Paws for concern: the trials and tribulations of the casual pet-sitter
Sun cream, car hire documents, instructions for pet-sitter... It's holiday time and that means a staycation for many of our beloved pets. Most of us have, at some point, agreed to "pop in" and feed the neighbour's cats, or nodded along as a family member gabbles through the visiting Jack Russell's daily routine.
Even hosting the school hamster over the holidays is a responsibility, yet a pet-sitting favour is often requested as casually as taking in a parcel. The problem is, when the parcel is living, breathing, and possibly a pedigree reliant on stringent medication, there's a great deal that can go wrong.
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The most important thing is to decide if they're staying at home or going for a sleepover. And either way, a swift handover won't do, says animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby.
"The more 'settling in' sessions that can be done, the better," she says. "The owners should also tell the sitter about any ailments as well as behavioural quirks, training cues and emergency contacts."
Even if the animals are staying in their own home, they should meet the sitter first, she advises. Advice which I failed to heed a few years ago, when my kindly older neighbour agreed to feed my two grumpy cats for a week. They stress-moulted all over her like dandelion clocks but, far worse, I came back to a polite note: "I'm afraid the cats have been pooping on the rug... It may need steam-cleaning."
At least they stayed in one place. My friend Rebecca was charged with looking after her sister's precious Burmese cats for a fortnight. "On day two, I went round, filled the food bowls and called them. One appeared, but the other didn't," she says.
"I looked all over the house, then realised the top bathroom window was open and she must have slithered out. That was when I really panicked.
"I was awake all night, mentally running through my confession... I was on the verge of phoning my sister and coming clean when, two days later, she appeared on the front doorstep. I'd never been so relieved."
You'd think dogs would be easier, but that depends on the individual, says vet Clare Hamilton.
"Dogs are generally more sociable than cats. However, it is not uncommon for dogs to be upset by a sudden change," she says. Even that can be tricky, admits my neighbour Paula, who took in her best friend's young German Shepherd for four days.
Her owner was determined not to put her in kennels and reassured Paula that Betty would be "fine".
"The first night, Betty howled all night long. I had strict instructions not to let her in the bedroom, so I ended up sitting on the kitchen floor until 5am trying to calm her down."
Later on, she took Betty for a walk, as instructed. "My friend said Betty was fine on the lead. She forgot to add 'unless she sees a smaller dog'."
Betty pulled away and chased after a tiny Shih Tzu. "Its owner was raging - I honestly thought Betty was going to eat her pet," she adds.
Even worse is the thorny issue of damage. "It's wise to have insurance if you're looking after a pet," warns Bescoby. But who gets round to that for a week?
"My very house-proud cousin offered to have our springer spaniel puppy for our anniversary weekend," says my friend Daisy. Corry galloped to the master bedroom and joyously ripped two silk feather cushions to pieces.
"My cousin phoned me in a state of screeching rage - apparently, the cushions had cost €150 each and were hand-painted silk one-offs."
With smaller animals, the risk of things going awry can be all the greater, as the shorter lifespans of mice, guinea pigs and rabbits make it entirely feasible that they could expire on your watch.
Ultimately, if you want your pet to enjoy its holiday, you might be best off forking out for a professional pet-sitter. Not only is it the safest option for your furry friends, but it might save your human friendships too. © The Telegraph