Leaving your pet behind when you travel is not an easy thing to do. It's an emotionally difficult moment for both of you, and the last thing you want to add is extra stress, wondering who will care for your pet while you're gone and if they'll do a good job. Thankfully, there are many professional pet sitters with the training and experience to provide excellent care for your non-human family members.

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The following steps will guide you through the process of finding the perfect pet sitter, including what to ask in interviews, what red flags to look for, and how to ensure the pet sitter and your pet have a great time together while you're gone.

Start gathering names

The first step in the process of finding a great pet sitter is to start gathering names from reputable places. Quality pet sitters will have a relationship with local veterinarians, trainers and reputable boarding facilities. Start asking the people you trust for suggestions.

There are also two professional associations for pet sitters, both of which are good sources for pet sitters in your area. They are the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) and Pet Sitters International (PSI).

NAPPS is a national nonprofit that offers resources for both pet sitters and pet owners. PSI is the world’s largest education association for professional pet sitters. Both organizations offer certification training and exams for pet sitters, and both offer a searchable database for pet owners to find a potential sitter. NAPPS’s database shows at a glance which animals sitters specialize in, what services they provide, and contact information. PSI’s database shows the same information as well as an at-a-glance legend showing if the sitter is insured, bonded, trained in pet first aid, is certified, and has passed a background check.

Once you have created a short-list of potential pet sitters based on what you need, you're ready to begin interviews.

women shaking dog's pawComing over for an interview allows you to ask questions and creates an opportunity for your pet and the sitter to meet. (Photo: zakalinka/Shutterstock)
Create a list of interview questions

The interview process is how you’ll determine which sitter is the best match for you. You’ll find out critical information about the sitter's experience and knowledge with pets as well as her level of professionalism. After all, you’ll be letting this person have full access to your home while you’re gone for an extended time, so trust — as well as a license and insurance — is key. Here is a sample of questions that are helpful to ask:

  • How long has the sitter been in the profession?
  • How much experience does she have with your species of pet?
  • What kind of training has she received?
  • What certifications does she hold?
  • Is she licensed, insured and bonded (and can you see proof)?
  • What are all the pet sitting services she will provide? Does she do walks, play time and so on?
  • Does she provide updates or keep notes of your pet's activity during their stay?
  • Does she provide additional services, like bringing in the mail or turning on lights?
  • What are her regular hours, and is she willing to have flexible hours if scheduled ahead of time?
  • Does the sitter have a back-up should she become ill or have a scheduling conflict?
  • What are her fees for all services?
  • Does she already have a relationship with an emergency vet?
  • Does she have a contract, and can you have a copy to review?

Also, ask for references from current or past clients. Be sure to call the references and ask about their experience with the sitter.

Finally, be prepared to answer questions from your pet sitter. A professional pet sitter will have her own list of questions for potential new clients, including specifics about your animal’s heath, special needs or requirements, and your own preferences about care. The pet sitter will want to determine what kind of client you’ll be just as much as you’ll want to determine what kind of sitter she’ll be. Think about the kind of questions she is asking, as this will also help you learn more about her level of experiences and conscientiousness.

woman holding cranky catHaving a trial run with your pet sitter is a good time to find out if she and your pet get along. (Photo: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock)
Set up a trial run with your pet

Everything seems to be looking good and you’ve selected a pet sitter who had all the right answers to your questions, and whose references gave glowing reviews. But there’s still one hurdle: Does she actually get along with your pet?

Once you’ve selected a pet sitter, it is important to have a trial run before the big vacation. Schedule a time for the sitter to spend an hour or more with your pet. Watch how they interact, and if your pet seems to like her. If they get along well, great! If they don’t, or even if you have a gut reaction of something feeling amiss, don’t be afraid to pass on the person and go to your next choice on your list of potential pet sitters.

If the initial meeting goes well but you still want to be sure, you can also try a one-day or weekend-long trial run. This is a chance to look for any red flags:

  • Did your pet sitter say she’d give you updates but never contact you?
  • When you returned home, was the feeding area clean?
  • For dog owners, are there any scratch marks at the door or signs your pet wasn’t let out in a timely manner? For indoor pets, are there signs of any "accidents" in the house?
  • Were litter boxes or cages left dirty?
  • Does your pet look healthy and happy, or is he acting nervous or is there an unexplained injury?
  • Was your house orderly? Did the sitter break any house rules such as smoking inside, eating all your food, or leaving doors unlocked?
  • Was any furniture moved or items in drawers and cupboards rearranged?

If any red flags show up, don’t be afraid to fire the pet sitter and look for a new one. The health and safety of your pet, as well as your home, is worth having an awkward but short conversation that it won’t work out. Then move on to the next sitter on your list.

Even if you like your new pet-sitter, your pet still has to provide their approval too!Even if you like your new pet sitter, your pet still has to provide approval too! (Photo: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock)

Once you’ve found the perfect sitter

Everything about your sitter is perfect — she provides the services you're looking for, has the experience you're looking for and a contract you trust, and your pet just loves her. The last thing to do before you leave is to get your home and pet in order.

Make a list of any of your pet’s needs beyond the obvious. Write down specific food requirements, along with any allergies or foods he can’t have, and any medications he may need and how to administer them.

Because pets love a routine, and having a sitter will already be a disruption, be sure to jot down the general schedule your pet has so the sitter can stick to it while she's with your pet. For instance, if your dog loves to play right after eating, be sure the sitter knows this so she can accommodate your dog’s habit. Or if your cat loves to lounge in the sun in the back bedroom every afternoon, be sure the sitter knows to keep the door open so the cat has access.

Along with the habits, note the rules. Many pets love to stretch the rules with someone who lets them, so if there are rules your pets need to stick to, be sure the sitter knows so she can enforce them rather than unintentionally letting your pet run amok while you’re gone. If your dog isn’t allowed to chew on the Frisbee after playing, be sure the sitter knows this. Or if your cat is only allowed to scratch on a certain scratching pole, mention it in your notes.

For dogs (or cats or birds and so on) who get exercise outside the home, create a map for your sitter showing where you usually walk and how long you usually spend out. Having an idea of favorite places to go and the length of the walks will help your sitter stick to your pet’s routine and keep everyone happy.

As for your pet, make sure he is wearing ID tags, and has his microchip information updated if he has a chip. List vet’s information, current vaccinations, and any emergency contact information on your notes for the sitter.

Finally, have all your pet’s food, medicine, toys, leads and other items in one place so that the sitter has easy access to everything she might need. Leave it in a box on the counter or somewhere convenient, and have all your notes and instructions with them.

Having all of these little things in place will make it as easy as possible for your pet sitter to give time, attention and love to your pet while you're gone.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.