Pets as presents? Weigh the costs…

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image courtesy flick user Mike Schmid

Everyone loves the idea of a cute puppy or kitten as a holiday gift, but the cost of buying or adoping a pet is only the beginning. According to the ASPCA, the first year of your new family member’s life with you can cost between $300 and $2,000 – and that doesn’t include emergency veterinary services or boarding!

There are ways to keep costs down, however, without sacrificing the health and happiness of your new furry friend.

Packaged vet care

Many veterinarians and animal hospitals offer well puppy (or kitten) packages – bundled services that can save you 20% or more on the necessary services you’ll need, like spay or neuter services, vaccines, parasite prevention medications, and other checkups. Ask your vet (or look on their web site) for lists of included and excluded services and price comparisons.

Pet insurance

Just as our costs for health care can spiral out of control if we didn’t have insurance, so can veterinary costs. Companies like VPI offer plans at different price and coverage points – ask your vet for advice on what plans she would recommend for your dog or cat.

Extend your pet’s family

The average American dog-owning family spends about $300 a year on boarding. Pet sitters can be a more personal and cost-effective solution, but you should also consider finding friends to trade pet sitting with among your existing social network. You’ll not only be giving your dog a “home away from home” experience with another dog lover, you’ll be building a support network for your pets.

Holiday travel and pets

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image courtesy of flickr user michaelwhays

I recently came across a list of tips for traveling with your pet – timely, considering many of us are starting to plan for the holidays. The top tip – calculating expenses – got me thinking. How much does it really cost to travel with your companion animal nowadays? And is it really worth it?

Wildly varying in-cabin costs

We’ve all experienced the nickel and diming increasingly common among airlines. Baggage fees, booking fees, and the like make it nearly impossible to accurately compare fares. Once you add the wide variety in pet-related fees, the cheapest ticket may not turn out to be such a great deal.

According to the aptly-named AirfareWatchDog.com, fees for bringing your pet in the cabin range anywhere from $69 to $125 – double that for round-trip flights. 

Getting the right pet carrier

If you’re bringing your pet in the cabin with you in a carrier, it will be required to fit in the space under the seat in front of you, so it’s best to reserve a seat that isn’t in the bulkhead row. Airlines can enforce different restrictions on how big a carrier you’re allowed to use for your in-cabin pet. BringFido.com has collected the various airlines’ pet policies, with links to the airlines’ own pet travel pages.

If you don’t already own a carrier that conforms to your airline’s dimensions, buying a new one can cost anywhere from $30 to $100. Remember that your pet carrier will usually count as your one carry-on or personal item, so plan your packing accordingly.

Alternatives

If you have a long trip ahead of you, or just don’t want to submit your pet to the stress of travel, there are alternatives. Are they cheaper than traveling with your pet, though?

The boarding kennel I’ve taken my dog to here in Portland charges $25 per night for boarding with brief daily exercise included. Adding on walks and a bath (it’s always nice to come back to a clean dog!) costs extra. Portland pet sitters can cost anywhere from $20 per night for a cat who only needs looked in on once a day to over $50 per night to have someone stay overnight in your house and walk your dog several times a day.

Conclusions

Assuming an average pet carry-on fee of $100 each way and $50 to buy a carry-on approved carrier, it can cost $250 to bring your pet with you! For a four day trip (common for those of us visiting family at Thanksgiving), a pet sitter or boarding kennel will only cost between $100 and $200 – and you’ll avoid stressing yourself and your pet with the hassle of air travel.

All other things being equal, it may make more sense to find a reliable pet sitter or kennel to care for your pets if you’re traveling by air, especially for trips less than a week long. 

 

The day I became everyone’s pet sitter

Back in June, I started talking to people about an idea I had for a site where pet owners could connect online and trade pet sitting. Some people thought I was crazy. Others thought it was a great idea. As of this weekend, both have asked me to pet sit.

A lot has happened between then and now. We got into a tech incubator for one. Some really cool people at Wieden + Kennedy let me interview them about how they care for their pets when they travel. And I’ve been asked to pet sit. A lot.

Both the skeptic and the enthusiast had known me for several months before my announcement that I was going full time with Stayhound. Neither had ever asked me to pet sit before.

Then, on Thursday night, I got a panicked text message from a buddy:

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He’d been working late hours the past week on a business presenation he was going to give out of town on Friday. Between the work distraction and the fact that it was a short trip (he left Friday morning and returned Saturday night), calling his usual pet sitter had totally slipped his mind.

Fortunately for him, he lives less than half a mile from me, and on my regular morning running route. I picked up Augie on my way back from my run with Jake, and I had a fun day and a half being a two-dog household.

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What did this experience tell me? That all our furry friends need a backup plan. And that the best people to provide that backup are probably people you already know… you just didn’t know that they loved taking care of pets until they start a company about it.

Side note: the buddy with the pet sitting emergency above? Was one of the ones who told me Stayhound wouldn’t work. When he offered to buy me a bottle of scotch in repayment for taking care of Augie, I told him he should just use Stayhound.

5 ways to build your dog walking or pet sitting business

Americans are on track to spend $50B (yes, billion) on their pets in 2011. All categories of pet spending have risen annually since 2007, despite the recession. Spending on pet services – including grooming and boarding – will amount to $3.5B in 2011. via

What this means is that whether you’re a pet sitter with a dedicated client base and years of experience or a dog walker new to your city or the industry, now is a great time to grow your business. While the most obvious way to do this is by attracting new customers, the most cost-effective method is to keep your existing clients happy – happy customers are not only loyal, they also refer their friends. I’ll cover tips related to both strategies below, but keep in mind that client satisfaction should always be your foremost concern.

  1. Humanize

    People react to photos of other people. Adding a photo of yourself – preferably with one of your animal charges – to your web site or print collateral will create a sense of warmth and recognition in your potential customers. It also helps them feel safe – they’ll know exactly who to look for when you meet for the first time.

  2. Simplify

    Too many options make us tune out. Think about it from your own perspective – a restaurant menu that’s just too long will take you longer to navigate. You’ll also forget what your options are as you flip through the pages. When you’re sitting at a restaurant, you’re usually a captive audience, but potential clients navigating your web site or flier aren’t. If you make them work too hard to come to a decision, the only decision they’ll make is to move on.

  3. Socialize

    As a pet service provider, you may prefer the company of dogs and cats over humans. While I won’t fault you for that – my office mates are four-legged, after all – you’ll need to invest some time in making connections in order to grow your client list.

    Marketing in and of itself should be it’s own post, but here are a few ideas: Fliering is great, but try distributing them at condo buildings or other private areas where potential clients will be more relaxed and open; attend breed-specific meetups and hand out gourmet dog treats with your card attached; reach out to complementary businesses to form partnerships – if you’re a dog walker, your local dog daycare may be able to resell your services to their existing client base. Think about how you can bring value, and make a personal connection.

  4. Give without strings

    There’s a reason why the food and gift basket industry is still around – vendors rely on gifts to stay front-of-mind with their clients. Leaving a few dog treats in a gift bag after walking a client’s dog will prove to her that you were actually there. If you have a knack for making your own dog treats or cat toys, you’ll not only have left a reminder of yourself in your client’s home, you’ve also opened the possibility for a future sales channel.

    Gifts not only serve as a reminder of how awesome you are to your clients – they also give you the opportunity to be the hero. If you have a client with a mouthy puppy or a cat who claws the furniture, buy a spray bottle and mix up a tea tree oil or bitter apple solution, respectively, and put a label on it with your name and contact information. Help clients with young children learn how to handle a rambunctious dog or prickly cat. Give a copy of your favorite dog training manual. You’ll earn the investment back in referrals.

  5. Empathize

    Put yourself in your client’s shoes – what’s going to make life easier for her? What can you do that will make another client enthusiastically recommend you to his friends? Whether it’s installing a lockbox at a client’s home so she’ll also have access to the extra key she would have given away to another pet professional or offering to perform extra chores while you’re walking the dog, make your client’s life easier and her gratitude will keep you first in her book.

Have other ideas and suggestions? Post them below! I might even be able to figure out a way to apply them to Stayhound. :^)