TRAVEL CLINIC / Pet-minders and house-sitters

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WORRIED about burglars? Scared of the garden drying to a crisp? Reluctant to commit a favourite pooch to the kennels? Such are the anxieties facing holiday-makers who can't rely on, or don't want to impose upon, friends or neighbours to look after the house while they are away. The answer: employ a professional house-sitter or pet-minder - or so the companies which specialise in such services would have us believe.

This unusual breed of person inhabits the nether world of other people's homes, arriving just before they go away, looking after the house, garden and any pets while they are on holiday, and leaving on their return. The typical sitter is middle-aged or retired, with a home of their own; you can generally choose between a single person or a couple. The house-sitting agencies claim to make extensive checks on their backgrounds and take up at least two long-standing references. They also say they will match sitters to the individual home - for instance, someone with three bounding labradors and a large garden will get a more energetic sitter than another client with a fat, lazy cat and a patio. But you'd probably be wise to interview the sitter before committing yourself.

The companies operate in one of two ways, acting either as an introduction agency - the client signs a contract directly with the sitter - or as employers, so taking direct responsibility for the service. The advantage of the latter arrangement is that, in the event of a problem or dispute, your legal comeback will be against the company rather than an individual.

Insurance is another aspect to consider. According to the Norwich Union, cover for buildings and contents insurance wouldn't normally be affected, except you probably won't be covered for theft by a house-sitter. It's a good idea to inform insurers of the arrangements before leaving on holiday. The Independent Insurance Company even offers a 10 per cent reduction on premiums to policy holders using Homesitters Ltd on the grounds that their homes will always be occupied. This can be arranged through brokers J N Dobbin on 0628 771877.

What the sitter is actually required to do while the owner is away can be disconcertingly vague. There will be some fixed rules, for example, on how long the house can be left unoccupied (normally a maximum of three hours a day) and visitors (some companies ban them at all times, others may allow them during daylight). Otherwise, many of the arrangements are left to be negotiated direct between the client and the sitter. General housework and walking the dog will normally be part of the deal, but much depends on the individual. Last year, for instance, one sitter was happy to pick and freeze 60lb of plums from a client's garden; another might charge just for mowing the lawn.

These kinds of extras make a big impact on an already expensive service. Typical daily rates are from pounds 15 to pounds 21, but add-ons can easily double the total price. Expect to fork out for each animal (say 75p a day for a cat, pounds 2 for a small dog - hamsters and goldfish are free), for the sitter's travel expenses, even for their food (about pounds 4 a day). And of course there are the usual household, heating and other bills to underwrite. As a result, the fee for two weeks' house-sitting could easily top pounds 400, though phoning around for quotes could reduce this by up to half. The main companies are listed below.

Pet owners who opt for a kennel or cattery instead should beware. They may be a cheaper way of looking after your pets, but a Which? survey last year found a variety of health problems at several of the 62 establishments it inspected, from cages which were too small to 'disgusting' levels of sanitation. To be sure of finding a reputable place to lodge a pet, make sure that the kennel or cattery is licensed by the relevant local authority and take a good look round at the facilities first. Rates range from around pounds 2-pounds 4 per day for cats, and pounds 3-pounds 8 per day for dogs (depending on the animal's size).

These are the main companies offering a nationwide house-sitting service: Home and Pet Care, PO Box 19, Penrith, Cumbria, CA11 7AA (06974 78515); Homesitters, Buckland Wharf, Buckland, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP22 5LQ (0296 630730); Housewatch, Little London, Berden, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire CM23 1BE (0279 777412); Universal Aunts, PO Box 304, London SW4 0NN (071-738 8937).