At Your (Pet’s) Service


A growing number of businesses are focusing on the four-legged among us

Camille Cook and Siri Hutcheson are the quintessential modern, urban pet owners. Living together with their two whippets, Dixie Chick and Frida, and their cat Saffie in a downtown Austin high-rise, the couple sees their animals simply as part of the family. Siri is inseparable from Hutcheson, spending lazy afternoons in the art studio where Hutcheson paints. The more athletic Frida loves to play frisbee and catch with Cook.

But it’s not always easy to manage a busy schedule and take good care of active dogs in a bustling downtown. So Hutcheson and Cook rely on a series of services geared toward active pet parents just like them. For medical care, there’s the recently opened Austin Urban vet at the corner of Fifth and Rio Grande streets and the adjacent Dirty Dog self-serve dog wash for a little pampering and a pedicure. And when the couple travels, the animals often stay at the Urban Pet Resort or get visits from Kris Schultz, owner of in-home pet care company, Fitpup. Cook calls Schultz the “Dr. Doolittle or perhaps the dog and cat whisperer” of their high-rise neighborhood.

“She is very loving to all of our animals,” Cook says of Schultz. “In a way, she becomes a surrogate mom.” Between Schultz and the folks at the Urban Pet resort, Cook and Hutcheson know their animals are always getting the best care. “We love our
pet care people because they keep our pets
happy while we are away,” says Cook. “That’s
really important to us.”

Such luxuries for pets and their people are becoming increasingly common, particularly in urban areas with heavy animal populations. From dog walking to obedience training, people across the country spent $3.4 billion on pet services in 2009, according to the American Pet Products association. That’s up from $3.2 billion in 2008. In a Small Business Trends article on what’s happening in the pet sector in 2010, industry expert Laura Bennett said a growing number of pet parents are including their animals in their own lifestyles, making visits to the spa, exercise facility and restaurants more common in urban areas.

That’s certainly true here in Austin, where
pet-related businesses and service providers–
particularly those focused on the four-legged
in the heart of the city–are thriving. There
are dog walkers, pet taxi services and pet
“hotels” like the Urban Pet resort housed
at Austin Urban vet, complete with play time
activities and video feeds for owners to check in on their animals. There are even a number of local dog waste removal services, such as Poop 911 and Dog Duty. All of this is happening at a time when Austin is getting more dense and going vertical, prompting a greater need for services catering to urban dwellers and their pets.

Liz Parker, publisher of the Austin Pets Directory, a monthly pet magazine, says she’s noticed a definite change in pet services in the last few years. “Traditional pet sitters have changed their business models to be more inclusive,” she says. “Ten years ago, I think the bread and butter for most service providers were overnight stays and visits for pet owners on vacation. Today, I am hearing that most of them rely on daily walks and taxi services for pet parents who work outside of the home.”

Cathy McDowell, who’s been pet sitting in Austin for 14 years, says she’s loved every minute of her work. Most of the clients of McDowell’s company Creature Comforts are in Central Austin along the MoPac corridor.

Creature Comforts offers just about anything a pet owner could want, from walks and feedings to vet visits and overnight stays. McDowell and her assistant handle midday potty breaks for some and even take care of plants and pick up the mail for traveling clients. “The animals figure out pretty quickly that I’m the food lady, so I’m often able to bond with them quickly,” she says.

McDowell estimates she has around 200 clients, though many of those are less frequent than others. “Sometimes it seems like I’m always on call but I can’t tell people no when it comes to taking care of their babies,” she says.

Certainly, people are tending to treat their pets more like kids today than ever before, says McDowell, who adds that it seems particularly true for the 10 percent of her clients who are gay or lesbian.

Treating pets more like children obviously means taking better care of them and being concerned about their comfort. “Fifteen years ago, people might have been more inclined to ask their neighbor to watch their dog,” says McDowell. “But I think people have moved toward hiring someone to do this for them so that there is an increased level of responsibility and accountability. if someone is earning a living from this, they are going to take more pride in it and make sure they’re doing a good job.”

When she first started the business, McDowell says she did a good bit of direct mail and print advertising to get the word out about Creature Comforts. Things took off via word of mouth after that and she says publications like the Austin Pets Directory and her membership in the Austin Pet Sitters Organization have also helped win her new clients. APSO is a dues paying group of dozens of pet sitters across the metro area who come together to share best practices and refer clients.

The growth of the pet services industry has also led to more novel offerings for animals and the people who take care of them. Take for instance, Austin Dog Runners, a business Jami Eng started last March. a marathon runner and triathalete for a number of years, Eng’s friends and family often joked that they’d love to hire her to run with their high-energy dogs. “I heard that for a while, and I started to think maybe there’s really a need for this.”

Eng says much of her business focuses around people who simply don’t have the time–or energy themselves–to run with their high-energy dogs. By networking with other animal concierge businesses such as pet sitters and a pet food delivery service, she’s built up a steady and growing clientele and expanded the side business to include regular dog walking as well as petsitting.

“I’m providing a service to my clients who are worried about the exercise and physical well-being of their dogs,” she says.

Eng sees the proliferation of pet concierge businesses as a natural outcome of where we are as a society today. “As people became much busier and the social network changed, the need for these things increased,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, people want to know that their pet is being attended to. And no one wants to think about their dog being alone for 12 or 14 hours a day without someone to play with them. As Americans, we love our pets, but as busy as we’ve gotten there is a guilt factor.”

Eng says as her business grows, she envisions that it could become a full-time thing for her.

Of course, when it comes to choosing a pet service provider, people need to do their homework. Parker with the Austin Pets Directory says owners should look for a company they feel comfortable with. “Ask for references and take the time to contact and get to know them,” she says. “Confirm that the company is insured and bonded and always schedule a time for a pet sitter or walker to meet with you and your animals in your home before you hire them.”

With so many service providers out there, it can be difficult to wade through the maze. But beyond references from the companies themselves, it’s not a bad idea to get advice from your veterinarian or other pet owners in your neighborhood.

Parker says reputable pet concierge service providers will ask owners to fill out paperwork and sign an agreement that protects both parties and provides the service provider with vital information in the case of an emergency with the pet or home.