Sun cream, car hire documents, instructions for pet-sitter… it's holiday time, and that means a staycation for many of Britain's beloved pets. Most of us have at some point agreed to 'pop in' and feed the neighbour's cats, or nodded along as a family member gabbles through the visiting Jack Russell's daily routine. Even hosting the school hamster over the holidays is a responsibility, yet a pet-sitting favour is often requested as casually as taking in a parcel. The problem is, when the parcel is living, breathing, and possibly a pedigree reliant on stringent medication, there's a great deal that can go wrong.
The most important thing is to decide if they're staying at home, or going for a sleepover. And either way, a swift handover won't do, says animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby. "The more 'settling in' sessions that can be done prior to going away, the better," she says. "The owners should also tell the sitter about any ailments as well as behavioural quirks, training cues and emergency contacts."
Even if the animals are staying in their own home, they should meet the sitter first, she advises. Advice which I utterly failed to heed a few years ago, when my kindly older neighbour agreed to feed my two grumpy cats for a week. They stress-moulted all over her like dandelion clocks, but far worse, I came back to a polite note – "I'm afraid the cats have been poo-ing on the rug... It may need steam-cleaning." Unfortunate, given I'd promised they were 'no trouble at all.' Though at least they stayed in one place. My friend Rebecca was charged with looking after her sister's precious Burmese cats for a fortnight.
"On day two, I went round, filled the bowls, and called them - one appeared, but the other didn't," she says, still shuddering at the memory. "I looked all over the house then realised the top bathroom window was open and she must have slithered out. That was when I really panicked." Rebecca searched the neighbourhood to no avail. "I was awake all night, mentally running through my confession... I was on the verge of phoning my sister and coming clean, when two days later, she appeared on the front doorstep. I'd never been so relieved."
You'd think dogs would be easier, but that depends on the individual, says Clare Hamilton, Managing Director at Buckinghamshire animal hospital Hamilton Specialist Referrals. "Dogs are generally more sociable than cats," she says. "However, it is not uncommon for dogs to be upset by a sudden change," she adds. Even that can be tricky, admits my neighbour, Paula, who took in her best friend's young German Shepherd for four days.
"I was very reluctant" she recalls. "I'd met Betty a few times, [but] I had no idea how to manage her." Her owner was determined not to put her in kennels and reassured Paula that Betty would be 'fine'.
"The first night, Betty howled all night long. I had strict instructions not to let her in the bedroom, so I ended up sitting on the floor in the kitchen till 5am, trying to calm her down." Later on, she took Betty for a walk, as instructed. "Layla said she was fine on the lead - she forgot to add, 'unless she sees a smaller dog.'" Betty pulled away, and chased after a tiny shih tzu: "its owner was raging - I honestly thought Betty was going to eat her pet." When her friend returned, "I told her Betty had been fine. I just hope she never asks me [to look after her] again."
Even worse is the thorny issue of pet-damage. "It's wise to have insurance if you're looking after a pet," warns Rosie Bescoby. But who gets round to that for a week? "My very house-proud cousin offered to have our springer spaniel puppy for our anniversary weekend," says my friend Daisy. "I warned her that Corry could be a bit giddy – but they left her alone with the door open." Corry galloped to the master bedroom, and joyously ripped two silk feather cushions to pieces.
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"My cousin phoned me in a state of screeching rage – apparently, the cushions had cost £150 ($280) each and were hand-painted silk one-offs." She was insistent that the cushions be replaced. "It caused a real rift," she says. "Even now, we don't talk about it, and for the last two years, we've holidayed in Britain, so Corry can come with us." With smaller animals, the risk of things going awry can be all the greater as a life span of two to four years for mice, guinea pigs and rabbits makes it entirely feasible that they could expire on your watch.
"My parents looked after our hamster when we took the children to Centre Parcs," says my friend Kate. "It died, and was quietly replaced by a doppelgänger. I only noticed many months later... and had to explain to the children that yes, it was living an unusually long life."
The guilt of an animal dying – no matter how well-looked after – and the fear of recrimination often leads to lies. Because while you might regretfully flush your own dead goldfish away, when it's someone else's, it's a lot easier to simply replace it and hope for the best. Ultimately, if you want your pet to enjoy its holiday, you might be best off forking out for a professional pet-sitter. Not only is it the safest option for your furry loved ones – it may well save your human friendships, too.