Many people stumble across their calling in life at unexpected moments, but for Charlotte Reed, a professional pet sitter in Manhattan, the circumstances were stranger than most.
Returning home one evening from her job as a securities lawyer on Wall Street, Reed opened her front door to hear the thump, thump, thump of techno music booming from her bedroom. When she walked into the room, Reed was stunned to find her male dog walker dancing in front of the mirror, wearing one of her dresses. Her two cocker spaniels, Katie and Kidder, sat on her bed, watching.
After getting over her shock, which was made worse when she learned that this man had also been wearing her makeup and underwear on a regular basis, Reed had a revelation. In a city such as New York, filled with thousands of busy professionals such as herself, there must be a demand for reliable, responsible people to take care of pets.
Soon after, Reed left her job and in 1996 launched Two Dogs & A Goat, Inc., a pet sitting and dog walking business that has since mushroomed into a successful enterprise employing 30 independent contractors who cater to the needs of a diverse clientele.
“We have socialites, corporate executives, lawyers, doctors, and also the discriminating waitress,” says Reed. Her charges include dogs, cats, birds, other small animals and even fish.
Benefits all around
Traditionally, most pet owners turned to friends and neighbors to watch their animals when needed, or dropped them off at kennels and veterinary clinics. But for many people, tired of imposing on their friends or wracked by guilt after leaving their pets behind at a kennel, in-home care is the perfect solution.
Pet-sitting services allow animals to stay in their own familiar environment and receive food, exercise and attention with minimal upset to their normal routines.
“They’re creatures of habit, just like we are,” says Jeffrey Lauterbach, president of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS), a non-profit organization with approximately 1,600 members.
And, for canines cooped up at home all day, dog walkers provide a badly needed outlet for excess energy. In addition, many pet sitters will chauffeur animals to vet appointments, bring in the mail, water plants, and turn on and off lights providing a more lived-in look while you’re gone.
For Joe Augustine, a client of Reed’s, owning his two English setters would be nearly impossible if it weren’t for the services of Two Dogs & A Goat. Both Augustine and his wife work in finance and often spend long hours on the job. Jaycy and Ranger, however, require extensive exercise and would likely wreak havoc in their 9th floor Manhattan home without the help of a dog walker.
Trained as bird dogs, Augustine’s canines regularly travel with him on hunting vacations, but when they’re at home in the city, they get walked four times a day — twice by him and twice by a dog walker.
“A tired dog is a good dog. They never get into any trouble when they’re exercised,” says Augustine. The extra walks also help keep the dogs in shape and give Augustine peace of mind.
“If at certain times we’re working late or traveling, (the dog walker) will do everything — feed them, walk them, take them to the vet, pick them up from the vet.”
The advent of 'fur kids'
As more and more people such as Augustine discover the benefits that pet sitters offer, Reed and others in the industry are seeing demand for their services take off.
“Pet sitting is now the leading at-home start-up business” in the United States, says John Long, public relations coordinator for Pet Sitters International, a for-profit professional group with 6,800 members.
With the changing demographics of American society, the need for these businesses is only likely to increase, he adds.
More than 60 percent of U.S. households now have a pet of some kind, including an estimated 110 million cats and dogs, according to NAPPS.
And those pets play new roles in their family's lives. While many people now wait longer to get married or have children — if they do either, at all — they often still want to have someone — or something — in their lives. Enter what pet sitter Reed dubs "the fur kid."
“A fur kid is a pet who is treated to the finest and loved very much like a child,” she says. “The animal fulfills an emotional role and in return, the owner is willing to shell out big bucks and do absolutely everything they can for them.”
Pet sitter Camille Pinto, co-owner of Who Let the Dogs Out, LLC, based in Totowa, N.J., is also familiar with this "sky's the limit" attitude.
She started her business with co-owner Annette Brundage two years ago after spending 25 years as a veterinary surgical technician, and now has two full-time employees. During the summer, which is her peak busy season, Pinto works non-stop from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. throughout the week caring for animals, many of whom require medications or other treatments while their owners are away on vacation. During the winter months, her meat and potatoes is dog walking.
Over the years, Pinto’s gotten plenty of odd requests, including one woman who wanted her to sleep in bed with a bird while she was away, a job Pinto says she politely declined.
Reed, too, has received her fair share of peculiar assignments, such as a man who paid her to read aloud to his fish and a woman who hired her to accompany a poodle to a wedding.
Despite the long hours and occasionally unusual clients, Pinto says she wouldn’t do anything else. “I like animals better than people. … You can be in the worst mood and the first dog you see snaps you right out of it. It’s very rewarding and it always has been.”