Strolling a country lane with a beautiful dog in tow might not sound like work. But to Joan Edwards, the owner of Executive Pet Sitting in Centerbrook, Conn., the morning constitutional is part of a daily job that also calls for feeding the dog, an Akita, a hot lunch of chopped sirloin and rice.
Cruising from job to job in a Chevrolet van, Mrs. Edwards visits an average of seven animals a day -- twice that number on a holiday weekend -- that have been known to include dogs, cats, potbellied pigs, birds, a rat that fancies hors d'oeuvres and a chinchilla that dines on a raisin a day.
Mrs. Edwards, who has three dogs and two cats of her own, started Executive Pet Sitting four years ago after working for many years as a corporate personnel manager. She is one of a growing number of full-time pet sitters in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
Providers like Executive Pet Sitting offer long-term care to pets whose owners prefer to keep their animals at home when they travel, avoiding stressful trips to and from a kennel.
They also offer daily midday visits to pets whose owners commute long distances to work, providing food, companionship and exercise and often administering medicine if it is needed.
"It's great if you have a next-door neighbor to care for your pets," Mrs. Edwards says. "But if you don't, we're the next best thing."
Amy Friedman, who owns an executive search firm as well as a Brittany spaniel puppy, agreed. "I have owned quite a few dogs, and I've always been a full-time worker," she says.
"I had to either put them outside or put them in a room, close the door and hope for the best. The notion of having people come to you as Joan does is very convenient, particularly if both members of a couple work."
Executive Pet Sitting, which covers the Connecticut shore from East Haven to East Lyme, charges $15 a day for two half-hour pet visits, which consist of feeding and walking (for a dog) or playing (with a cat). For clients traveling out of town, Mrs. Edwards offers at no extra charge to collect mail and newspapers, care for plants and take general safeguards against burglaries, like turning lights on one day and turning them off another day.
In the Fairfield County area, Creature Comforts in Stamford employs a staff of eight people who visit 50 to 80 animals a day for at least 30 minutes each. From 5:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. daily, including holidays, they make their rounds, feeding, exercising and playing with pets.
The company, started in 1988 by Beth Bowen, is a member of the National Association of Pet Sitters, which was founded, Ms. Bowen says, "to make people aware of pet sitting as an alternative to putting animals in a kennel or locking them up at home alone." Officials at the Washington-based organization say has about 450 members, an increase of more than 30 percent since last year.
For animal owners in Manhattan, Pet Get-Away offers pet sitting, dog walking, overnight stays in clients' homes and what the owner, Susan Johnson, calls "puppy kindergarten." That service involves going to clients' homes and helping them teach their puppies basic obedience skills. Later, staff members who walk older dogs will alert the owners to any aggressive or unusual behavior.
Pet Get-Away, founded in 1988, employs a staff of six and charges $30 for overnight stays that include complimentary plant care, mail retrieval and monitoring of phone messages. Pet visits and dog walking average $13 to $15 a half-hour. Dogs, cats and other small animals, including birds, are welcome, Ms. Johnson says.
"Birds are full of personality," she says. "They don't just eat seeds. They require a lot of attention, and they want interaction, just like cats and dogs."
In her five years in business, Lynn Wrigley, who owns North Shore Pet Service in Northport, N.Y., has been entertained by a cockatiel whistling the theme song from "The Andy Griffith Show" and shouted down by a macaw with a 2-foot wingspread.
Jackie Lutskus, a member of the National Association of Pet Sitters and the owner of Pet Lovers Inc. in Bernardsville, N.J., employs five part-time pet sitters. Pet Lovers, Ms. Lutskus says, cares for "all animals, even snakes and horses," in northern Somerset and southern Morris counties.
The only thing Ms. Lutskus refuses to do, she says, is work for clients who have invisible electric fencing, which shocks the pet if it goes beyond its boundaries. "It is not 100 percent effective," she said. "Any outside animal can come in, and if a dog's collar gets wet, it will disarm the system."
Most pet-care providers require interviews in clients' homes to get to know the animals' habits, diets and other special needs. They also furnish references and proof of insurance and bonding.
Animal-care experts advise pet owners to request similar services when selecting a pet sitter, and they widely recommend that pet sitters have access to veterinarians. Dr. Linda Perry, a veterinarian in Madison, Conn., also says that people who work for veterinarians or kennel owners often make good pet sitters.
The National Association of Pet Sitters, telephone (202)393-3317, will refer consumers to members in their area.