Eleven Things I Learned as a Professional Pet Sitter in San Francisco

you can’t please everyone & most things are about poop

(1) Sometimes a pet will not like you and there is nothing you can do about it. There have only been a couple instances where a pet has disliked me to the point where I couldn’t complete my job. It was only ever cats. One week I went to take care of a cat I hadn’t met before. This was uncommon, but happened when an initial meeting couldn’t be arranged. I was warned this cat was a little picky, which didn’t bother me; cats like me. I had accumulated hundreds of hours volunteering at the nearby shelter in high school, as well as a semester off in college, and grew up with cats. However, this cat did not seem motivated by fear or lack of human contact. She wanted to end me. I was an intruder and she had to protect the home base. She stalked me. I moved slowly, not making eye contact, and keeping my body small as I tried to feed her without exposing my skin. Leaning down to scoop her litter box was nerve-wracking, my hands moving, digging around her precious bathroom, perfect fleshy targets. The second time I visited she was right at the front door, swatting and hissing, blocking the entrance. I called my boss and she contacted the client who admitted that this had happened before. I have no ill will towards the cat, I’m sad that she felt so many people were untrustworthy.

(2) You don’t always know what will make the pet happiest. I used to walk this dog Whittie. She looked like a black Dachshund with the coat of a Pomeranian, and folded over ears. Her fur was soft and she had a graying around her snout. She was adorable and particular. She only liked her medical dental stick treats and turned her nose up to the expensive gourmet chicken or cheese treats that I carried. She didn’t care about other dogs. She also did not want to go on “new” walks. Whittie wanted to go on the same exact walk every day and not because other walking areas scared her. She had a regular route, and that is what made her happiest. Once we started doing that same route every day, she would greet me with happy spins and small barks when I picked her up. It is important to cater to what makes the dog happy when possible; not every dog wants an exciting adventure.

Whittie enjoying a chin-scratch break on her routine walk. Description: a sleepy looking small black fluggy dog sits on a patch of dry grass receiving a chin scratch.

(3) There is no such thing as “too many” poop bags. The moment you realize you are down to one poop bag, the dog you are walking will poop twice. Even if you do run out of bags, don’t abandon that doo doo. Ask someone else walking a dog nearby, use some ragged newspaper or magazine on the street, even picking it up with leaves is better than doing nothing. Picking up dog poop is the responsible thing to do if you have a dog, and if this is your business, you are representing yourself every day you are out and about. Plus, dog poop is an environmental and health hazard.

(4) Dog owners want to know about their dog’s poop. There are a limited ways most of us can asses out pet’s health without taking them to the vet. Unless you have trained your dog to communicate via buttons like Bunny, they cannot explicitly tell you if they are not feeling well. Additionally, dogs process pain differently than humans do which results in illnesses going undetected longer. In my experience the three best ways to keep an eye on a dog’s health between check ups are: whether they are eating and drinking like they normally do, whether they are acting like they normally do, and whether they are pooping like they normally do. Poop is an easy way to see if a dog is drinking enough water, ate something strange or bad, or having other digestive/internal issues. I have collected stool samples for owners to take to the vet and taken a chihuahua pooping concerning amounts of blood to the emergency vet. Luckily no one every asked me to send poop pics because my descriptions were enough. Monitoring and handling poop is part of the job when taking care of pets, even so, it still made me gag sometimes.

Flower the Chihuahua enjoys a nap. Description: a small red/brown and white Chihuahua sleeps curled up on a light blue quilt.

(5) Accidents happen and you can’t take it too personally. Potty accidents inside and larger injuries and illness are part of pet care. I took care of a Bengal cat in North Beach. Bengal’s are a breed of cat created by crossbreeding house cats with Asiatic Wild Cats. The result is a lankier “wilder” cat with a spotted orange and black coat, like a jaguar. They have intense amounts of energy and tend to be a bit spicier (in the cat community, spicy means aggressive) than plain old house cats. Mostly his breed qualities presented in high-energy springiness, and hostility towards more than two pets at a time. When I visited him, he would greet me at the top of the stairs, meowing, rubbing himself along the modern glass panel railings, and sauntering around with his booming purr. One day he didn’t greet me and I found a big puddle of urine on the floor. I discovered him at the top of the stairs near the doorway to the deck, sluggish and huddled in what appeared to be pain. He didn’t want to play or eat his food. I poked around the apartment and discovered that he had eaten a handful of bites out of a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. I took him to the vet but he was too violent for them to get his vitals, which can happen with cats crossbred with wildcats. In the end he was okay and I had to accept that him eating the Mr. Clean Magic Erasers that his owners left out was not my fault.

The Bengal biting the rubber sleeve of the author’s water bottle. Description: a housecoat with a coat that looks like a jaguar lays on a tan couch with his mouth open in the process of chomping down on the turquoise rubber sleeve of a glass water bottle.

(6) Whether owners know it or not, they train their pet to act a certain way, and if the owners are a little wacky, it can result in ridiculous pet care routines. I took care of this elderly tuxedo cat in the Mission District whose owner sat on a tiny wooden stool while her cat ate to keep him company. Following this, she claimed the cat refused to eat unless whoever fed him sat on the stool. Then she said the cat stopped eating the wet food when it was cold from the fridge so she began to microwave the food for under ten seconds, so that it wasn’t cold but wasn’t too warm. By the time I took care of the cat it needed every meal to be microwaved and served with the caretaker on the nearby stool. I always followed these odd instructions I was given from owners because they know their pets better than I do, plus, they were the ones paying me. Once I had to run to the bathroom while I was supervising cat dinner. The cat still ate without me, but I continued to sit on the stool during the following meals because I was instructed to do so. I think these habits came about because the owner liked the sensation of being needed.

(7) The routines that pet owners create are often more about soothing themselves. I took care of a pair of cats in a high-rise in the Financial District. Their owner had the most extreme routine around feeding them that I ever encountered. When she went away for two weeks, I visited the cats several times a day to feed, play, and clean up after them. The feeding routine started out with stainless steel bowls. Everything the owner used was stainless steel. Both cats ate raw food, two different flavors handcrafted by the local gourmet pet store. One cat got more of one flavor than the other cat, and they both got supplements, each element measured on a food scale for accuracy. The food needed to be slightly warmed up, but not cooked, just warm enough to make it closer to the temperature of fresh raw flesh. To do this she would boil water in the stainless steel kettle and pour it in two other stainless steel bowls. The food bowls sat on top of these bowls of boiled water for a few minutes with an occasional stir. The cats ate in different rooms so that neither got more or less of their meticulously prepared meals. Maybe the third or fourth time I visited, the shyer of the two cats, named Greene, jumped up on the counter while I was filling the kettle and started eating his own food cold. It turns out the cats did not care at all about the food being warm, they just wanted to eat it. When the owner returned she reached out to thank me because Greene was much more friendly and outgoing. I think Greene didn’t know he could be more affable because his owner was so reserved, and the other cat was a languorous puffball.

(8) The neurosis owners have about their pets can harm their pets. There was a dog that frequented the midday dog playgroup I was part of who was an absolute a-hole. One afternoon, he attacked one of the dogs I brought as a guest and the dog needed stitches. Having to tell my client that their dog was attacked was one of the worst experiences of my life and made me feel like a failure. I know the attack wasn’t my fault. The rude dog would regularly growl at other dogs if he thought they were having too much fun. He only had a good attitude when everything went his way, which his owner made sure happened the majority of the time. Pet owners are responsible for making their pet’s lives happy and healthy, which includes training and teaching them to be comfortable with discomfort. This is part of larger process of emotional self-regulation. I believe dogs need to learn emotional self-regulation so that they do not develop separation anxiety or become a-holes. One reason why I advocate for crate training is that it allows dogs to self-soothe by having a “home base” or a room of their own to go to if they want alone time or are stressed. The a-hole dog could not self-soothe because his owner’s whole life revolved around obsessing over the dog to the point where he was unfamiliar and unable to emotionally manage discomfort. He was also overweight, which may have been because the owner was constantly worried he did not eat enough and fed him his dinner by hand. Whenever the owner went out of town and the dog walker watched him, he would behave better and lose weight. Although I believe this dog would have been an a-hole regardless of who owned him, he was not completely at fault for his behavior because his owner had never allowed him to learn how to comfort himself.

A photo of Doggy Playgroup eager to get treats. A-hole dog not pictured. Description: two small scruffy dogs, and two curly-haired dogs look different directions while awaiting treats.

(9) Dogs should be on leash in public unless in a specified off-leash dog areas. All dogs are different and while one dog may be friendly and want to meet all other dogs, some dogs cannot handle unfamiliar dogs running up to them for a sniff. Especially in a city where all dogs have to share the sidewalks, it is important to have control over a dog’s behavior. When a friendly dog runs up to a dog who is afraid of other dogs, it is hard for many dog owner’s to successfully command for the friendly dog to come back. This unwanted contact can result in the anxious dog attacking or otherwise provoking the friendly dog. Like wearing a mask, keeping your dog on leash isn’t just about keeping your dog safe, but about keeping other dogs safe as well. In addition, the world has adults and children who are afraid of dogs and do not want off leash dogs seemingly out of control and approaching them. Whittie was charged by an unleashed dog on our walk one day. The dog pinned her to the ground and while the owner was able to remove his dog before Whittie was physically harmed, this incident could have been completely avoided had the owner leashed his dog.

Juma the dog out on a walk on a sunny day in North Beach with his hearty green leash. Description: a scruffy gold and black dog with one pointy ear and one tipped over ear sits on a hilltop in San Francisco with his mouth open and tongue visible, making him appear as though he is smiling. He wears a thick green leash.

(10) Never leave a dog unattended outside and get the microchipped. Dog theft is common in the United States. An estimated two million dogs are stolen every year, tied outside of grocery stores and coffee shops, and right out of people’s back yards. In 2019 Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot so thieves could steal her Frenchies, and he is still recovering. Dog theft is also rampant in the Bay Area. Don’t risk it by leaving a dog unattended outside. Pet microchips are small and safe, and allow vets to scan the animal’s back to find the owner’s information, like a permanent dog collar. HomeAgain, one of several pet microchip producers found that while only around 22% of non-chipped pets are returned to their families after being lost or stolen, 58% of chipped pets get reunited with their families. That is more than double the likelihood!

(11) Pet Insurance helps with the inevitable accidents and illnesses. If your pet is part of your family, consider getting pet insurance. As a pet sitter, I saw how no matter how much an owner loves and monitors their pet, the pet will still get sick or hurt at some point. The cost of emergency veterinary medicine can easily cross the $1,000 mark, and finding the right pet insurance helps lessen the financial burden. In these emergency situations an owner shouldn’t have to go into debt to get their pet the care they need. There are pet insurances that cover pre-existing conditions that are breed-specific like breathing issues with flat-faced or brachycephalic dogs such as pugs. There are pet insurances that help cover annual vet visits as well as emergency visits. I pay about $25 per month so that if my dog needs emergency care over a few hundred dollars, the pet insurance company will cover up to 80% of the bills associated with this care. It gives me peace of mind knowing that when an emergency occurs with my dog, Pepper, I don’t have to sit around at home panicking about whether something is “bad enough” to go to the vet. In the event that this has inspired you to look into pet insurance, Forbes has a handy side-by-side comparisons of coverage for thirteen pet insurance companies for 2021.

The author’s dog, Pepper, enjoying a nap in the afternoon sun. Pepper’s Instagram handle is @pepperthescruffer. Description: a small white dog with a black ear lays backwards across a dog bed with its head resting on a multicolored carpet.

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Evelyn Levine

Evelyn Levine

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San Francisco born and raised, currently living in New Jersey. Welcome to my non-fiction practice. Fairly personal. Mood permitting.