Image: Audrey McManus at home with her 4-year-old Vizsla and Staffordshire Terrier mix, Lola
Carissa Ray  /
Audrey McManus at home with her 4-year-old Vizsla and Staffordshire Terrier mix, Lola. McManus, 33, a marketing manager from Seattle, says her friends mock her for her detailed food instructions when she leaves Lola with them.
By contributor
updated 7/20/2010 8:23:27 AM ET 2010-07-20T12:23:27

Pilates instructor Stephanie Perry didn’t object when friends asked her to pet-sit their two Irish setters while away. Nor did she mind the complicated feeding routine which involved sautéing vegetables, boiling whole grain oats and mixing that with Greek yogurt, raw eggs (with shell), and a slew of supplements.

It was the hats that finally did it.

“When the dogs ate, they needed to wear special hats,” says the 28-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas. “They looked like large bandanas and held their ears snug against their head. They were practical, I suppose. But hats to eat dinner? That’s a bit crazy.”

With summer — and summer vacations — here, more and more folks are preparing their pet-sitting instructions for friends, family and paid pet-sitters. But these days, it’s not just information about what cat food to give Fluffy or where Burt likes to be scratched.

Pampering pets has become a religion.

“We recently asked ‘What’s the strangest request you’ve had from a pet-sitting client?’ on our Facebook page and the replies were a hoot,” says Joshua Cary, co-founder of the Association of Pet Sitting Excellence. “My favorite was the person who asked the pet-sitter to mix holy water and ash and put it on the cat’s food and then say a prayer over the food before serving it.”

While praying for pets doesn’t come up much, pet-sitters do say they’ve received requests to sing to pets, read to pets, play the piano for pets and even turn on the TV so a pet could watch its “favorite” program.

“I once worked at an upscale pet hotel and one woman asked us if we could bring in a TV so her dogs could watch Oprah every day at 4 p.m.,” says Jessica Stout, 31, of Sacramento, Calif. “We also had a woman who said her dog could only sleep if he could lick someone’s feet. She asked if one of us would be willing to let him lick our feet each night before he went to sleep. We had to draw the line at that.”

What’s new, pussycat?
Beth Stultz of Pet Sitters International says weird pet-sitting requests aren’t the norm, but they’re definitely out there.

“The very unusual requests are in the 10 to 20 percent range,” she says. “And talking to my members, it sounds like they’re on the rise.”

That bump might be explained by a cultural shift in how we view our pets. “Twenty years ago, you had a Lab in the backyard with a doghouse. But now they’re integrated family members,” says Stout, the former pet hotel manager who currently works for a wildlife advocacy group.

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Extra pampering can also be a way to “prove” what a loving owner you are, says Stout.

“It’s kind of a parallel to the wallet with 20 pictures of your kids,” she says. “If you have 17 pages of instructions, then clearly you’re the best dog owner. Although I used to wonder if people really did those things at home or if it was just for our benefit.”

But special pets require special instructions, says Audrey McManus, 33, a marketing manager from Seattle who says her friends mock her for her detailed instructions.

“My dog has a lot of weird quirks,” she says. “She’s afraid of tall skinny things that might fall over like brooms or skis or the vacuum cleaner. She also gets really freaked about skateboarders. Plus she has a sensitive stomach so I have to list all the foods she can eat and all of her commands. She won’t eat unless you say ‘Free.’ She’ll just stare at her food and stare at you, but she won’t eat.”

But even with all the extra details, McManus says she’s come to realize people usually just stick to the bare bones.

“At first, I thought people would follow them to the T,” she says. “And then I realized it’s more like, ‘I’m going to watch your dog and let her out and pee, but that’s it.’”

How much is too much?
Teri Hurley, a 52-year-old travel agent from Austin, Texas, who worked as a professional pet-sitter for six years says most professionals know over-the-top instructions come with the territory.

“Some people will leave you books,” she says. “One woman even had a binder with ‘LOST’ flyers, in case the dog escaped.”

Still, as a pet owner herself — she has 10 small dogs including eight Chihuahuas — she’s understands the motivation.

“It’s what people need,” she says. “It’s a security blanket for them. They feel that if you read stories to the dog, then the dog’s routine stays intact.”

But all those pages of instructions about special outfits or party hats or TV preferences can have a downside.

“You need to consider if there’s an emergency and the pet-sitter is trying to find names and emergency numbers amid 17 pages of instructions,” says Stout. “For the health and safety of your pet, it’s best to keep it simple. You can always throw them a party when you get back and they can wear all the party hats they want.”

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