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What It's Like to Work as a Pet Sitter as an Autistic Adult

Animals Seem to Seek Me Out

I did some pet sitting for a few years before the pandemic. Then the pandemic hit and nobody was traveling. Now where I live the pandemic is more or less over, and people are traveling at the same rate as before.

I kind of became an expert in animals by accident. I didn't seek them out, but they seemed to find me everywhere. And growing up autistic and in poverty, I didn't have that many lasting friendships with humans, often turning to companion animals as replacements when a friend would move away or just ... suddenly stop wanting to hang out with me. I got dropped as a friend a few different times for no reason, suddenly, with no explanation. Just probably that they had decided they were tired of my tendency to communicate by going on and on about my interests. Fair enough, but that also left me feeling like there was something deeply wrong with me, that no one would ever want to be my friend.

The Human World Can Be Confusing

When the human world confused me, I liked that nature often did not.

My grandpa bought goats and chickens for me to raise and I was intrigued, wanting to learn everything about them: their breeds, care, behavior, genetic origins, and so on. Nature didn't lie or fool you and I liked that. I liked that if I was walking a neighbor's dog for extra money, the dog didn't behave with the pretense and lies that people sometimes did. I liked exploring the possibility that I could talk to animals, have a special bond with them, but what I really felt was simply that they were calm in my presence and I was calm with them, and that silence felt nice.

Animals Communicate Directly

When animals communicate, it's direct and you know what they're saying because it's not subtle. It also can't be encoded with multiple layers of meaning like human speech. A cat meows to say "hey I'm hungry" or "hey I need attention," and that's all they say and the only thing they mean by it.

When people talk, they may say something and mean something else. They may use metaphors or poetic language. They may make jokes that reference things I've never heard of. They may say something they don't mean but think they need to say because the social situation demands it, like a greeting card but verbal. I can't always trust humans, I learned that early and well.

But you can pretty much always trust animals; they're straightforward. Other than a slight tendency to hide pain, they usually display their emotions openly and honestly. I often find myself wishing more humans did that.

Pet Sitting Works Well for Me

So if you're autistic and struggle to hold a job (most of us do), and you like animals, you may consider pet sitting as a side job. I want to go through all the possible benefits, risks, and concerns to think about before doing something like that. In other words, everything I would have told myself at the start of this if I could go back in time. For autistic people, a lot of things can seem scarier or more overwhelming than they may feel to someone else, and a powerful tool for reducing this scariness is information.

Go ahead and double that if you're autistic!

Go ahead and double that if you're autistic!

Challenge 1: Selling Your Services in an Open Market

I put a lot of time into taking my initial photographs and writing my bio for the site I work on. But when I first put up my profile, I got crickets. It took me a few months to get my first client, and I only got her by being willing to drive really far.

Pet sitting is a competitive market because anyone can do it on the side if they have a car. What you have to do is demonstrate your own experience with animals and "sell" people on the idea that your special connection to animals makes you better than other people available in your city.

It's also competitive in that online reviews are everything; I get lots of clients right now because I have all five-star reviews on my profile from previous clients who are happy with my work. But initially, I didn't have that and it was obviously much harder to get clients. People buy things online based on reviews, primarily, and you're selling services online.

(Which means you can be totally sunk by a single bad review. Yay...)

Trying to "sell myself" has always felt cheap and inauthentic, and I don't like to do it. All I like to do is accurately describe relevant previous work I've done. You can do that when you make your own profile. The cool thing is that experience builds on experience.

But selling yourself in a market also means you're taking part in the gig economy so you have all the drawbacks that are associated with that.

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Drawbacks of the Gig Economy

  • Low pay: It's basically impossible to make a full-time living at this, considering that you can only charge so much before the pet owners decide that the trip to the Bahamas just isn't worth it.
  • Unstable income: I get most of my work when local schools are on summer or winter break, because that's when most people in my community tend to travel.
  • No benefits, no health insurance.
  • Fewer legal rights than someone who is full-time employed by a company.
  • No advancement opportunity, other than training yourself for another job like dog training, grooming, or vet tech.
  • Wear and tear on your vehicle, while not as bad as with something like Uber or DoorDash, is considerable, you'll be driving a lot.

I actually like that pet sitting is basically seasonal, so I get two "off seasons," spring and fall, that I can use for things like painting, studying my interests, and pursuing various hobbies. I have a lot of interests and want a good deal of work/life balance. So it works for me, but the lack of steadiness might be a problem for some.

This is what it feels like for me to have to talk to a stranger.

This is what it feels like for me to have to talk to a stranger.

Challenge 2: Privacy and Safety Concerns

The initial meeting with a human dog or cat owner is always the hardest part of every job for me. That's because I'm meeting a stranger on his or her own turf, in a private place. I've gotten used to it, but each instance of interviewing a potential client stresses me out a lot, especially if there are sensory problems in their home (loud noises, bad smells, annoying distractions, etc.), there's something I don't like about the person, and/or if the interview otherwise does not go well.

I also have to worry a lot about my appearance and how I might be judged by someone else, which I also hate having to do.

But mainly, privacy and safety are my highest concern. I use a gig app because it (hopefully) does more to screen out potentially threatening or just plain unstable people, but the threat is always there. I'm always at risk of going to someone's house on a Monday afternoon and never being found again. I don't think the male potential clients "get it" as much as female ones do. Cis, white, etc., men can just go talk business with a stranger without the intense fear accompanying that action; must be nice. To not have to see people who look like you found in lakes and dumpsters on the news every day.

But I digress.

How to protect yourself from humans? I don't use weapons or pepper spray or anything that could be taken away from me and used against me by them.

Protect yourself with a combination of rules you always stick to and don't bend/break for anyone, not giving people extended trust when you don't know them, and trusting your intuition. If someone seems like a creep or a scammer, they probably are. If you get a confusing, cryptic message on a gig app phrased as a request for services and it creeps you out, you don't have to answer. A lot of times I noticed when a "request" was obviously from a scammer, and usually such people will get their accounts deleted quickly.

Signs of a Good Potential Client/Job

  • Immediate (within 2-3 months), specific pet sitting needs. People with five-month in advance (or longer) travel plans, or no concrete travel plans, are often flaky or suspicious.
  • They will not be overly personal/social, they just say what they need to tell you about their pets and their care. Creepy people may try to hit on you or treat the app like a dating app. Just ignore them if that happens. (And block and report persistent ones!)
  • They've used the app before, or have payment information in the app already, because it shows a level of commitment to buying services from you or another pet sitter in that app.
  • A complete profile with photos and detailed information about the pets. Scammers rarely bother with fake images and detailed profiles.
  • Communicate courteously and professionally, and respond promptly to inquiries.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Sometimes a person's request is not suspicious per se, but it feels a little off to me because the person was disorganized or there was something unusual about the request. (Unusual things bother me and I'm an unusual thing. Figure that one out.)

In those cases, asking follow-up questions helped me clarify that the person was legitimate. And I used them once to clarify that no, I did not have to go in at 4:00 a.m., they meant to write 4:00 p.m.! If something about the request seems strange, just ask the person about it and try to clarify what they meant exactly.

Another thing with privacy and safety is, it kind of freaks me out how many cameras and sound recording devices are inside many people's homes. If you're doing this, you have to expect to be on camera or being watched, recorded, and/or listened to in some way anywhere you go in their house at all times.

On one hand, I get it. You're trusting a total stranger to come into your house and feed your precious kitten or whatever. I get why people want the cameras. But it's creepy and scary, creating this panopticon-like climate of fear in which relaxation is difficult. We're living in a paranoid, everyone-recording-everyone-all-the-time culture now. That's just the way things are going. It's something you have to deal with in many jobs, but I've never been comfortable doing anything when I feel like the Eye of Sauron is on me.

So maybe homeowners, cool it with the excessive recording devices and sticking them everywhere? I hate especially whenever I have to go to the bathroom at someone else's place and I have to worry about whether or not there are hidden cameras in there, for example! There's a climate of paranoia right now that I think is unhealthy.

So yeah, you both have to fear for your safety and you have to mitigate other people's safety concerns about you. Fun.

Making travel plans with a fur baby is messy! I get it!

Making travel plans with a fur baby is messy! I get it!

Challenge 3: Communication With Pet Owners

If you're autistic, chances are that communication (with humans) is one of your biggest weaknesses, or at least, a weakness you struggle with.

And you might well get into this or think about this business because you're better at communicating with animals. I did.

But it involves not only communicating, but soothing the fears and worries, sometimes irrational, of pet owners while they're gone. I refuse to do this verbally and do it via text on the app only, which for me makes it easier. I blog also because I find written communication easier than spoken. It's just easier for me to sit alone in a quiet room and slowly, deliberately type out my thoughts, taking as much or as little time as I need to construct a sentence. Verbal communication is rushed, it's in the moment, and that can sometimes leave me feeling flustered. Verbal communication also to me involves many things that are distracting from the actual messages being communicated; clothing, tone, posture, gesture, environment, sounds in the environment, smells, my feelings about the person, my own feelings about myself and worry over how I'm presenting myself, etc. So one thing I like is that this job has mostly nonverbal communication requirements. There's still a mostly verbal interview for each initial client setup, but after that, you're mostly communicating via text and photos.

But still, the owners always want to see that you're doing what you said you'd do and that you're taking good care of their pets. They probably want to also see photos of their animals; the gig app I use requires that I send at least one photo whenever I log a visit.

So remember to communicate. I always just leave a basic description of what I did when I went to a person's home. A typical note from me might say, "Fed and gave her water, added medicine to her food following your instructions, cleaned litter box." That kind of note is not Shakespeare or anything, but they might want to know exactly what I did and when it was done, so I try to provide that.

What's annoying is the ones who will try to text constantly. I find it annoying because I get notifications from Rover and text messages on my phone at the same time whenever they text through the app. It's especially annoying to receive a bunch of messages at once while driving. I don't like info dumps and I prefer if care instructions are left as written notes, rather than a bunch of notifications on my phone I have to sort through at a red light or pull over to read. If they are going to leave care instructions as a text, also one is fine, and it should be short and to the point. I get a lot of older people who are not that good at texting because they dump in way too much information, often including stuff I don't care about or need to do my job, or things I already know because your dog/cat is probably not as unique as you might think. I've had people tell me things like that their pet "loves his treats" as if that's not true of nearly every pet on Earth.

Anyway, be prepared for communication. While it's nice that it can be mostly asynchronous and non-verbal, it's still difficult at times. Especially consider that a lot of pet owners are older adults because retirees/empty nesters like a pet to keep themselves company. Consider that older adults are not always so great at using technology. And communication across the generation gap can sometimes be tricky.

For example, when I put my foot down about not wanting to call someone (because I didn't want them to have my real phone number, aforementioned privacy and safety concerns are never far from my mind), and it became an issue, I think it was because the client in question was an older man. A woman or a younger person might be more likely to just "get it" when I say I have stranger danger concerns. Older men seem to constantly take personal offense at the lack of personally identifying information I'm willing to share with them. Who cares, fuck your feelings, I'm trying to not be the next episode of CSI right now, so my feelings win.

Smells are a sensory issue sometimes! A pet peeve of mine is the disgusting smell of wet cat food. But I deal OK.

Smells are a sensory issue sometimes! A pet peeve of mine is the disgusting smell of wet cat food. But I deal OK.

Pet Sitting Is a Rewarding Job

All jobs have their advantages and disadvantages. On occasion, I've had to see how some people treat dogs with harsh discipline, and confronting them about that can be tough.

But I think being a pet sitter is worth it. It's rewarding work. The people are difficult, ranging mostly from annoying monsters at worst, to just forgettable pests. Sometimes though, you'll meet sweet people you'll be glad you helped.

But the best reward comes from the animals. The appreciation you see when you feed them. The love you feel when you let a cat sit in your lap, and you're just sitting on the couch together doing nothing but holding her. Giving her your attention and feeling how much she needs you.

Being a pet sitter is tough. But, in addition to how fun it is to spend time with animals, you will know the joy of being appreciated for what you do. By animals and their owners. That appreciation might keep you going on hard days, knowing that you've cared for many animals that needed you and you helped them. It's a kind of satisfaction that's hard to find in another kind of job.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rachael Lefler

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