Pet sitting a master stroke that pays for all involved Trend: Day-care operations let 'parents' go to work and still pamper their babies.

July 21, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Suzanne Loudermilk contributed to this article.

Inside the sprawling, air-conditioned rooms of Coventry School, all the classic scenes of day care are taking place.

About two dozen energetic youngsters frolic about, scooting through a yellow, plastic tunnel, tossing balls around and forming impromptu parades on a plank walk. Occasionally, there are heated scuffles over coveted toys and sentences to the "time out" room.

Maggie, a blond with curly hair, nuzzles Ruth Chase, the "principal" of the Columbia day camp. "Hi, Maggie," Chase says, stroking the English setter's head before sending her off to play.

At Coventry School, dogs of all stripes romp, snack, nap and even watch films like "Babe" while their people are off at work. Locally and nationwide, pet owners are flocking to similar services to keep their animals -- considered cherished family members -- healthy and happy. Pampering pets has become a flourishing cottage industry.

"You treat your family members a certain way," said Cathy Jones, director of operations for Pet Sitters International in King, N.C. "People depend a lot on their pets. I think people are starting to pay back."

With the economy doing well, pet owners also have more disposable income to lavish on their animals, Jones said. And for the growing number of people choosing not to have children, pets are their pride and joy. A recent survey by the American Animal Hospital Association showed that 55 percent of pet owners refer to themselves as "mom" or "dad."

"I think people spoil their animals," Jones said.

There are plenty of services to spoil them with.

Mobile grooming companies such as Columbia-based Canine Clippers provide everything from haircuts to shampoos in a van in your driveway. At Baltimore's Pedigree Portraits, Al Ewing will snap professional studio photographs of your pet, complete with props and costumes. Professional pet-sitting services throughout the region not only can check up on your pet, but can stay overnight or take candid photos for you to enjoy when you return.

Kennels and day camps offer amenities to attract people who want their pets to enjoy all the comforts of home, and more.

Coventry School allows dogs to exercise indoors, make other canine friends and enjoy fur-smoothing afternoon brush massages. Their "parents" drop them off on the way to work and pick them up in the evening.

"It's like kids," Chase said. "We change [the activities] so they don't get bored."

At Shady Spring Boarding Kennels in Woodbine, cats are snuggled and stroked in a "Purrfect Time" program while dogs enjoy outdoor "camping" experiences -- hiking, swimming in the pond, playing with the "counselors." Happy Tails Resort in Crownsville pampers dogs with Jacuzzi-style baths, painted toenails, herbal shampoos and doggie perfumes (from Aramis to Giorgio!). They also soothe the animals with easy-listening music and VCRs playing "101 Dalmatians" and "Lady and the Tramp."

A dog's life, indeed.

Prices of the services vary. For example, Coventry School's prices start at $17.50 a day for dogs who visit up to twice a week, with the cost decreasing for more frequent stays.

At Shady Spring, the basic "bed and biscuit" ranges from $19 a day for small dogs to $21.50 for dogs over 95 pounds. For 15 minutes of hiking and swimming, add $3.25 a day; for 30 minutes, add $6.50. Cats cost $11.25 a day, with $2 added for extra attention.

For pet-sitting, Happy Tails charges $12 a day for a small dog, $14 for medium and $16 for large. That includes walks three times a day and play time. The grooming runs from $24 to $100 for "the works."

And the services do a frisky business -- Shady Spring typically has between 150 and 180 dogs a week.

"There are a lot of people who are taking better care of themselves," said Nancy Valimaki, better known as the Animal Nanny, a Columbia-based sitter who has more than 400 clients and averages eight homes a day. "That extends to everything around you, whether it's plants or pets or family members."

Companionship for a price

On a muggy afternoon, Valimaki heads to Susan and Windsor Furr's house in Laurel, where Max, Spike and Petey -- three boisterous miniature dachshunds -- await her arrival. The Furrs are at work. Valimaki opens the second-floor patio door and out barrel Max and Spike. They scoot down to the yard through a chute built especially for their tiny, elongated bodies.

Valimaki keeps watch as the two dogs bark at squirrels, roll in the grass and generally enjoy themselves.

After cleaning up Max's poop, she goes inside to check on Petey, who prefers to have Valimaki all to himself. The dappled dog lies contentedly on his back as she rubs his tummy.

"We don't play games because these guys don't like to play games," she says. "They like to explore the yard."

For the Furrs, their three beloved dogs are worth the extra money for a pet sitter. Valimaki typically charges $16 per half-hour visit, but since the Furrs have three dogs, they pay $20.

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