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What Vets Wish Pet Sitters Knew

By Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS

When owners are away, as a vet, treating their sick pets can be a nightmare. My ideal is the animal is accompanied by a well-organized pet sitter so that everyone’s needs (especially the patient’s) can be met.

For an insight into the headaches caused by a poorly prepared pet sitter, welcome to my world! Below is an example that happened last week, sadly, not for the first time.


The Cat that Stops Eating

Kitty, an elderly cat, stops eating whilst her owner is away. (Actually, she wasn’t eating before they left…but that’s a different story.) The owner is abroad and the phone number they left for Kitty’s vet is incorrect.  The pet sitter, quite rightly concerned by Kitty’s increasingly scrawny appearance and huge thirst, contacts their regular vet (me.)

Unfortunately, it’s quickly evident that this isn’t just a cat pining for her parents, but a very sick animal. Tests are needed.

#Headache 1: How much can be done?

The owner left vague verbal instructions “If Kitty gets sick, do what’s needed… within reason”

Does this mean blood tests are OK, but x-rays aren’t? What about if the cat needed a drip… or hospitalization: Where does ‘within reason’ start and stop?

#Headache 2:  The Consent Form

Any intervention, such as blood tests or x-rays, requires a consent form to be signed.  This is a legal document. The signee takes full responsibility for potentially life-and-death decisions AND the financial cost.

In this case, the owner doesn’t answer on their contact number and I’m unable to discuss Kitty’s needs with them directly.

Truly, as a pet sitter, under these circumstances would you be comfortable signing consent?

Oh, and if no-one signs the form, the vet can only give basic treatment to alleviate distress, or in a worst case scenario euthanize the pet to prevent intractable suffering. So even indirectly, pressure falls on the pet sitter’s shoulders.

#Headache 3: What limits on treatment?

It turned out Kitty was an undiagnosed diabetic, and a sick one at that. She needed stabilization in the hospital, which comes with cost implications. With no firm guidance from the owner, once again it’s down to the pet sitter to decide where to draw the line with regards to expense…

# Headache 4: The Legalities of Sharing of Clinical Notes

The ever-patient pet sitter tracks down the owner’s adult daughter. Great! We now know who Kitty’s regular vet is and they are happy to take over her treatment. But one more hurdle remains!

Modern data protection law means the owner’s consent is needed before clinical notes can be shared with other surgeries. See where we’re going with this one…

Either I bend the law or Kitty doesn’t get best treatment. Obviously in this case, Kitty’s best interests came first… But it’s an unsatisfactory situation to say the least.


Proper Prior Planning

How many times have you sat for an elderly animal or one on long term medical treatment? Do you have a water-tight plan should things go wrong?

Take the scenario of a cat with a blocked bladder. You arrive to find a dry litter box and a cat straining in front of you. This is a real emergency, but the bill to fix things can be $$$$s. If that same cat has been spraying in the house for months, the owner may not want to commit to a monster bill for a cat that causes conflict when well.

If your emergency plan solely involves phoning the owner, then think again.

Here’s what I wish all pet sitters would do:

#1: Where possible, do a personal hand-over with the owner

Ask about the pet’s health as you eyeball the animal.

Sitters beware the owner who says “Kitty’s fine, but didn’t want her supper yesterday” or “Rover’s great, but has a bit of an upset tummy this morning.”

As a vet, I’ve learned people are masters of understatement. It is a wise person who ponders what the owner isn’t saying. For example, Kitty didn’t want her supper yesterday…but what about last week?

Call me a cynic, when an owner is anticipating an expensive vacation, some might turn a blind eye to the pet’s problems. To avoid this becoming a pain (for you!) ask plenty of questions.

#2: Get a Signed ‘Power of Attorney’ Letter

Have a standard letter or form, signed by the owner, giving permission for you to act in their absence. It’s sensible to include wording about who is responsible for the bill and explicitly giving permission for you to sign consent on their behalf.

Remember, signing consent means taking responsibility for the animal’s care and agreeing to pay the bill! Yep, that’s right. Should the owner default or plain disagree with the procedure, the signatory is liable for the outstanding fee. But having this signed letter, gives you some degree of protection.

#3: Get instructions in writing

Verbal instructions are vague. Don’t leave things to chance, but instead get the owner’s intentions in writing. This includes their wishes should the pet become seriously ill.

#4: Fall-back Contacts

And last but not least, have a plan B (or even C and D) for contacting the owner. As well as a phone number, take a back-up number, an email address, or even the details of a close relative.

At the end of the day the veterinarian, pet sitter, and owner all want the same thing, which is to care for that animal. But it may be up to you, the pet sitter, to act as intermediary when the owner is away. So don’t put yourself in the position of having to guess the owner’s wishes.

As a vet, I’d love pet sitters to understand the difficulties of treating a pet based on shadowy suggestion and good intention. Instead, plan ahead and take positive steps to ensure all eventualities are covered so that no matter what happens, things go smoothly for their furry-wards.

Keep up the good work, pet people!