ASBURY, Iowa (AP) — ASBURY, Iowa (AP) — Nikki Leibfried tossed a blue rubber ball across the backyard of an Asbury home Thursday afternoon, and 3-year-old Willa dashed off to fetch it.
“Good girl,” said Leibfried, scratching Willa’s ears as the golden retriever dropped the ball at her feet a moment later.
Willa’s home was the seventh that Leibfried had visited Thursday as part of her work with her business, Nikki’s Pet Sitting. She and her 13 employees take care of dogs, cats, reptiles, rabbits, birds and fish across the tri-state area while their owners are at work or out of town.
Although summer and spring break are always busy times, Leibfried said her calendar has been particularly jam-packed lately. By early July, she was completely booked through August and Labor Day weekend.
“In the past year, I’ve hired five people just to try to keep up, and I could probably hire six more,” she told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.
Leibfried’s experience has been echoed by other owners of pet sitting and dog day care businesses, who are reporting increased demand for their services. Many cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in that boost.
“What happened is, during the pandemic, many people went out and adopted pets, many of them first-time pet owners,” said Mary Erschen, owner of Dubuque business FidoFit. “When things began to really open back up again, people started going back to work, and this summer and early spring, people started traveling.”
Erschen operates a professional canine fitness gym at 595 Huff Street, Suite C. FidoFit offers classes and training for dogs and their humans, as well as “Puppy Montessori” enrichment and exercise classes and a “day gym” program, which operates like a dog day care with structured gym activities.
In her 12 years in business, Erschen said she has never seen anything like the current level of demand, which leaves her voicemail box full each night with clients seeking a spot for their furry friends to stay and play.
“I can’t even get through all the emails and the voicemails, even if all I’m doing is a courtesy call,” she said. “I’ve suggested to people, ‘Have you thought about a pet sitter?’ But then, they are all at capacity, too.”
She said two local veterinarians recently stopped offering boarding services, which has driven clients to businesses such as hers.
At Dyersville-based Briley, a dog grooming, boarding and day care business located at 1633 15th Ave SE, owner Briget Featherston is expanding her facility to meet the increased demand.
The expansion will add 5,500 square feet of indoor space, including 22 additional kennels and a second daycare room, and nearly 14,000 square feet of outdoor space. After the work is complete, Briley will be able to accept 30 to 35 dogs for daycare, compared to the 15 the business currently can care for.
Featherston said she also is looking to open a second location in Dubuque.
She said people who purchased pets during the pandemic are realizing that not only do the animals require daily care, they also benefit from interaction with other dogs and humans at businesses such as Briley.
“Many of (the dogs) are not very socialized, just because their families were home all the time, … and now that people are getting out and about or having family and friends over, if these dogs aren’t used to a bunch of people, they’re not knowing how to react,” she said.
Dubuque resident Victoria Vail owns Dog Days Dubuque, 3135 University Ave., which offers weekday daycare for dogs and some classes for puppies. It only took six months for the business, which opened in late 2019, to reach capacity, and Vail said it has had a waiting list ever since.
While she does trace some of the increase in business to “pandemic puppies” purchased during COVID-19 lockdowns, she also feels the demand for services such as hers is the result of a shift in people’s feelings toward their animals.
“I think the way people view their pets is much different than it was several years ago. These dogs are a family member,” Vail said. “I have a dog, and he’s like my baby. I think people want to just treat their dogs so much differently and want this type of option for them.”