The Complex Contracts of Dog Walkers

Dog With Leash OnHave you ever hired a dog walker or a pet sitter? I interviewed dog walkers for Riley this week and it was enlightening experience. Who knew it could be so complicated?

Did you know that most pet sitting contracts say that if something bad happens to your pet sitter while they are watching your pet, you are responsible for all of the medical bills?

Whoa!

Can you imagine just how costly pet bites, scratches, and diseases can be?

What if you pet bit your pet sitter’s hand? It could damage nerves in their hand and cripple them for life. If not properly treated by a doctor, cat bites can become deep abscesses that spread infection throughout the body damaging internal organs. Did you know that your cat might carry Cat Scratch Fever? In some people, this infection can be deadly. Parasites can be spread by pets too; roundworms are transmitted through pet’s poop and causes blindness in rare cases.

I was not prepared to pay millions of dollars in medical bills. Are you?

Even if these situations are rare, that a contract felt like a gamble. Unfortunately, every dog walking company I interviewed had this clause in their contract.

I had to ask myself, if that much is on the line, how does anybody hire a dog walker? Here were a couple of questions I asked the companies and their responses:

  1. Would workers compensation cover these kind of accidents?
    1. Most dog walkers are independent contractors not true employees of the company. As such, they are not entitled to any worker’s compensation benefits.
    2. One company had purchased additional worker’s compensation insurance for their employees but they claimed this only covered the time they were away from work not the actual medical expenses.  I thought worker’s compensation was supposed to include medical costs, so I am trying to get more details.
  2. Is the company or the dog walkers otherwise insured at all against these scenarios?
    1. If the dog sitter has health insurance they may choose to use it to pay for treatment.
      1. This counts on the dog sitter having health insurance. Since most dog sitters are independent contractors, that might not be a good assumption.
      2. This counts on the health insurance company paying instead of holding you liable.
    2. While pet sitting companies are often “licensed, bonded, and insured” this only means that they are insured against their damages to you. They are covered if they leave the water running and flood your house, but you are not covered if your dog bites them.
    3. One company told me that their employees were insured against this kind of injury, but they did not have a good answer as to why they still needed this clause in their contract.
  3. Is there any insurance I can purchase to cover me in case the dog sitter experiences a catastrophic accident?
    1. Most companies I talked to had no idea.
    2. One knowledgeable company noted that I was probably already insured, at least in part. Homeowner’s or Renter’s Insurance often covers your personal liability in case anyone (including your pet sitter) gets harmed by your pet in your home. This makes it important to:
      1. Insure your home or rental if you have not already.
      2. Confirm with your insurance company that they cover not only bites and scratches but also diseases your pet can spread (it may not be clearly stated in your policy).
      3. Make sure you have high personal liability limits on your policy. I increased my upper limit from $100,000 to the maximum of $300,000. Usually the cost difference between your current policy and the maximum is small, I got $200,000 more coverage for only $20 more per year.
      4. Understand that this will cover you in most scenarios there are still cases where costs could exceed your upper limit.

After heaving a sigh of relief that I would not be left holding the entire bill in case of an accident, I still thought it was important to find out if these companies were training their employees to avoid becoming injured in the first place.

I asked what kind of training programs each company had in place for pet sitter safety.

No company I interviewed told me that they had a consistent, formal training program on preventing bites and zoonotic diseases (diseases spread from animals to people).

One company said that they did not do any training on the subject but since they hired people who had prior experience with pets they expected them to have this kind of knowledge. My interview with one of their employees showed this was a poor assumption.

Several companies had a shadowing or training program where more experienced pet sitters went on visits with new pet sitters. They expected these training visits to cover topics like how to approach animals safely and how to avoid spreading disease, but they did not have a specific list of topics to be covered or advice to be given.

The same company that told me about the homeowner’s insurance tried to hire people who had worked at vet clinics, dog training schools, groomers, or animal shelters. Working with more animals, they had extra experience handling stressed animals and preventing disease. This company also encouraged their staff to seek outside training in Pet First Aid, animal handling, and emergency preparedness. Several veterinarians in the area offered to be references for this specific sitter.

Feel like guessing which company I went with?

If you have hired a pet sitter, what was your experience like? Did you meet with more than one company? If so, how did you choose your pet sitter? Did you ask questions about what kind of training their employees received?

This process has taught me a lot. It taught me to be careful and read fine print. It also, sadly, taught me that pet sitters might not be getting great resources on how to keep themselves safe on the job.

I want to help change the world with what I’ve learned, so here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Contact the major pet sitting certification organizations (Pet Sitters International and National Association of Professional Pet Sitters) and find out if their certifications encompass safety training to protect not just our pets but the pet sitters too.
  2. Put together resources for dog walkers so they can educate themselves on staying safe from animal borne diseases and attacks.
  3. Reach out to the dog walking groups I interviewed and offer my assistance if they would like to put together a more formal training program to keep their employees safe.
  4. Write a blog about what owners should be thinking about and looking for when choosing a dog walker or pet sitter.

Stay tuned to see how this adventure goes, and as always, keep me honest in my quest to change the world.

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