Furball Fitness has found an expanding niche in pet care.

Kathleen McGill used to cobble together care for her two Siamese cats during her extended vacations and visits to her second home by relying on friends and neighbors, but the process never quite suited her or the pets. Since the retired veterinarian discovered Furball Fitness Dog Walking & Pet Care, everyone is happier. “I feel very comfortable for a change,” she says. “I can tell a difference in my cats' behavior. They're getting more attention. They're not as needy when I get home.”

That's just the level of care and satisfaction Shannon Anello had in mind when she started the company in 2015. A lifelong animal lover, Anello says she wanted to provide “peace of mind for busy pet parents.”

When she was laid off from her advertising job, she decided the time was right to launch a pet-focused business in Columbus. She knew the city was pet-friendly and had plenty of empty nesters and young professionals that enjoy spoiling their animals. “More and more people are getting pets and treating them like kids,” she says.

Her instincts are right. Americans spent $66.75 billion on their pets in 2016. Of those billions, $5.76 billion was spent on grooming and boarding services.

Anello initially focused on dog walking and pet sitting but has been adding services and employees as she sees a need for them. Pet-sitting customers who are out of town have the option to hire her team to visit a pet in its home several times a day or spend the night there. Clients receive photos each time an employee visits their animal.

The number of people who hire the company to visit their pets while they are at work or out socializing initially surprised Anello. “I'm finding it's not so much when people are on vacation, it's when they are in town and busy,” says Anello, who estimates that more than 50 percent of customers are daily visits. “Their pets are part of their family.”

The company now offers pet taxi services where team members will take animals to the vet or the groomers, and waste removal. Anello also goes to clients' homes and bathes their dogs and trims their nails. She is in the process of earning her dog training certification so she can offer additional help.

Meanwhile, she hired a certified trainer to provide puppy training and dog obedience services to further expand Furball's offerings.

“Our vacationers are becoming our regulars,” she says. “Once they realize how reliable we are, they say ‘we can use them for this or we can use them for that.'”

In the spring and summer she hopes to do more to promote a special service she offers to brides and grooms—wedding sitter.

Couples can hire Furball Fitness to bring their dog to their ceremony or reception and take it home afterward. Having Anello or a member of her team handle the dog allows couples to have their beloved pet as part of the festivities without having to be responsible for it.

Two other services on Anello's radar are pet massage and exercise classes for pets and their owners. She also anticipates moving into a facility and opening a doggie daycare this year. Currently, she runs the business from her home in Blacklick.

The business owner says her marketing background and graphic design skills—along with customer referrals—have been instrumental in her success.

“The marketing and advertising background does play a role. I have a good brand and website—that helps separate me from people who are doing this as a hobby,” she says. “I have a passion for animals. (Would-be) clients can tell that.”

When Anello launched the business, she worked with a trade group, Pet Sitters International, to earn an industry certification and also to get the proper insurance and bonding paperwork to protect herself, her employees and clients.

Before accepting any jobs, she pays a visit to the house and the animal. The “meet & greet” provides an opportunity for both parties to determine if the association is a fit, she says.

Finding reliable people who are willing to work the erratic schedule of a pet sitter is a challenge, she says. Often, employees need to start early to let dogs out and then have down time until later in the day. Anello runs background checks on potential employees so she feels confident allowing them access to clients' homes and beloved pets.

“That's really important,” she says. “I want everyone I hire to understand that this is a real business. Yes, it's fun to do but it's hard work. It's not a 9-to-5 job.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.