A companion for your companion

Pets are like people; they need food, water, shelter and love. A life of window watching or kennel-dwelling does not suit their nature, but many owners feel they are left without other options.

Luckily there's someone who'd be happy to break up the monotony in a dog's, cat's, bird's, fish's or other companion critter's afternoon - a professional pet-sitter. Pet-sitter Rhonda Madden runs Heston's Pet Helpers, a full-service pet support system based at 2736 Lyndale Ave. S. that helps pet owners throughout the metro area.

For some, having a pet-sitter tend to their best friend while they're at work is more than a matter of convenience.

"It's peace of mind," said customer Joan Nelson, an Edina resident.

With her wedding planning business taking off, Nelson has less time to spend with Max, her 16-month-old West Highland terrier. "I don't know what I'd do without [Madden]," she said. Madden visits Max once or twice a week, and he gets the standard 25-minute walk ($15) plus plenty of affection (free).

Cats are usually more self-sufficient; however, Madden said she has plenty of feline vacation-visit clients. While, as she puts it "Mom or Dad are out of town," Madden spends a half-hour a day with their cat ($15).

In addition to putting out fresh food and water and sifting the sandbox, Madden is always game for some cat and mouse . . . if the cat is, that is. "I let them run the show," Madden said of the individualistic creatures. "I don't chase them down."

However, even if a shy cat bolts under the couch as soon as Madden opens the front door, they can't refuse the games she leaves behind. Madden said she often sticks toys between different couch and chair cushions so that they dangle appetizingly at cat-level.

By the time she returns, Madden said, "All except for one cat have moved them all."

Besides furry companions, Madden has also had some scaly clients. She's fed fish, typically in a home with dogs or cats that she's already visiting. ("I usually have to ask the owners if they have any 'hidden animals,' sometimes they forget to tell me about their beta," Madden said.)

One of her more unusual clients was a four-foot iguana. The owner had set up an open porch for her favorite reptile, complete with heat lamps and ramps to access sunny window perches. It was litter-trained, and Madden's main role was to feed it fresh greens and pet the top of his head and tail.

"The owner told me the iguana liked that," Madden said. "It was pretty cool."

Pampered owner, too

In addition to these services, Madden said it made sense to also start including some extras for owners, such as grabbing the mail, signing for packages and turning on the lights at night.

She said that in addition to dog walking and day sitting, a big part of her business is also taking care of both dogs and cats while their owners go on vacation. She can either check in on them at their home, or board them overnight ($40 per night). "It's a wonderful service for people like me or people that go out of town," Nelson said. "It frees you up to focus on your work."

Madden's started her business last spring, sitting one cat and one dog. Now she has more than 100 (human) clients.

Other than its juggling-act schedule, Madden described her job as "a walk in the park."

For more information on Heston's Pet Helpers, call 333-3368 or visit www.hestonspethelpers.com.

Local pet-sitters can also be found on the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters Web site, petsitters.org. Enter your ZIP code in the search box.

Or check your veterinarian's bulletin board for pet-sitter postings.