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Image: Steve Beech / Time Out

Meet the serial pet-sitters savings thousands on rent each month

From tyrannous cats holding hostages to dogs going on hunger strike, these nomadic pet-sitters have seen it all

Liv Kelly
Written by
Liv Kelly

Rent. It’s the bane of our lives, and the cost of it is ever-growing. So, it probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that most of us are keen to minimise it, manage it – or even work out ways to abandon paying it all together. 

Enter pet-sitting. Whether it’s for months and months or just over a weekend, as a side hustle or a career, looking after someone else’s animal can literally be a full-time job. While some individuals run their pet-sitting services as a business, the majority of sitters on online platforms – even those who are considered ‘full-time sitters’ and don’t register with a permanent address – are unpaid. But in return? There’s free lodging, the chance to save thousands on rent and bills, a new furry (or scaly) companion and the opportunity to travel to new corners of the country. 

The internet is awash with platforms to connect pet owners with pet-sitters. Facebook groups are a common way of arranging the set up: ‘House and Pet Sitters UK’ boasts nearly 50,000 members, and these numbers are only growing. Then there’s the portfolio-based websites which include a five-star rating system for sitters, like TrustedHouseSitters, which are also super popular: this site has 160,000 worldwide members.

Having a new animal friend for a few weeks sounds nice enough, but as a method of ensuring there’s a roof over your head, how well does it actually work? To find out, we scoured the nation to hear the stories of some serial pet-sitters. Turns out there’s a bit more to it than simply walking the dog or feeding the cat. 

The post-pandemic pet-sitting boom

So why is it that every man and their dog seem to be on a pet-sitting site these days? Part of it is probably thanks to the pandemic and its long-lasting impact on our working environments – which has made pet-sitting more accessible than ever before.

Around 17.4m households in the UK now own a pet: that’s 62 percent of all homes, according to industry association UK Pet Food. ‘I’ve seen an increase in my client base across all services: pet care is one of the fastest-growing areas of the consumer sector,’ says Zita Wells, founder and owner of pet care platform, Pet Patrol 365. 

TrustedHouseSitters witnessed a 130 percent increase in their membership since the end of the pandemic

Wells goes on to say that the surge of families who adopted animals in lockdown has meant that there are simply more pets around to sit, and people are becoming more aware of their animal’s needs. ‘These days, pets are treated more like family, not only in affection but in budget for pet supplies, and premium services,’ she says.

TrustedHouseSitters witnessed a 130 percent increase in their membership since the end of the pandemic, and an 147 percent increase specifically among 25 to 35 year olds. Rover, an American pet-sitting platform with a UK division, saw a 32 percent increase in their usage in June 2023, compared to June 2022. 

And, of course, there’s the price of rent, which is inching closer and closer to the impossible end of how far we can stretch ourselves financially. Rent in London is set to average an eye watering £2,700 per month in 2024, and in the rest of the UK, it’s £1,051. Who wouldn’t want to dodge that?

It’s not a pet-sit, it’s a lifestyle

Charlotte, a 38-year old events organiser based in the capital, hasn’t paid any rent since February: saving her an estimated £10,500.  

‘I’m quite flexible, and I really enjoy living in different areas of London,’ she says. ‘One place, in south west London, was this seventeenth century hunting lodge. It was just me and a tiny cat in this massive house.’ 

Laura, 40, has lived in pet-sits full-time for the last five years, along with her partner and her two children. Throughout the pandemic they pet-sat in a property in Andalucia, Spain, which had ten acres of land. They’ve also looked after two donkeys in Hungary, and have stayed in a six-bedroom Tudor-style house in Shropshire which had gorgeous gardens and tree swings, while looking after dogs, ducks and sheep.

‘We had quite a few pet-sits in the UK with hot tubs, secret rooms behind bookcases — even games rooms for the kids,’ says Laura, who has written a book about their family’s unique nomadic lifestyle, aptly named ‘Creatively Homeless’.  

We had quite a few pet-sits in the UK with hot tubs, secret rooms behind bookcases — even games rooms for the kids

While Laura is a huge advocate for their way of life, acknowledging they’ve been lucky to always find their next place, it’s surely not for everyone. Each family member lives out of their own carry-on suitcase and her children are ‘worldschooled’, which is essentially learning through travel and experience. It’s a pretty bohemian way to raise kids. 

Alice, who’s now based in Leicester, once looked after the dog of a former owner of a record label, in a quaint former vicarage. ‘All over the walls were signed posters from people like the Rolling Stones,’ she says. She stayed in the biggest of the spare rooms – the same bed where Kylie Minogue had once laid her head. 

Despite the potential for glamour, though, the motivation is clearly financial. Jem, who’s 32 and is currently house-sitting in Brighton, said she was beginning to feel downcast by the renting crisis: ‘our landlord put up the rent by 25 percent, so I was becoming pretty disillusioned with the whole thing.’ Since 2022, Jem has pet-sat in the countryside to have a break from the city, often for people away on skiing holidays.

I would have saved at least £1000 per month: my plan is that if I do this long enough, I could save up to buy a place

Charlotte was struggling with finding an affordable place to rent, too. ‘I came back from travelling and my landlords kept selling the places I was living in – I was getting frustrated,’ she says. ‘I would have saved at least £1000 per month. My plan is that if I do this long enough, I could save up to buy a place.’ 

In some instances, this approach to saving money can be life changing. Before Laura’s family turned to pet-sitting, their financial situation was dire, after the adoption process for their second child cost them more than they ever imagined. ‘We were tens of thousands of pounds in debt, and we’ve paid it off in three years,’ she says. ‘If we hadn’t found [house and pet-sitting], we would have actually gone bankrupt.’ 

Now, Laura works as a creative coach and has also launched her own publishing company with her partner. ‘We just couldn’t see a way out,’ she says. ‘So, instead of trying to pay for everything, we instead looked for a way to live for less. All we really have to pay for now is food.’ 

But, things don’t always go to plan

If it’s done right, pet-sitting can be a viable way to find places to live and save some serious cash, if you’re prepared to be a bit of a nomad. However, there is one thing every pet-sitter needs to bear in mind: the pet itself. 

From leopard geckos hiding under fridges to pigs being chauffeured around in 4-by-4s, pets get up to some pretty mind-boggling stuff. 

When Laura was asked about the most challenging animals she’d looked after, she said: ‘we had one dog which was on more medication than my grandmother: that was a long 10 days.’

Another pet-sitter, Camilla, 33, formed such a bond with the dog she was sitting that when the owners returned, the dog went on hunger strike in protest, because it missed her so much – and that’s according to their vet.  

A cat looking at camera
Photograph: Carolyn

Cats can be a handful too. One Facebook user, Carolyn, was excited to look after what she thought was a charming little cat for some neighbours. ‘It was an angelic-looking ragdoll cat called Penelope,’ she says. ‘She was a delight when I first met her but an utter horror when I was alone: she attacked me on the stairs, gave me the death stare and held me hostage in the house, fearlessly guarding the door.’

Sometimes pet-sitting in a strange, unknown house can be downright scary. Katie, who’s 27, once had an eerie experience while dog-sitting a Komondor dog in Richmond. 

The dog-owners had travelled back to Canada over Halloween, and Katie was awoken one night by the dog barking anxiously and acting agitated. She crept downstairs and heard the family’s Google device repeating ‘someone’s at the door’, over and over again. But there was no one there.

The dog kept barking, the door alert kept chiming, and Katie became more and more terrified. Eventually, she phoned the family, only to be told that their Google device was connected to their house in Canada — the door bell was being pushed by someone, but it was just trick or treaters at their house all the way over there. 

A dog with a blue sky background
Photograph: Katie

But sometimes, it’s the sitters themselves who are up to no good. Stacie, who lives in Cambridgeshire, once received a message from her sitter saying her cats had been extremely ill, but that she had cleaned up as best she could. Stacie was horrified to arrive home to find cat sick all over the house, in every single bed. ‘We think she must have been over feeding them, despite our instructions,’ she says. ‘If we go anywhere overnight, we now have to lock all of the bedroom doors.’

Is pet-sitting the renting of the future?

Well, the answer could be yes. Neither Wells nor Angela Laws, who is head of community and PR for TrustedHouseSitters, sees this trend wavering any time soon. Laws says that ‘pet and house sitting is becoming a mainstream lifestyle choice for pet-loving travellers across generations.’ 

Thanks to the increase in people looking for side hustles and a more affordable way to live, as well as the number of us who can work remotely – with more and more people embracing a digital nomad lifestyle – it’s likely that pet-sitting is only going to grow. The current revolution in understanding what’s best for our animals is making a huge difference, too. According to the Pets at Home ‘We’re all for pets’ report 2023, 71 percent of UK pet owners said they’d do anything to keep their pet happy, and Wells emphasises that pet-sitting is a popular ‘alternative to traditional kennels and boarding facilities.’

Pet and house-sitting is becoming a mainstream lifestyle choice for pet-loving travellers 

But getting started isn’t as easy as a stroll in the park with four immaculately groomed chihuahuas. The best platforms aren’t free to use: TrustedHouseSitters’s annual membership fee starts at £99, and that’s for a ‘basic sitter’. The yearly fee for a ‘standard sitter’ is £129, and for a ‘premium sitter’, it’s £199. And if you’re thinking of pet-sitting overseas, you’ll want to do your homework about what visas you might need. 

What’s more, the relationship between a successful pet-sitter and a happy pet owner is one based on trust, and it can take a while to build a reliable-looking profile with good reviews. You’ll need to put in the legwork to find pet-sit after pet-sit, which could arguably be just as unstable as the current renting situation. 

It might be best to start pet-sitting for a friend-of-a-friend to get the ball rolling, as living this way for the long-term definitely depends on a good reputation. Then there’s also the possibility that you could be lumbered with a nightmarish animal, like Penelope: even if you were the most devocated cat person, that would be enough to make the rent crisis bearable. 

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