By Elaine S. Povich
Tribune News Service
All Connecticut state Rep. Kim Rose wanted was to make sure 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 in 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 their 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. And 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.
Traditional kennels say 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 businesses 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.
After lobbying by the pet sitting platforms, Connecticut this year passed a different bill that exempted homes, apartments or facilities where three or fewer dogs are boarded from laws regulating kennels. That’s exactly what the pet sitting platforms were seeking.
Rose said she felt overwhelmed by the lobbying and the eventual result, especially because it came on a day she was absent. “Rover hired a bunch of high-paid lobbyists. They sent out emails to their customers saying we were trying to shut down the biz entirely,” she sighed, insisting that wasn’t true.
Bob Mickolyzck, owner of Snowflake Pet Center in Milford, Connecticut, which has been operating since 1969, said he has seen a drop in business since the pet care platforms came along. “I could hold up to 180 dogs out there,” he said in a telephone interview from his establishment. “Right now, I might have 10 dogs out there. It has hurt all the kennels in the state.”
Mickolyzck said he went to Hartford to lobby on behalf of established kennels but was overwhelmed by the app-based companies’ lobbyists. “It’s a big thorn in my side because it takes away from all the commercial kennels,” he said. “We have all our insurances and licensing and our upkeep.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Greg Rothman, a Republican, said laws exempting small pet-sitting operations from regulations designed for kennels is not about hurting existing kennels or large pet care businesses, but rather about codifying what already is happening. Rothman has introduced a bill that would exempt people who care for five or fewer dogs in a residence.
“If you drop your children off at someone’s house, a babysitter can watch your children without license or regulations,” he said in a phone interview. “If you want to drop your dog or cat at someone’s house [currently] you are subject to all the veterinary regulations. Rover is a perfect example of a company where pet services are important, but even if someone said they want to be a pet sitter or a dog walker they are in violation of our commonwealth laws right now.”
Pennsylvania laws require business and other licensing to operate a dog sitting business, but Rothman acknowledged that this law is not regularly enforced. Nonetheless, he said, it makes sense to get rid of the old law.
“Imagine telling your mother-in-law you’d like to drop off the dog but she has to pay $400 for a license,” he said. Pennsylvania dog kennel fees range from $50 to $750 a year depending on the number of dogs kept.
Rothman anticipates that his measure and several other “dog bills” may be combined in the upcoming legislative session. Representatives from the pet care gig industry met with Rothman before he introduced the bill, he said, and he took their position into account.
Wag responded to Stateline’s questions with an email and refused to comment further. Wag has been in financial trouble lately, and earlier this week, the SoftBank Vision Fund, a Japanese investor that had put $300 million into Wag, sold its 50% stake. The company also announced layoffs.
“All Pet Care Providers on the Wag platform agree to comply with any and all applicable federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations, including but not limited to applicable safety laws, rules, and/or regulations,” said the email, attributed to a Wag spokeswoman.
“If they do not, they are subject to termination from the platform.”
Advocates say 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.
Further encroaching on traditional pet services, Rover announced in June it was launching in-home grooming for dogs.
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 the vehicles 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.”
Some organizations are trying to profit from the issue by offering pet care classes and certificates.
Charlotte Biggs, co-founder of the Professional Animal Care Certification Council, runs a certification program for pet care workers in the Austin, Texas, area. Her group charges for courses and certifications, ranging from $250 for a care provider to $550 for an owner/operator of a pet care facility. But the industry is in its infancy, with only about 250 individuals in the nation certified, she said.
Carmen Rustenbeck, CEO & 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?’ “