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The Pet Sitter’s Plan of Action: Red Flags of Animal Abuse, and How to Help

Most pet owners love and care for their pets, providing them a home filled with love and making sure they’re in good hands with a compassionate pet sitter whenever they’re away. Devastatingly, though, there are many animals that are abused, neglected, or mistreated in some way. Your job as a pet sitter is to love and protect the animals in your care, so if you suspect animal abuse, it’s critical that you speak up. Our guide offers advice on how to spot the signs that a pet is being mistreated and what you can do to help.


Photo: Pexels


Signs an Animal Is Being Abused


While you’ll probably spend most of your time caring for animals when their owners aren’t around, you should be aware of the red flags that a pet is being abused from your very first meet-and-greet appointment. From there, keep your eyes peeled every time you visit for a pet-sitting or dog-walking gig.


A pet may be suffering from abuse if he:


  • Is subjected to harsh physical punishments in your presence. If an owner isn’t afraid to physically hurt the animal in front of you, they’ll probably continue to do it when visitors aren’t watching.
  • Acts alarmed or afraid around his owner. Some animals are generally anxious, especially those who have been rehomed (sometimes, these pets endured abuse in a prior living situation), so look for signs he’s actually afraid rather than nervous. A dog who shakes around, runs away from, urinates in the presence of, avoids eye contact with, or acts aggressive in the presence of his owner is sending signals he’s fearful.
  • Is severely underweight. Bones protruding from his body, especially his rib cage or spine, are a huge indication an animal is underfed, malnourished, and slowly starving.
  • Doesn’t have easy access to water at all times, especially if he pants excessively or acts constantly exhausted for no obvious reason. 
  • Has noticeable health conditions that the owner hasn’t addressed, like skin issues or prolonged illness.
  • Is consistently dirty. Happy, healthy pets shouldn’t constantly have matted hair, be covered in dirt or feces, or be full of fleas, ticks, or other bugs.
  • Has noticeable injuries, especially if he always seems to be injured when you watch him. You should be very concerned if you notice he’s limping, has trouble sitting or standing, or seems to be in pain when he moves. Open wounds are also a cause for concern, especially those that look serious and haven’t been addressed by a vet. Lastly, if an animal has significant scarring from multiple wounds, they may have endured physical abuse in the past (and may still be now). You should call for help if you notice both new and old injuries, especially if they are significant or there are many.
  • Is missing any body parts. This might indicate they’re being used in animal fighting (which is most common for roosters and bully breed dogs) or being used as a bait animal (which a small animal of just about any breed may be subjected to).
  • Lives in a home where there is equipment indicating he is (or other animals are) used in fights.
  • Has ligature marks anywhere on his body. It’s especially concerning to see these marks around an animal’s neck and throat, snout, and/or legs.
  • Spends all or most of his time in an unsafe area. This may include a crate that is too small for him to easily turn around in, outside in an area where he isn’t protected from the elements (including rain, snow, and direct sunlight), in a space with harmful material (like broken glass or other trash), or in a locked room. Also know that it’s illegal in many areas to chain or tether a dog, so it’s wise for pet sitters to look up local laws in order to protect the critters in their care.
  • Is in a home with too many other animals. What constitutes an excessive amount of animals will vary based on the type of creature and other conditions. In general, however, if it seems like there is a number of animals no one could reasonably take care of, you’re probably right, and you may have discovered a hoarding situation.


Photo: Pexels


How Pet Sitters Can Help Abused Pets in Their Care


If you’re concerned for the welfare of an animal, whether it’s the one you’ve been hired to care for or another pet in the house, it’s important to intervene safely. There are professionals trained to identify and confirm signs of animal mistreatment, and they can legally and safely remove pets from abusive homes. Keep in mind that if it makes you feel more comfortable, you can call in your concerns anonymously.


If you want to report animal abuse, you have a few options:


  • Call the police. They will visit the family in question and perform an investigation, which may involve interviewing the pet owners and inspecting the home and animal. If they determine there is cause for concern, they will seize the animal and turn it over to the department of animal control to hold it while a longer investigation takes place or to permanently remove him from the home. If the police department is not the correct authority in your community for responding to animal abuse complaints, they will tell you which organization to contact.
  • Call your local animal control agency. They will take the same actions as police officers, and they usually work alongside them in animal abuse cases. In many areas, they visit homes suspected of having animal abusers with the police department.
  • Call a local animal rescue agency. While they probably won’t be able to intervene, they should be able to direct you to helpful resources who can provide you direct assistance.


When contacting any of these authorities, be ready to provide as much information as possible about what you’ve witnessed. Be specific about your causes for concern, how long you’ve noticed the issues, and any other supporting information you have. Should an investigation be performed and/or charges filed, it will also be helpful for you to have photos of the pet and his environment, so if possible, try to have these readily available to hand over as soon as they’re requested.


You should never confront a client you’re concerned is abusing their pet. You could be putting both yourself and the animal in a dangerous situation. You also should never remove an animal from a home, because there could be legal ramifications for doing so. The best way to help a pet who is suffering is to reach out for professional, lawful intervention.


Remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you suspect a pet you care for is living in an unsafe home and you turn out to be wrong, the worst that will happen is you losing a client. Although this would be a heartbreaking scenario, it would be so much worse knowing you allowed abuse to continue because you were too shy to speak up. Stay aware of the signs of animal cruelty, and take action. You may be providing the pet an opportunity to live in a safer and more loving home — and you may just be saving his life.