Lisa Ullery is a part-time independent petsitter from Denver, and for nearly a year she has been using a popular app to help her find work.
Ullery and hundreds of other people in Colorado have a lot in common with Uber and Lyft drivers and homeowners who rent their places out on Airbnb to make a little extra cash. But unlike those more established practices, Ullery’s place in the gig economy only recently became legal.
Colorado recently made legal changes with petsitters like her in mind. Updates to Colorado’s Pet Animal Care Facilities Act carve out room for people to care for three or fewer pets without the licensing that would otherwise be required for kennels or doggy day cares.
“I think the shared economy is a new topic for everyone,” Ullery said. “It’s good to offer an alternative for these pet owners.”
While pet care has become a multibillion-dollar industry — a report from the American Pet Products Association reported that petsitting and grooming alone brought in nearly $6 billion last year — at-home petsitting in Colorado has for years quietly occupied a legal gray area.
Before the update to the state’s pet care law, boarding someone else’s pet without a license, even watching neighbors’ animals while they were on vacation, was technically illegal.
The old restrictions were designed to target the inhumane treatment of animals and people running commercial businesses in underground kennels. They weren’t intended to punish local petsitters, said Nick Fisher, program manager at the state Department of Agriculture.
“A lot of what we would look at when investigating was intent,” Fisher said. “People who are watching three animals or less aren’t looking to make a business out of watching dogs. We’re more concerned with people who were trying to do this commercially without following regulation.”
One catalyst for the updated law is the company behind the dog care app Rover, which lobbied state lawmakers to pass the measure and is one of the largest services of its kind. Other similar apps that stand to benefit from the law include Wag and Rover-owned Dog Vacay.
Rover Sitter Hailey Colebank plays with four dogs from left to right, her dog Summit, and dogs she sitting Lucy, Zola, and Linus in the backyard of her home July 12, 2017 in Westminster.
Petsitting apps can be more convenient than licensed boarding facilities for some pet owners. When using an app like Rover, people choose who watches their dog. They also can pick whether they’ll drop their pet off at the sitter’s home or if a sitter will come to their home.
John Lapham, general counsel to Rover, said Colorado’s new law offers an alternative to kennels and doggy day care services, where some animals might not do well.
“We just want to give you information to help pet owners make a safer decision,” Lapham said.
That’s a point even the brick-and-mortar competition acknowledges.
“For those dogs who aren’t thriving here, I own that immediately,” said Marcus Newell, owner of the doggy day care service Mile High Mutts. “Some dogs have separation anxiety from owners. Some just aren’t social butterflies. In that situation, this may not be the place for them.”
But Newell, who has run his pet care service for 15 years and testified at a hearing about the updated pet law, also has concerns. He points to a key way that companies like Rover differ from their brethren in other corners of the gig economy, one that he contends could leave businesses like his at a disadvantage.
“With Uber, you can’t just call the Uber driver you really liked and ask him to drive you. You have to go through Uber again, and that’ll stay on the books and in the system and it’s going to be taxable,” Newell said. “Maybe that first time they’ll go through Rover.com, but any time after that owners can just call the sitter outside of Rover tax-free.”
At the state Department of Agriculture, Fisher said the updated law could also open the door to illegal kennels posing as personal petsitters. And with petsitting now legal in Colorado without licenses and regulation, Fisher said the potential to hoard pets in makeshift kennels in someone’s home is much higher — and the ability for the state to police them a lot harder.
“The problem we run into from an investigation or a regulation perspective is that we’ll get the complaints; we’re still going to have to investigate,” Fisher said. “But it just creates some complexity for us at this point. In the past, these people would have had to be licensed, which means they’d have to meet some standard for cleaning and sanitation, and they need to prove to us that they’re taking good care of the dogs or any pet animal. Now without regulation with three pet animals or fewer, there’s some consumer protection issues.”
The department can’t vet the petsitters, but some app-based systems like Rover have their own vetting process. A spokesperson for the petsitting service said in an email that Rover accepts less than 20 percent of their applicants, and all sitters and dog walkers go through a criminal background check.
Beyond potential safety and regulation qualms, Fisher raised concerns that the updated law gives the tech sector an unfair advantage over their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
“There’s nothing we can do about that,” Fisher said. “That’s one of the pitfalls of this legislation. Even if someone does this as a part-time job and watches three dogs a day for five days a week. If they charge $30 to $50 every day — you start doing the math — it adds up.”
Newell said that while the previous law on petsitting was costlier toward business, regulation is key to ensuring pet safety.
“Colorado has one of the strictest set of regulations for interacting with dogs, and this place was on board and behind that,” Newell said. “We’re trying to advocate for the dogs. This bill says you can do all this work without adhering to regulations. Now any of these sitters don’t need any kind of oversight, regulation or training. There’s no accountability. It’s really the wild, wild west.”