In a world where most people view their pets as members of their family, finding a good pet sitter is as important as finding the right pre-school. And now, this need is translating into income opportunities for retired seniors. Read what it takes to become a pet sitter. – Global Animal

Elizabeth Olson, New York Times

JOHN D’ARIANO had not planned to be a professional pet sitter when he first started thinking a decade ago about his retirement from the Palm Beach County, Fla., school district’s police department.

What he had in mind was investing in a business that operated storage units. He and his wife wanted to keep busy and also be able to pay their $1,200 monthly bill for health insurance.

“I found out the storage business would require mortgaging our house,” he said. “Then one day when I was at first-aid training, a light went off and I started looking into pet-sitting as a business.”

Because he had spent much of his career handling dogs, heading a canine unit with 30 officers and 15 dogs assigned to keep schools free of drugs and weapons, it seemed like a good fit.

After a year of trying it part time, in 2003 he and his wife joined a growing number of other retirees who turned to pet-sitting for supplemental income or a second career.

“You can start on a shoestring if you want,” said Mr. D’Ariano, whose Boynton Beach-based service, A Pet Sitter Plus, began with referrals from veterinarians he knew from his school security days. Nearly a decade later, his business has 400 clients and a six-figure annual revenue.

Pet-sitting services like the D’Arianos’ have flourished as the number of household pets, and the amount of money that Americans spend on them, continue to grow.

There are pet-sitting franchises, like Fetch! Pet Care, but many pet sitters are individuals or couples operating on their own. The charge for a single visit to a pet ranges from $10 to $22, depending on the location, and $45 or more for overnight care. Pet Sitters International, a trade association, said one-third of its 8,000 members made $40,000 a year or more caring for pets in the pets’ homes.

Nearly two-thirds of American households have a pet, and last year they spent an estimated $47.7 billion on them, an increase from $17 billion in 1994, according to a survey conducted in 2009 and 2010 by the American Pet Products Association, in Greenwich, Conn.

Two-adult households tend to view pets almost as if they were children when it comes to providing care and activities.

Those comforts are priorities for Esther Davis, a clinical psychologist in New Mexico. She and her husband, a medical research statistician, have three Maltese and a Norwegian elk hound. They employ Sherry Suhosky, who started Jack Rapid Runners, a pet care and sitting business, after she retired from a 20-year career in the United States Marine Corps.

Ms. Suhosky stops by the Davis household daily and takes the dogs to day care, to grooming or wherever they need to go, including to her own home. “These are my four-legged children,” said Ms. Davis. “I just don’t like to leave them alone.”  With customers like the Davises, Ms. Suhosky has built her business, in the town of Placitas, N.M., near Albuquerque, to 600 clients and 70 full- and part-time employees since starting it in 2006.

“There were no other pet sitters here when I started,” Ms. Suhosky said, “and within six months I had 20 clients, and 100 by the end of the first year.” One reason her business grew rapidly, she said, was that she offered overnight stays. She spends the night at the Davis home eight to 12 times a year, for example, to feed, play with and care for the dogs when the couple is away.

While overnight pet care can be lucrative for pet sitters, most prefer to sleep in their own beds. Mary and Bob Butcher, retirees who run a pet-sitting service in Navarre, Fla., near Pensacola, make three or four visits daily to a client’s home rather than spend the night away from home.

“We feed the pets, take them for a walk, clean the litter or pick up after the dogs, play with them and give them treats,” said Mr. Butcher, who is retired from the Air Force. “And there’s no charge to take the trash out, pick up the mail and newspapers and turn on the lights at night.”

The Butchers, who own Bob and Mary’s Family Pet Sitting, rely on word-of-mouth referrals, meet every client in person and sign a contract guaranteeing their service. They charge $15 for each visit, and the couple said the business provided them with supplemental income but not a full-time wage.

But the business is a chance to work together, said Ms. Butcher, a retired saleswoman, who studied the pet-sitting business before taking the leap. A good resource, she found, was “Pet Sitting For Profit,” by Patti J. Moran, (Howell Book House, 1997) one of several books on starting a pet-sitting business.

The couple joined Pet Sitters International, which has a $160 yearly membership fee and offers pet care certification and liability insurance. The 2,000-member National Association of Professional Pet Sitters has a $95 yearly membership and offers certification and partnerships for discounted insurance policies. Mr. D’Ariano, the police officer turned pet sitter, is this year’s president.

Total pet-sitting start-up costs generally are $500 or less because no major equipment purchases are involved, though many communities require a business license.

A main drawback to pet-sitting, the Butchers said, is not being able to travel on holidays like Christmas because that’s when clients need them. “We’re there when we say we’ll be there,” she said.

Although they also care for many types of pets, including fish and birds, the couple has had no mishaps. Ms. Suhosky, on the other hand, once had to wrestle an escaped boa constrictor out of a closet.

“You get it to crawl up a broomstick, then grab the tail,” she said, “and then you take it slowly back to its terrarium. I take care of llamas, alpacas and just about any creature.”