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Xavier Magazine | April 21, 2018

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The Cat Whisperer

Xavier University

Jenny Thacker has never chosen a pet; they’ve always come to her. From the first cat her family’s dog brought home when she was nine years old, to the cats she takes care of when their owners are out of town, Thacker’s unconditional love for animals surrounds her life. Just peek into the manager of prospect research’s office, and you’ll find a litter of cat pictures and cat screensavers, each a component of Thacker’s family, each representing a story.

This love for animals eventually spilled over into a second career—pet-sitting. For a fee, Thacker takes care of cats—and some dogs—for their vacationing owners. In some cases, she visits each day; in others, she stays in the client’s home. It’s an arrangement that works well for the pets, their owners and Thacker.

“Cats are just so fascinating. I could see myself being one of those people who rescue every cat because they all need a home,” she says. “But thank goodness I have pet sitting as an outlet, because I have all these extra pets, they’re just not mine. I even have pictures of everyone else’s cat on my phone, and some float around on my screensavers.”

The roots of Thacker’s business run deep. “When my family would move when I was younger, I’d find out what kind of animals the neighbors would have, and I would see them and play with them. Some people baby sat, but I pet-sat,” she recalls. “I have customers who won’t go on vacation unless I watch their pets, so they arrange their vacation for when I can be at their house. At this point, I’m booked until August.”
Thacker attributes her ability to connect with cats to both her nature and her experience as a pet owner. “You start talking to people, and you find out ‘I’m not the only crazy one that feels this way about pets,’” she says. “I know I’m so particular about my pets, and my family never took vacations while I was growing up, because we just couldn’t trust anyone else. Only we knew how to take care of our pets.”

Her secrets for developing good sitter-pet relationships are wonderfully simple and human. “I usually sit and read to them, and once cats get to know your voice, they’ll start coming around,” she says. “If my customers want little things done, like certain treats or their cat needs to be brushed, whatever the case may be, I’ll do it, because I’d do it for my own cats.

“A major part is having an understanding of the animal, what’s normal and not normal for them. You can’t be afraid. Sometimes cats can sense if you’re afraid or frustrated with them,” says Thacker. “Since I’ve had so many pets of my own, and I know that they all have their different, distinctive personalities, I’ve learned how to give them the attention they need.”

For a while, Thacker found herself only sitting for sick cats, mostly due to her diligent care for the cats she watched, because “if they need medicine at a certain time, I’d do it. It’s important for the cat’s well being. I feel comfortable knowing that someone trusts me with something so precious to them.”

Thacker’s reputation and patience spread quickly, especially after word got out about how she nearly cured a cat of kidney failure.

“There was one cat, Bonnie, who was really sick and hated taking her liquid medicine. I have a secret weapon when I sit for sick pets: pill pockets. So, while I was sitting her, I just slipped her medicine in a pill pocket and she ate it, no stress involved,” recalls Thacker. “The funny thing was that it got to a point where Bonnie wouldn’t eat dinner without her pill pocket treat. When her owners got back, they took her to the vet, and she had gained a pound, which is pretty unheard of. Here they thought she was at death’s door, and at her age of 17, she didn’t have kidney failure anymore. But then that starts to get depressing, caring for old, sick cats.”

Now that her childhood labor of love is growing by—dare we say it—leaps and bounds, Thacker is looking at the realities of developing fee scales that take a variety of factors into account.

“With rising gas prices, I might have to rearrange my pay schedule,” she says. “But I love pet-setting, and I really do love all these animals, and I miss them so I go over and see them. It’s interesting, because a few of the pets I’ve taken care of have died; I’m the first person the owners call. It’s like, ‘Wow, I guess I really am important.’”

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