A quick three-day business trip turned into a devastating loss for New York city resident Laura Garner and her husband in July 2009. “As luck would have it, our regular and wonderful pet sitter was on vacation for the first day or our time away,” says Garner, so they resorted to a pet sitting company they had never used before. “Their instructions were to keep Percy for one night and then return him to our apartment,” at which point the regular sitter would pick him up.

Percy, a five-year-old French Bulldog, had recently had a perfect checkup. But when the new sitter returned the Percy to the apartment, the doorman noticed the man was carrying the dog, who was having trouble breathing. “He asked if he was OK and the man said yes and just went our apartment,” says Garner.

Once the man was upstairs, “our neighbor happened to be coming out of their apartment and saw Percy in distress and suggested to the man that he take him to the vet. The man just said that Percy would be alright.”

When the regular sitter arrived to pick up Percy, the dog was dead.

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According to the vet, he died of heatstroke.

“So basically, the temporary dog sitter was too ashamed of his ill treatment of Percy and just let him in our apartment to suffer and die alone,” says Garner.

To avoid such a pet care disaster, make sure you hire someone “knowledgeable, reliable and trustworthy,” advises Yvette Gonzales, President of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) Board of Directors and owner of As You Wish Pet Sitters in Colorado.

But how do you find such a person?

Garner’s advice: “Seek references and Google the name of the company to see what type of feedback comes up. Also make sure the company has proper licenses and that you visit the place where the animal will be kept.”

Experts off these other tips:

Get referrals from friends “who have the same standards you have,” advises Gonzales. Ask if they like his services, if the pets like him and if their home is in good condition upon return.

Meet the sitter and observe her with you and your pets. A reputable sitter, says Gonzales, will take notes, have questions and a contract outlining the scope of service, policies and procedures. If you have a dog, have her walk your dog with you. Make sure she “respects your pet and listens to you,” saysVirginia Sinnott, DVM, a veterinarian at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA)’s Angell Animal Medical Center.

Meet the secondary sitter too.A reputable pet sitter should have a backup in case she can’t come, says Gonzales.

Ask about certification and insurance. Find out what kind of certification he has and if he’s bonded and insured. Also inquire about training. “Sitters should have at least pet first aid training,” notes Gonzales.

Think twice about hiring your neighbor’s kid or your older neighbor. Think long and hard if they’d be able to care for your pets, especially during an emergency. “A frail person may not be able to hold onto your energetic dog during a walk,” says Gonzales. “Would a kid be able to drive your cat to the vet or even make a good decision when your animal is sick?”

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Getting ready for D-day

Before you pack your own bags in advance of departure, do some vacation prep for your pet.

  • Make reservations early, especially for holidays.
  • Have an extra key made for the pet sitter and make sure it works. Provide also a second way in such as a garage door, says Gonzales.
  • Stock up on provisions. Buy extra pet food, supplies and medication in case you're away longer than expected, advises NAPPS. “Keep medication in their original bottles, so the sitter can check instructions,” suggests Gonzales.
  • Check Fido’s collar. Make sure your dog's collar fits, is in good condition and includes ID tags, says Sinnott. “All pets should be microchipped,” she adds, in case the tags fall off.
  • Get tech. For extra peace of mind, you might consider a home security camera or webcam so you can see for yourself what’s going on in your house. And in case your pet were to get loose, a GPS-based pet tracker can help you find him in a hurry, suggests Liz Jefferis, executive director at Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Some trackers even monitor your pet’s vitals.
  • Leave excellent notes. Describe your pets’ appearance and behavior, including information to help distinguish two look-alike pets. “Some people have similar animals who may need different medication,” says Gonzales. Write down feeding and medication schedule, vet clinic and emergency hospital phone numbers and phone numbers to reach you while you’re away. Add pictures, recommends Gonzales. These can be helpful if your pet gets lost.
  • Keep everyone in the loop. Give a neighbor a key to your home and have him keep an eye on your house, suggests Gonzales. Tell your sitter if he’ll stop by and provide them with each other's names and numbers.
  • Consider emergencies. Share with your sitter your pet disaster plan. Show her where to find cleaning supplies (in case of a potty accident) and the fuse box, suggests NAPPS.
  • Make your expectations clear. Tell the sitter about areas off limits to him or your pets. And never let your sitter walk your dog off leash, advises Jefferis.
  • Put away small objects, wires and cords. Place them in one a room and close the door. Bored pets can chew, swallow or destroy things left within reach, alerts NAPPS website.
  • Close the clothes dryer door and unplug unnecessary appliances to prevent injury to pets and damage during a thunderstorm.
  • Check your fence for holes, weak spots and loose panels through which your pet could escape. “Make sure you tell your sitter if your pet always tries to escape,” says Gonzales.
  • Leave a piece of clothing you've worn recently on your pet’s bed as a reminder of you.
  • Hook up timer lights to make it homier for your pets and help prevent accidents when your sitter arrives.
  • Leave a radio on for background noise. That might also help deter crime, suggests NAPPS website.

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If you don’t find a sitter who makes you feel safe, “keep looking,” advises Sinnott. Remember you’d be entrusting the life of your pets to that person.

“We’re talking about very vulnerable animals,” says the veterinarian. Even if you get home and your pets look fine, she says, “they won’t be able to tell you if something bad happened.”

“My husband and I were absolutely devastated by the loss of Percy,” says Garner. Following these guidelines for choosing a pet sitter is no absolute guarantee that nothing will go wrong, but it will boost the odds in your favor.

Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.