additional 20 minutes then it justifies an additional cost.  Don’t go into a visit feeling rushed, resentful, or unable to maintain the level of care you once had the time to provide because you’re avoiding a conversation about money.

4. Have a Plan B and Plan C.

If you have been pet sitting for a while there is a good likelihood that you’ve come across the Vacation Denial complex which I describe as a client planning and leaving for a trip while they have a terminally ill or suffering pet at home.  There will understandably be strong feelings in these situations, but I try to give my clients the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe the familiarity has blinded them to how much their pet has declined.  Maybe there is an unwillingness to confront the reality of needing to euthanize their beloved companion.  In some cases there is a busy person who’s pet has taken a back seat in their life and has needs that have not been considered for a long time.  Have a conversation (and preferably get in writing) a Plan B – should the level of care you’re providing be insufficient (you can use your discretion) or should the pet unexpectedly decline, your customer is aware that you may add additional visits or may have their pet medically boarded.  Having a Plan C in place means talking about euthanasia and what arrangements should be made if a pet unexpectedly passes while in your care.  It isn’t easy to talk about with your clients but it is a reality when caring for senior or terminally ill pets.

5. Consider your physical abilities and those of the pet.

When watching a large dog with mobility issues you’ll need to consider your health and discuss in detail the care the owner is expecting.  Lifting a dog or using a sling to help them walk can be a challenge and will take some getting used to (especially when navigating steps).  Your physical health is a big part of your livelihood and you need to protect it.  Consider also that in the event of an emergency you must be able to transport the pet to their veterinarian (or emergency vet), so always have reliable transportation on hand with the space to accommodate any size pet you’re watching.  If a pet is in pain or confused they might become aggressive, defensive, or hide in places hard to access.  I once had to crawl for 10 feet on my belly under a porch at night to retrieve a partially paralyzed corgi and rush him to the emergency vet.  (Oswego the corgi made a full recovery after having back surgery.)

I hope you find these tips helpful when caring for senior pets.  If you ever feel like a pet is being neglected or has declined past the point of pet sitting – find a respectful and compassionate way to approach the subject with your client.  If you are frustrated, overwhelmed, or confused – reach out to a fellow pet sitter for advice and support.  Losing a beloved pet you’ve watched can be as hard as losing one of your own.  Be thankful for having been a part of their life and know it’s what makes our profession so meaningful and rewarding.