Inquirer Newspaper

Catering to creatures is their cat’s meow

A cherry hill couple fine fun – and profit taking care of pets in their own homes.

By Jennifer Ffarrell

Inquirer Suburban Staff

CHERRY HILL- From a cat that loves television to a goldfish that needs changing scenery, Kevin and Tracy Neal’s customer list is made up of more than a few eccentrics. 

But judging by the thriving pet house-sitting service the run, there is money to be made in catering to creatures.

“It’s all about what’s best for the pets, “said Tracy, who started PT’s Pet Sitting Service as a sideline in the late 1980s. Since then, the business has grown from about 20 neighborhood patrons to a client list of more than 2,000 – and a six figure bottom line.

We’re actually trying to consolidate our runs,” said Kevin, who by 1992 had quit his sales job to move full time into the animal-care industry with his wife.

He averages 15 to 20 house calls a day in Burlington and Camden Counties and oversees a staff of seven who manage full daily runs of their own. The payroll grows to 14 during the summer and on holidays, when business is most hectic.

Kevin estimated that he and Tracy put in at least 6 0 hours a week for most of the year. “It’s 24-7. he said.

As their business has grown, the Neal’s have pampered a potbellied pig named Molly and have come between brawling dogs. They have made daily house calls for a goldfish named Fin, whose owners paid them to rearrange a set of dolls outside the tank “so it would have a different view,” according to Tracy.

And once, they looked after a cat that loved Wheel of Fortune. “We had to be there at 7:30 every night to watch it with him,” said Kevin , shaking his head.

The trick, they say, is keeping the customers satisfied. “We cater to whatever the owner feels is best.” Said Tracy, offering one theory on why in-home pet care has exploded in popularity during the last 10 years.

“It is turning into a for-real industry.” The Washington-based organization started in 1989 with only a handful of members. Now close to 1,400 have joined nationwide, with about 30 businesses signing up each month McDermott said.

“The discretionary spending is there,” McDermott said, noting the boom in supermarkets devoted to pet-care products. “I’m taking my cat tomorrow to get its teeth cleaned. That’s something I wouldn’t have done 10 years ago.”

Those who have used a pet-sitting service say it brings more peace of mind for about the same cost as boarding at a kennel. Plus, it creates less guilt, according to Loretta Ravelli, an animal lover who lives in Cherry Hill but puts in long hours at a restaurant she owns in West Deptford. Rather than go to a kennel, she hires the Neal’s to care for  her dog, “Phoebe, a beagle mix.

It’s bad enough that you’re leaving, let alone taking it from its environment,” she said adding that she thinks the $15 charge is well worth PT’s  30 minute daily visits. The dog’s comfortable at home. This is its own surroundings.”

Not only do they feed and exercise the pets, but sitters also take care of other mundane household chores. Bringing in the mail, making sure an outside light is on, and checking for burglars is also part of the job. “It’s almost like having a security guard as well as having a dog walker.” said Lucinda Baker of Medford, whose 100 pound rottweiler, Damien, gives Kevin all he can handle on the end of a leash.
Kneeling inside Baker’s kitchen yesterday, Kevin cheerfully took a rag to a spot on the rug left that morning by Damien. Smiling continually, he insisted that accidents and traffic were the only downsides of the job. “Welcome to my world”.