My Pet Got Sick or Died at the Pet Sitter's: Whose Fault is it, and Who Should Pay the Vet Bill?

 |  Jul 5th 2011  |   35 Contributions


Summer is travel season, which means pet sitting season is in high gear.

My mother has a favorite saying: no good deed goes unpunished. This aphorism seems to hold especially true in the field of pet sitting. I work at an emergency veterinary hospital, and I regularly see unfortunate pet sitters who are forced to make important medical decisions on behalf of owners who are completely unreachable because they are on flights to Europe or cruises to Antarctica or halfway across the trans-Siberian Railroad. These poor pet sitters often have no prior instructions or advance directives for veterinary emergencies. They often have no means of paying for expensive veterinary procedures such as surgical correction of gastric dilatation with volvulus (known colloquially as bloat) in the owners' absence.

I recently returned from a trip to Bolivia. I was unlucky: Denise couldn't come with me. However, this was lucky for my pal Buster, since it meant he got to stay home with his mom. If something goes wrong with the dog while I'm out of town, Denise has a large network of my friends, colleagues, coworkers, and former vet school drinking buddies that she can call day or night.

Most people aren't so fortunate when it comes to pet sitting and veterinary care. Sadly pets get sick, sometimes fatally, at a disproportionately high rate when in the care of pet sitters or boarding facilities.

It is true that, in very rare instances, pet sitters allow their wards to run free in fields of foxtails located between 100 foot cliffs and busy highways. The inevitable problem that occurs as a result of this behavior is caused, proximately, but the pet sitter. But the ultimate cause of the problem in these cases lies with the pet's owner, who should have chosen a better pet sitter. It is the pet owner's job to do his due diligence.

The overwhelming majority of pet sitters are not irresponsible. In fact, I see a different scenario far more frequently than the one mentioned above. A concerned and responsible pet sitter brings in a pet. She states that the owner mentioned, prior to leaving for his ascent of Everest during which he will be unreachable for 21 days, that the dog had been vomiting and not eating for about a week. The dog is really sick now, and needs major treatment. But the dog was sick before the owner left him with the pet sitter, and the pet sitter must now deal with the crisis. I believe that teenagers these days refer to the owner's actions in this scenario as a "douchebag move." It's an appropriate term.

However, by far the most frequent scenario of all is as follows. A seemingly healthy pet is left with a pet sitter. The pet was slowly developing an illness prior to the owner's departure but was showing no outward symptoms of disease. The stress of the owner's absence disrupts the pet's equilibrium, and the pet gets sick while the owner is away. Neither the owner nor the pet sitter has done anything wrong whatsoever. But the situation is the same: the pet sitter must now make important medical decisions, and possibly pay for treatment on behalf of the owner.

These situations are unfair to pets, pet sitters, and pet owners. Fortunately, there are some tactics that help all parties involved in these sorts of crises.

Here is my advice for pet owners:

  • Take your pet with you if you can. It's usually fun for you and your pet.
  • For god's sake, don't leave a sick pet with a pet sitter. That is super uncoool. If you have any doubts about your pet's health, get a checkup before your trip.
  • Leave clear instructions about your desires for care in the event of an unfortunate incident. Leave them in writing. Leave a credit card number as well.
  • Take your cell phone with you. Keep it on. Check your e-mail regularly. Stay in touch.
  • If you will be unreachable, choose a pet sitter you trust, provide written instructions stating your desires in the event of an emergency, state in writing that you absolve the pet sitter of any liability for medical decisions made in your absence, and state that you will pay for any treatments authorized by the pet sitter (using the credit card number provided in the bullet point item above).
  • Let your vet know that you'll be out of town, and that your pet sitter is authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf. Give your pet sitter your vet's contact information, as well as the contact information for the nearest after hours emergency clinic.
  • Provide other contact information as well. Give the pet sitter your brother's phone number, or your best friend's number, so that they can help participate in the decision. Warn your brother and your best friend that you will be doing this, and make sure they share your philosophy on veterinary treatments so that they can actually help with problem, rather than get in the way.
  • Enjoy your trip. You have planned for the worst, now hope for the best. Most of the time nothing goes wrong. But keep your cell phone on and with you nonetheless.
  • Here is my advice for pet sitters:

  • Make sure that the pet owners do all of the above.
  • Develop a personal relationship with a veterinarian who may be able to provide guidance if all of the above tactics fail.
  • Don't let pets play in fields of foxtails that are situated between 100 foot cliffs and busy highways. (Just kidding, of course).
  • As an aid to both owners and pet sitters, I am happy to provide a copy of the written instructions that Denise and I leave with our pet sitter when we both go out of town and can't take Buster with us. The instructions haven't been reviewed by an attorney, so I can't vouch for their legal validity. But I think you'll still get the point.

    [Date]

    To Whom It May Concern:

    [My pet sitter], [my sister-in-law-to-be] and any staff veterinarian at [my vet clinic or my local emergency clinic] have authorization to make medical decisions regarding the care of my dog, Buster in my absence from [date of departure] to [date of return].

    Major procedures such as surgical correction of gastric dilatation with volvulus, enterotomy to remove gastrointestinal foreign body, bone plating for fractures, and others are authorized as long as a veterinarian at [one of my trusted facilities] believes there is a reasonable chance the procedure will result in a successful outcome.

    I ask to be called on my cell phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX or XXX-XXX-XXXX in the event of any medical problem involving Buster. However, if I cannot be reached then the people listed above shall have decision making power. I agree not to hold any above party liable for competently performed treatments that do not succeed.

    Medical bills can be charged to my MasterCard: XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX

    Signed, Eric Barchas

    Photo: Irkutsk. Middle of Siberia (in the dead of winter). A very bad place to be if your pet is sick at home.

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