Uber, Lyft of Dog Walking Fight State Oversight

Dog walker Hillary Steffes walks six of her clients’ dogs through Frick Park in Pittsburgh last winter. App-based pet care services are lightly regulated and cut into the business of kennels. (AP)
Elaine S. Povich

All Connecticut state Rep. Kim Rose wanted was to have home-based “doggie day cares” followed the same health and safety rules as commercial kennels. It sounded deceptively simple.

But as soon as the Democrat introduced her bill last January, web-based pet care services such as Rover and Wag worked to exempt their business model from the bill. They feared that making their contractors subject to the same licensing and taxes as a commercial kennel would undermine business.

Often referred to as the Uber and Lyft of the pet care industry, Rover and Wag contract with freelance dog walkers, pet sitters and in-home pet care workers. Those workers are linked up via the companies’ apps and sent to clients’ houses on demand. Very often, the workers keep pets in their own homes, sometimes during the day, sometimes overnight.

The gig-economy model for pet care has disrupted a standing industry in somewhat the same way that ride-hailing services upended the taxi industry. Just like in those cases, cities and states are scrambling to make their regulations fit.

In addition to Connecticut, many other states and cities, including Colorado, Massachusetts and California, are grappling with overseeing the pet care platforms, whether by implementing new statutes or considering legislation that specifically addresses how they do business. Yet Rover and Wag have successfully fended off regulations in state after state in recent years, earning exemptions that relieve their gig workers from the oversight required of kennels and pet care professionals.

As a result, millions of pets are being walked, boarded and cared for by people with no formal training or licensing, whom consumers often don’t know personally and whose homes haven’t been inspected. Kennels say that the exemptions aren’t fair and put animals at risk.

But critics of more regulation say the lax oversight makes sense for gig pet sitters, calling some state lawmakers’ efforts to license dog walkers government overreach and pointing out that unlicensed babysitters routinely care for children.

The app-based model works well for on-call pet sitters, like college students picking up a little extra cash, but it threatens professional pet care operations, said Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo who has studied the gig economy.

“For those other businesses that are subject to regulations and licensure, it could disrupt them very much – and, one could argue, unfairly,” she said in a phone interview. For example, kennels pay taxes, obtain licenses and are subject to inspections – none of which applies to freelance dog walkers and pet sitters.

The online companies argue a house or apartment shouldn’t be regulated the same as a kennel. John Lapham, general counsel at Rover, said the company has lobbied to shape the bills in at least seven states with legislation either passed or pending.

“Connecticut was not looking to regulate (only) the kinds of things Rover does, they were looking to regulate things that folks in Connecticut have been doing forever, walking dogs, watching pets,” Lapham said. “The notion that you might watch a dog for a week, and they give you 50 bucks, and you need a $400 kennel license is absurd.”

In addition to dog walking and pet sitting, Rover workers can housesit or do “drop in” visits with animals to feed them, let them out for a few minutes or administer medicine.

Advocates say that they look to Colorado for a model of what legislation to exempt gig pet sitters and walkers should look like. The Colorado law enacted in 2017 exempted sitters with no more than three pets and specified that a “pet animal technology platform is not a ‘pet animal facility’” and is not subject to the same regulations.

California enacted a similar law in 2016, and Rhode Island and Virginia also have adopted similar measures. Hawaii’s law exempts facilities with four pets or fewer.

Certified pet care and boarding facilities are subject to inspection, usually at the city or municipal levels, and usually are licensed. Business regulations, which include square footage, electrical and plumbing requirements, also usually are mandated. But pet home care workers are subject to none of the regulations, nor is certification or training required of neighborhood pet caregivers.

Some cities, notably San Francisco and New York, have instituted regulations for dog walkers. San Francisco requires workers to get a commercial dog walker license or provide proof of employment for at least three years as a dog walker at a registered business or take training classes.

The dog walking businesses also must have liability insurance, and, if using vehicles to transport dogs, get them inspected. The city limits walkers to eight dogs at a time and requires leashes to be shorter than 8 feet. And the walkers must clean up after the pets.

But, according to Naomi Conroy at San Francisco Animal Care and Control, Rover and Wag “are not part of our Commercial Dog Walking Ordinance,” she said in an email to Stateline. “At this time, there are no rules that govern them.”

Asked about San Francisco’s regulations and how the company meets them, Rover spokesman Dave Rosenbaum said in an email: “As part of our terms of service, all contractors are expected to comply with local laws and regulations.”

In Los Angeles, plaintiff Valerie Saryan filed a lawsuit in February against Seattle-based Rover, maintaining that the company failed to rigorously vet its pet sitters, resulting in the death of the woman’s dog, a papillon named Snoopy. The lawsuit named the pet sitter as actress Angelica Bridges, star of the TV series “Baywatch.” Six months later, Saryan asked that the case be dismissed.

“We feel terrible about this incident, and this is a very rare experience on the platform,” Rosenbaum said in an email to Stateline. “For context, over 500K services in the Los Angeles area have been booked by pet owners this year, with virtually every stay going exactly as planned.”

Carmen Rustenbeck, CEO and founder of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association, a trade group for pet care professionals based in New Mexico, said not everyone should take care of animals.

She suggested that potential pet care workers should get training and be licensed, qualifications that the college kid down the street with an app on his phone doesn’t have.

“The question is not, ‘Is this a nice person?’” she said in a telephone interview. “The question is, ‘Does this person have enough training to keep your pet safe?’”


This article was produced by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. More stories from Stateline can be found at www.pewtrusts.org/stateline.


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