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Pet sitting a popular way to make a living

When Jim Amen retired two years ago from his career as a claims supervisor for State Farm Insurance, he looked for a way to stay busy. Now he and his wife operate a pet sitting service.
Pet sitters Jim and Ruthie Amen pose with their dogs Dolly, left, and Toto outside their Leawood, Kan., home on Nov. 11. Orlin Wagner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Jim Amen retired two years ago from his career as a claims supervisor for State Farm Insurance, he looked for a way to stay busy.

He found it in his Leawood, Kan., home. His wife, Ruthie, had been pet sitting on a small scale since retiring as a recreational therapist and teacher, and was trying to make it into a business. Jim agreed to help, and the couple now operates Angel Watchers Pet Sitting Service, visiting other people’s pets at their homes and giving owners some peace of mind.

“We help people feel like we would want to feel when we leave our pets, secure that everything will be all right,” Ruthie Amen said. And we get to play with animals all day.”

The Amens are part of a rapidly growing home-based industry. Membership in the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., has increased from 850 four years ago to 1,500. Pet Sitters International, based in King, N.C., has seen its membership grow from 1,000 in 1995 to about 6,800 now, said John Long, public relations coordinator for the group.

Pet sitters generally spend about half an hour on each visit, feeding and watering animals, walking dogs, cleaning up messes and playing with the pets. Besides dogs and cats, they usually care for birds, rabbits, fish and reptiles.

When clients are on vacation, sitters provide some security by bringing in mail, watering flowers and turning lights on and off. Most pet sitters also will take animals to vets or groomers, bathe them and dispense medicine, although those services usually cost more. While it is not required, most professional pet sitters are bonded and carry liability insurance.

The industry’s recent growth has been fueled in part by the country’s struggling economy.

“The economy has withdrawn a wee bit over the last five, six years,” Long said. “There have been lots of folks laid off, or who are just disillusioned with the corporate world in general. Some of them turn to pet sitting because animals are something they are passionate about.”

'Part of our families'
Donna Monpemore is one corporate refugee who has found happiness and a career as a pet sitter. Her job in the insurance industry was fine and paid well, but “it was just a job. I had to drag myself out of bed a lot of mornings.” And she felt guilty leaving her dog alone all day.

She left voluntarily to become a pet sitter for Critter Sitters of Kansas City Inc. Four years ago, she bought the business, which employs 50 to 60 pet sitters and serves about 2,000 clients in a year. But Monpemore still visits pets.

“Owning your own business is really stressful,” she said. “I will never give up getting out of the office to visit pets. It’s relaxing, it’s exercise, and it’s something that I love doing.”

An average visit costs about $21, according to Pet Sitters International, but prices vary depending on the services and the region of the country.

That’s a small price to pay for the security pet sitters provide, said Virginia Ryan, one of Monpemore’s clients. She and her husband began using a pet sitter when they lived in New Mexico and one of their dogs died in a kennel. They continued using the service after moving to Kansas City in 2002.

Because Ryan often works 12-hour days as a respiratory therapist, a sitter will come at least once a day, and sometimes twice, to check on her two dogs.

“We just don’t like leaving the dogs alone,” Ryan said. “They have their habits, they get to go outdoors. And I just like that they get some attention when we can’t give it to them.”

Currently, 62 percent of U.S. households have at least one pet, with 64.2 million people owning an animal. Americans spend $31 billion on pets a year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc.

“We are a culture that is in love with our pets,” Long said. “They are more than animals, they’ve become part of our families.”

Charlotte Reed, who owns a New York-based pet service called Two Dogs and A Goat, said pet sitting is fun but also hard work. She said the most successful pet sitters are in bigger cities where more people have disposable income.

“You can have a little side business where you just do it on weekends, if that’s what you want,” she said. “But to make a living at it, you have to have good business sense and generally be where there are people who can spend money on their ’fur children’.”

Pet sitters also have to be willing to work long days, and on weekends and holidays, when more people need sitters. And they need to be ready to handle picky owners and emergencies such as frozen water pipes or animals that suddenly become ill.

But pet sitters say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. People like the Amens, who don’t live off their pet-sitting money, say it’s the perfect job. They are selective about their clients and won’t let the business become so large that they can’t control their schedule or have to cut back on personal contact.

“We feel like we are helping people,” Jim Amen said. “It keeps you busy enough, but not too busy so that we can’t do what we want to. And taking care of animals is different than working with people. It’s actually a fun assignment.”