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Talk about a burgeoning enterprise. For many dog and cat owners, pet sitters have become a preferred alternative when Mom and Dad go on vacation, but do not want to leave Ruff or Fluffy in a kennel.

In the Westminster area alone, an internet search for pet sitters brings up more than 35 listings. Some are sophisticated, with “packages” priced for day trips or day care. Others are more basic, with headshots and brief background information on the sitter. Still other sitters rely on word of mouth for referrals.

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One thing they have in common: no Maryland laws regulate their enterprise or require sitters to be licensed or certified.

Horror stories on the internet report careless or inhumane acts — or worse — by pet sitters. In one instance, a dog owner reported that he left his healthy dog with a pet sitter. When he returned in a few days, the dog was dead.

Could the bereaved owner have the sitter prosecuted? Possibly, depending on his state’s laws. Under Maryland law, animal cruelty, abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in prison or a fine of $1,000 or both. Violations include overdriving or overloading an animal or depriving the animal of necessary food, water, air, proper space, shelter or protection from the weather.

The difficulty may be proving what happened. Unless the acts were caught on the owner’s closed-circuit camera or a neighbor or other bystander witnessed the sitter mistreating the dog, or unless an autopsy could establish a cause of death that tied neglect or abuse to the sitter, proof is likely to be difficult.

The state’s attorney prosecutes misdemeanors, but if he or she declines to prosecute because of the difficulty of proving the misdemeanor, the owner could consider a civil suit.

A lawfully licensed dog is treated in Maryland law as personal property, so the owner would have to evaluate whether the dog’s monetary value would justify a civil lawsuit. If the dog was a show dog, the owner may be able to recover potential stud fees lost because of the death.

But if the dog was just a beloved mixed breed who loved walks and chasing balls, the owner will have to consider whether it would be possible to convince a judge or jury that the sitter was responsible for the death.

Maryland allows lawsuits to recover non-economic damages, usually referred to as pain and suffering, for claims such as medical malpractice. It is possible the claim could be stretched to cover loss of a pet, perhaps if the owner could establish special circumstances such as the death of a therapy dog left with a sitter.

On the other hand, sitters may want to check their potential legal liability before buying a leash and posting their qualifications. An article written by attorney Betty Wang, https://blogs.findlaw.com, cites possible problems. For example, if a dog bites a bystander while being walked by a sitter, both the sitter and owner could be held liable.

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