Do you ever ask yourself what you would do if something went terribly wrong while house sitting?
What would happen if a pet in your care becomes ill or worse?
How would you cope if the property was damaged in a hurricane?
What would you do if something prevents the owners returning home on time?
It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of your new house sitting adventure and to bypass these important questions – after all they’re not likely to happen to you. Or are they?
House sitting provides an amazing lifestyle for both long term travelers and short term vacationers the world over. In ninety nine percent of all assignments, the handover of the property and pets back to the home owner is a happy occasion. You may experience the odd hiccup but nothing too troublesome.
But what about that 1% where something goes terribly wrong?
On the sad occasion where a pet becomes sick, injures itself, goes missing or tragically dies, how will you cope with this sad and sensitive situation? It’s hard enough when it’s your own pet, but if someone’s beloved animal has been entrusted to your care, the emotions evoked are possibly more extreme.
This was brought home to me just recently while corresponding with the owners at a recent house sit in the UK. The conversation started, “We do have some sad news ….”, and I discovered that one of the beautiful kittens we had cared for had been killed in a road accident.
The first thing to realize is it’s not your fault.
Tragedy can strike at any time and it could have been during your time at the property or when the owners were home as in the case of sweet little “Hodge”.
That said there are a number of precautions and practical steps you can take when starting your assignment. These will help alleviate any issues that you might encounter in the unlikely case of a house sitting disaster.
1. Carry out a risk assessment
It’s a bit like “risk assessment” in business. If you consider all the things that could possibly go wrong, you will be mentally prepared and may even take practical steps to help on the rare occasion that you might have a problem.
Here are some of the difficult situations you might come across:
- A pet becomes sick or is injured
- A pet tragically dies through illness, old age or in an accident
- A pet goes missing
- A pet attacks or bites someone or fights with another dog
- The owners are delayed, but you have other commitments
- Expat owners are prevented from coming back into the country
- Extreme weather causes damage to the property
2. Put together a list of emergency contacts
When you start a house or pet sitting assignment, you should get a list of emergency contacts. If you are using a contract then this will most likely be covered, but if not then ask for the following contacts and telephone numbers in case of emergency:
- The local or preferred vet
- The local police station
- A friend or neighbor that could help in an emergency
- A family member that could take care of the pets or make decisions in the case of the owners not returning on time.
If you are using a contract then check that these numbers have been included and that you have names as well as numbers. In the absence of the home owners for whatever reason, you should have access to someone who has been briefed and who has authority to make decisions on behalf of the owners.
Nobody wants to alarm a home owner at the handover, or make them worried just as they are getting ready to leave. However, it’s always good to discuss what to do in an emergency situation, in case you are unable to make quick and urgent contact while they are away.
3. Assess the probability of extreme weather and natural disasters
If you are house sitting in an area that is subject to extreme weather, such as hurricanes in the west, typhoons in the east, tsunamis, flooding, earthquakes or fires, it’s a good idea to ask if the owners have had any personal experiences, and if they have any precautions or advice for a worst case scenario.
In some areas, there are sirens to warn of extreme weather or tsunamis, or practical procedures for evacuation. It’s easy to forget these questions at handover, so again put them on your checklist if appropriate.
4. Know what to do if a pet goes missing
On arrival at the property and especially in the case of cats, ask the owners if the pets ever roam from the property or disappear overnight or even longer. If the answer is yes, it could save a lot of panic by knowing this in advance. I once had a rural semi-feral cat who would happily go off for two or three days at a time before returning for some attention!
If a pet does go unexpectedly missing while in your care, then act as you would with your own pets. Check with neighbors, call the local vets to see if they have any unknown injured pets and put notices up in the neighborhood.
At handover discuss at what stage home owners would expect you to notify them of any emergency situations.
5. Discuss and prepare for pet health issues
If a pet becomes sick or is injured, then it’s common sense to take it immediately to the local vets. If you are in a remote location then this needs to be a discussion point at handover.
You might also want to discuss with the homeowners about payment. In extreme cases vet’s bills will be high, and whilst I’m sure you would be happy to pay in the case of a sick or injured pet, you simply may not have the resources to do so.
If you’ve been entrusted with a sick or elderly pet then the owners should have already mentally prepared themselves for the worst, and prepped you accordingly. It’s rare that someone will leave you with a poorly pet, but we spent time in America with a pooch on his last legs. We had to medicate, prepare special diets and deal with the poor animal’s anxiety issues.
Ian has also had a situation where a Labrador was bitten by a snake in Colorado. His quick actions saved this dog’s life. He immediately helped to get the collapsed animal to the vet and Buddy survived his frightening encounter.
Of course, the worst situation would be if a pet becomes terminally ill or dies while in your care. Of course you should contact the owners as soon as possible, or a family member if you are unable to reach them. This is why the emergency numbers are so important.
6. Are you skilled in caring for large, aggressive or untrained dogs?
There are some dog breeds that require more experience and some that just haven’t been trained as well as one might hope. This is why it is very important to properly assess the animals that will be left in your care and be honest about your own ability to control or deal with difficult situations.
If you don’t have experience with large dogs, for instance, don’t take on an assignment with three powerful Alsatians. Similarly, if you haven’t had experience with potentially aggressive dogs, don’t sign up to look after a Doberman. Think about interactions with other dogs – could you control a dog fight?
Ask about the dog’s temperament, how he mixes with other dogs on walks. Again it will be rare that you’ll encounter a problem – but be prepared.
If you match your experience to the pets, then you shouldn’t encounter any difficulties.
7. Anticipate what you’ll do if home owners are delayed
If the owners are delayed through sickness, travel issues or other reasons, you need to have a back up plan. You can’t simply leave the pets and move onto your next assignment. You might have visa restrictions that mean you can’t stay longer than the agreed time.
This is when it’s important to have a family member or friend that you can call on. Often the home owners themselves will make provisions, but in the case of an emergency situation this might not be possible.
You can also call on the services of the house sitting community at House Sitting World on Facebook. There are 8000+ people that might be able to help you find cover in an emergency situation.
If the owners are expats or temporary residents, they might experience a problem returning into the country – again a back up plan will prevent last minute difficulties. If you’ve discussed this at the outset then there will be no surprises.
Consider a house sitting contract
Many house sitting websites advocate the use of a house sitting contract. This is a great starting point for discussing emergency procedures and contacts. If you really don’t want to use a contract then at least make a document for the home owner to complete with all this relevant information. I sometimes send this before the house sit – it shows professionalism and makes it less of a headache to complete at handover when the owners are getting ready to leave!
Experienced home owners will usually have some sort of “house sitting manual” with all this information readily available.
So, as I said, it is very rare for something to go wrong, but being mentally and physically prepared will add to your professionalism and make the assignment much less stressful for you, should you run into problems.
With all these issues properly catered for you can sit back and enjoy the property the pets and your new temporary location.
If you have any advice for house sitters or home owners please tell us your story in the comments section below.
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