How to Break Bad News to Petowners: 14 Tips

26 Aug, 2023

How to Break Bad News to Petowners: 14 Tips

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Anyone who has been petsitting for someone else knows the fear and trepidation of having to break bad news to pet owners. If a pet is old or unexpectedly ill it can be a worry. So how do you break bad news to petowners? Read our article by Kelly Hayes-Raitt to learn her 14 expert tips gleaned from 12 years of constant house and petsitting.

break bad news to petowners
Image by Serhii Bobyk on Freepik

How to break bad news to petowners – Delicately

Occasionally, Kelly Hayes-Raitt has had to break bad news to petowners while house sitting. She shares the tips she learned to help smooth the difficult conversations.

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

No one wants to break bad news to petowners, while house sitting. But sometimes bad things happen. A pet gets hurt or disappears or a health condition worsens.

How do you break news to petowners?

Of course, you want to be diligent with your communication, but often we barely know our human hosts. While there’s really no great way to break bad news while house sitting, doing it at the wrong time or in the wrong way might make things worse.

I like to learn ahead of time the homeowners’ wishes. During my video interview, I ask whether they want bad news while they’re away, and if so, how it should be delivered.

Ask Homeowners How (and Whether) They Want Bad News

break bad news to petowners
Daisy the 17 year old Whippet needed lots of love and attention because she was displaying signs of dementia

Some homeowners have asked me not to convey any bad news that they can’t do anything about while they are away. Others have asked to be notified immediately if anything happens to their pet or home. Still others have asked not to be notified of any problems during certain dates – while they are preparing for their wedding, for example.

The best homeowners have said they want to know immediately so they can support me during a time of crisis.

Prepare petowners for a just-in-case scenario before they leave

I also ask how they would like me to communicate with them: text, What’s App voice mail, email, phone? In this day of easy miscommunication, the wrong method may seem cold. So it’s best to ask them upfront so you are ready.

Top tip – Preparation and agreement ahead of the housesit is best

I make sure the homeowners have completely filled out HouseSitMatch’s {home-book ‘Easy Sit Guidelines’} and have supplied all emergency contacts – including after-hours veterinarian contact information. This and other guideline and template documents are freely available to all members.

Experts’ Advice to Break Bad News to Petowners and Homeowners

Hopefully, this preparation will act as a talisman against disaster! But if you do need to break bad news to petowners or homeowners while house sitting, here’s what the experts advise:

  1.  Deal with your own emotions first. Your panic will not help. If you don’t need to communicate with the homeowners immediately, do whatever you need to calm yourself down and release your sadness. Take a few deep breaths. Cry. Take a walk. Meditate. The goal is to make the conversation about the homeowners’ needs, not your own.
  2. Be prepared to offer solutions. Have the veterinarian’s phone number handy. Engage the homeowner’s emergency contact. Know what help you are able to provide next. The ultimate goal of your communication is to get to “what’s next,” so you know how to proceed in a way that honors the homeowners and their relationship with their pet.
  3. Mentally prepare what you will say or spend some time drafting the text or email before hitting “send.” But don’t delay too long. Most people respond to bad news by asking, “When did this happen?” or “How long have you known?”

Top Tip – Delivering bad news

If placing a phone call, you might want to practice out loud. Eliminate distractions such as the TV. Consider where the homeowners are – their time zone and what is happening on their trip. If possible, wait to call at a time when they will be awake and when the veterinarian is available. They will likely want to speak with their vet immediately.

break bad news to petowners
Animals can’t hide illness – report their state of health honestly, it is the best way to break bad news to petowners

“I Have Sad News…”

4. Foreshadow the news and prepare the homeowner by saying or putting in the email subject line: “I have sad news about Buddy.” Or, “I need to speak with you about Fluffy, and I’m afraid we can’t wait.” Take a breath and allow that to sink in. The homeowner will guide you to what happens next by saying, “Oh dear, let me get my husband” or “What happened?”

Listen carefully to their response so you know how quickly to proceed to break bad news to petowners. Don’t blurt it out and don’t hem and haw.

If you are sending an email, write short, declarative sentences that avoid a lot of prevaricating that the homeowner has to wade through. New research shows that most people prefer candor and directness when receiving bad news.

5.  Tell the outcome first, speaking professionally and frankly, but compassionately, sticking to simple facts and avoiding euphemisms: “Buddy is alive, but he was hit by a car. The vet would like to talk with you.” “Fluffy didn’t come back last night. Is there a special place we can look for her?”

6.  Take another deep breath and allow the homeowners to process this news, whether with silence or with tears. How you respond to the homeowners’ emotions is the most important part of breaking bad news.

Allow the Homeowners to Absorb the News

7. Give the information in small chunks to allow the homeowners to process the information. After they have taken in the essential message, they may want details, such as, “Where was Buddy hit?  Were you with him?”

It is never easy to break bad news to petowners. So answer their questions honestly, calmly and as completely as possible. Allow them to express their emotions and avoid the urge to ramble in order to overcome your own discomfort.

8. Avoid minimizing the message with cheerful, positive language. Bad news is not more palatable because it’s sugar-coated.

9. Do not give false hope. If you cannot answer their questions, admit that and suggest they speak with the vet.

10. Empathize. “I know this is really upsetting news. We’re upset, too. We’d really come to love Buddy.”

They might feel guilty for leaving an elderly or infirmed pet. Validate that they’ve been a good pet-parent. “You gave Kitty a really loving home. We can see that and feel that here.”

Solutions Are Empowering When Breaking Bad News While House Sitting

Work with the vet to understand what to say and how to break bad news to petowners

11. Offer a solution or next steps. Action helps prevent people from going into shock and empowers their involvement. “Buddy is at the vet’s now and we’re prepared to be with him during surgery, if that’s what you elect to do. The vet needs you to call her as soon as possible.

Here’s her mobile phone number. We called your friend Cathy, too, and she’s willing to be there during surgery, if you prefer.”

If you offer specific support, be sure you follow through! Broken promises make bad news worse. Your reliable and consistent approach will help you to break bad news to petowners. They know they can rely on you for the truth and swift follow through actions if necessary.

12. If emailing, put each of these steps in separate paragraphs and simple sentences, so the homeowner can absorb them.

13. If they get upset with you, be patient. “I know this is tragic, and we’re really upset, too. We’re here to help you get through this.”

14. Resist the urge to look for comfort on social media. While it may seem helpful to seek support in Facebook groups, it may be a violation of the homeowners’ privacy. But do seek support from your friends privately. Having a pet you’ve been caring for experience an emergency on your watch is very stressful.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to use these tips to break bad news to petowners … but at least you are prepared in case you do.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt is the author of How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the Housesit Diva, a guide chock-full of tips on how to not need to break bad news!


Join a professional service that offers access to help you find free checked live in petsitters and housesitters, for a moderate annual fee. These petsitters will help you keep pets at home safely and happy in their daily routine.

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Kelly Hayes-Raitt

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