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A gray cat with his paws on a gray table. Next to him is a tassel toy with green and white strings. Photo by Chuan Xu on Unsplash

Hiring a cat sitter for when you travel can bring you peace of mind, knowing your cats are being well taken care of while you’re away. Photo by Chuan Xu on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had … a variety of experiences … when making sure my cats were taken care of while I was traveling. One particularly memorable occasion was getting back to my apartment after a trip out of state, to find that my entire place reeked of burned toast, and there were soot marks on my toaster oven. So I asked my mother, who had been taking care of my cats for me, “why does it smell like burned toast in here?”

Her response: “Your toaster oven doesn’t work right” so it didn’t stop cooking my toast, and I was in your living room watching TV when the smoke alarm went off.

I didn’t ask why she was making toast in my apartment when she lived around the corner from me and had easy access to her own kitchen. But I did decide the next time I went away, I was going to hire a professional cat sitter.

I’ve seen a lot of commentary on cat sitters, some of which reflected misunderstandings about the skills, qualifications, and pricing of pet sitting services. Recently I sat down with Bella Vasta, who worked for almost 15 years as a professional pet sitter and now operates Pet Care Team Training, a company that provides courses and certifications for pet sitting professionals, including pet first aid and CPR.

A cat sitter is a trained professional operating a real business

The chief misconception I see is that pet sitting is just a hobby, that you don’t really have to do much other than go over and toss some food in kitty’s dish and go on your way. Easy money, right?

Well, no.

Cat sitters don’t just feed cats. A professional cat sitter stays in your home for at least half an hour a day. While they are there, they provide company and enrichment for your cats, keep track of your cats’ health by watching them in action and tracking their input and output. Professional sitters know the right questions to ask to ensure they have all the information they need in order to manage your cats’ health and care.

“Depending on how big or small, [professional pet sitters] have business insurance that includes care, custody, and control,” Vasta says. “They’re also bonded, typically for $10,000, so if a sitter or one of their employees or contractors are found guilty of stealing from a client, for example, that insurance kicks in.”

A professional cat sitter also has common sense about security issues. They will ask you how to operate your home’s security system, ensure that all doors are closed and locked before they leave, check that any lights you have on timers are functioning as they should, and take your mail in so there’s no sign you’re not home. If you ask, they may even water your houseplants for you.

But why not hire the kid next door? They’re cheap!

You may be very lucky and find that “the kid next door” is a teen volunteer at a cat rescue, and thus has more “cat sense” than most people their age. But most of the time, that’s not the case, and what you get is someone who’s happy to make a quick few bucks by feeding your cats.

“The kid next door will do what you tell them to do—throw some food down, maybe refill water dishes—but someone who does it as a job to put food on the table will take it more seriously,” Vasta says.

A professional cat sitter understands the importance of things like keeping dishes clean and providing appropriate stimulation. They also understand your cats’ quirks and can keep your cats as comfortable as possible while you’re away.

Most importantly, though, a professional cat sitter will be able to identify signs of illness or injury in your cats. They will also have a vehicle and be able to drive your cat to the vet right away, if necessary. A cat sitter knows the importance of laying eyes on your cats at every visit, and spending time playing with them, loving them, and brushing them if necessary.

A gray tabby cat lies on his back with his rear legs spread and his belly (which has a tiny white spot on it) exposed.

I took care of this guy and his feline housemate while his people were away on a trip. No, I never rubbed the belly, even though he did this a lot. “It’s a trap!” his humans warned me. Photo by JaneA Kelley

A professional cat sitter is worth the cost

You could bring someone in to house sit and care for your cats, or you could look for the lowest-priced sitter you can find. But that has risks.

“You can hire a cheap person but the chances are that they’re going to be booked, stressed out, or very new to the business,” says Vasta. “If they’re not charging enough, they’ll have to have other jobs to make ends meet and could be distracted.”

Cat sitters who are certified both in cat care skills and pet first and and CPR, whether they have invested in this training on their own or taken online courses from Pet Care Team Training or other similar companies, are showing their professionalism by showing they care enough to continue their education.

“Is it expensive on paper? Yes, but it’s an investment in your cats’ happiness, and your own happiness,” Vasta says. “And it’ll lower your stress while you’re on on vacation because you’ll get regular communication—the sitter may even exceed your expectations.”

A specialist cat sitter or a general pet sitter?

Vasta doesn’t think you necessarily have to hire a specialist cat sitter, as long as the pet sitter has enough knowledge of and experience with cats to be able to meet all your cats’ needs.

Although the numbers of people who are specifically cat sitters are growing, “it’s probably going to be easier to find a general pet sitting company that hires people who are also cat owners,” Vasta says. This is particularly true if you don’t live near a large metro area.

What you should do if you’re hiring a general pet sitter, though, is research. Visit their website and social media and see if you can find images of cats or information specifically about cat sitting. You can also inquire about the pet sitter’s experience with cats, as well as the cat experience of any employees or contractors who may be taking care of your cats.

The meet and greet is crucial

Any time you hire a cat sitter, you want to meet with that person and see how they interact with your cats. For example, how are their “cat manners?” Do they speak quietly and invite the cat to sniff or approach them? If you have a shy cat, does the sitter respond in a way that doesn’t make him fearful?

Here are some other things Vasta suggests people look for during the meet and greet:

  1. When they come in the door, they show awareness that there’s a cat. They close the door behind them as soon as they come in.
  2. They ask you thoughtful, educated questions and show they’ve read the information on any intake form they provide (like the name of your vet, what you want done in an emergency, and so on). If they’re a solo sitter and there was no intake form, they should be taking notes. Lots of notes.
  3. They have a backup plan if they have an emergency and can’t visit your cat. During the meet and greet, ask them if they have a backup plan in case they get sick or injured and can’t come to visit your cat. If you’re not comfortable with their answer, you may need to hire someone else.

As for red flags? “Someone who’s not on time for the meet and greet is a big red flag,” Vasta says.

As a cat sitting client, I would also consider it a red flag if the sitter does not ask questions about your cat during the meet and greet. Even if you’ve filled out a client form, there are always going to be a few special details about your cat that don’t make it onto the form.

A black cat and a brown tabby cat with a white chin and chest are curled up on a bed with their heads touching.

If Bella were still actively diabetic, I would have made sure to hire a cat sitter who knows how to home test, is comfortable giving insulin shots, and understands the importance of staying on schedule with injections and food. Photo by JaneA Kelley

What about a sitter for a kitty with special medical needs?

One option is to ask one of the vet nurses at your clinic if they’re willing to take care of your cats while you’re away, of course. But keep in mind that unless your cat requires IV medication or is in early stages of recovery from a major surgery, you may not need quite that level of care. And if your cat does need that level of care, boarding at your vet may actually be a better option for a very medically fragile cat.

Keep in mind, though, that many professional cat sitters do know how to administer medications. For example, I’ve lived with cats all my life, and I’ve given just about every type of medication you can give a cat, up to and including insulin and subQ fluids. If I had a pet sitting company, I would be able to tell clients I feel comfortable giving meds and doing home glucose testing for diabetic cats.

If you want to be sure your cat sitter knows how to give your cat the meds she needs, you can always ask at the meet and greet: Are you familiar with giving this medication? Have you done it before? When’s the latst time you did it?

Vasta adds a great idea I’d never thought of before: “If your cat is finicky, have the cat sitter do a visit prior to your departure. The sitter should try to give your cat her medications while you’re not in the house, so when the sitter arrives, you go out the door and wait outside until they’re finished giving the meds.”

How far in advance should you book a cat sitter?

“As far ahead as possible,” Vasta says. Cat sitters’ schedules fill quickly, especially during November and December, as so many people travel during the holiday season. This is especially true for solo sitters.

My personal suggestion is that as soon as you’ve bought your plane tickets or made your hotel reservation, you reserve that time on a cat sitter’s schedule. It’s a courtesy to book as far ahead as possible. Once again, pet sitting is not a hobby, it’s an actual profession, and pet sitters deserve to be treated with the same courtesy with which you would treat any other professional.

But what if you travel frequently for business and you don’t know the exact dates you’ll be away until a week before your trip?

“If you have a frequent travel schedule, going with a company rather than a solo sitter is a better choice,” Vasta says. With a multi-sitter company, there may be more room for short-notice requests.

Cat sitters: the final word

Ever since I started hiring cat sitters to take care of my feline friends, I’ve felt a lot more comfortable when I’ve had to be out of town. Thank you to Bella Vasta, cat sitter and cat care trainer, for sharing your wisdom for my readers.

I know cat sitting is considered a luxury item for some, but for me, it’s part of the basic standard of care. I always include cat sitting in the budget for any traveling I do, not because I’m bougie (I’m about as un-bougie as it’s possible to be) but because I want to feel confident that my cats are getting good care from a professional with a lot of cat experience and great cat manners. It’s the least I can do to make up for the stress they experience when I’m away traveling!

If you’re interested in learning more about Pet Care Team Training, either for yourself as a solo sitter or as the owner of a company, you can visit their website at PetCareTeamTraining.com. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram.