The call for help came from my teenage daughter early one morning last summer. Pet sitting at a home in our Silver Spring neighborhood, she went downstairs to find an unwelcome surprise on the dining room floor: a decapitated bird that the cat had brought in through an open window.
“The huskies I was watching had cozily arranged themselves among the feathers, while the cat responsible for the deed watched from on top of the dining room table,” says Natalie, now 19.
Cleaning up the bird’s remains ranks among the more extreme tasks that have been required during the four years she has cared for pets in owners’ homes during summer vacations and school breaks; the worst being the time a client asked her to empty chipmunk traps—5-gallon buckets of water that held the bloated corpses of a dozen animals.
Natalie has always loved cats and dogs—she’s especially attached to our beagle, Daisy—so the opportunity to watch other people’s pets while getting paid is “the ideal job,” she says. She’s cared for animals ranging from tabby cats to Labradors to a guinea pig with a fondness for evading capture and chickens who liked to wander into neighbors’ yards.
Teens like Natalie and people who offer a wider range of pet care services find themselves in high demand in the Bethesda area. Claire Jackman, 34, of Silver Spring began walking dogs for clients after graduating from college and started her business, Baby Got Bark, about 10 years ago. Since then, she’s had to hire six people to help her.
Over the years, Natalie’s part-time job has taught her much about the behavior of house pets. The biggest lesson: Keeping to a pet’s schedule is the key to avoiding problems. “Dogs are notoriously early risers, and when you’re the only one in the house, you have to be, too,” she says. Natalie has found that most pets warm to her quickly—though they occasionally can get too comfortable, like “when I’m woken up at 4 in the morning by Olive the pug snuffling in my ear, or Pepper the Labrador puppy sitting on my chest,” she says.
At times, it can be difficult figuring out how to handle unexpected client requests—like dealing with the chipmunk traps at the house where she was caring for two cats—that aren’t part of her $35 fee for staying overnight. “If the pets weren’t so endearing and the money wasn’t so good, the chipmunk bodies might have done me in,” she says.
Jackman says some of her dog-walking clients have asked her to pick up their pets from the vet after a procedure, or to feed their fish. At first, she says, “I would do anything, I would go above and beyond just so that I could get a good name, get any kind of word of mouth.” Once she started hiring contractors, she knew she had to set limits to deter clients from taking advantage of them. “They need to get paid for the work they’re doing,” she says.
The increasing use of technology, particularly security cameras in homes, has added a new wrinkle to pet sitting. It bothered me that Natalie might never know whether cameras were monitoring her. While pet sitting one night, she called to see if I could investigate a weird whistling noise, which turned out to be the air conditioner. Uncomfortably aware that I might be on camera, I loudly announced what I was doing as I moved through the house.
Jackson says she understands why homeowners install cameras, but that it’s “kind of creepy” when she and her employees visit a new client and spot the equipment in every room. Still, technology also has its benefits, she says. Her clients use Time To Pet, an app that makes it easy to book services and receive real-time updates about their animals.
In the end, Jackman says, trust between owners and pet sitters remains the cornerstone of the pet care relationship. The use of technology “can’t change that fact.”
Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and is the deputy editor of Bethesda Magazine.