Pet Rentals: Activists and Lawmakers Take Action

Wouldn't it be great to have all the fun and companionship of a pet, without the longterm responsibility? In early 2007, Marlena Cervantes founded FlexPetz, a pet-sharing service that allows members to rent out dogs for a few hours or days at a time. Since then the small business—the first of its kind in the U.S.—has expanded rapidly from San Diego and opened branches in Los Angeles, Manhattan, and, most recently, in London. The company's website lists plans to open soon in San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, and Paris, France.

But in recent weeks, lawmakers have begun taking steps to ban a practice critics call emotionally harmful to the animals.

Since its founding FlexPetz has focused on cities, targeting urban professionals who would like to spend time with a dog but can't commit to full-time ownership. "My lifestyle is not really conducive to taking care of a dog," says FlexPetz member Dr. Farng-Yang Foo, a Manhattan neurologist who works 12-hour days and lives in a pet-free building. Since last October, Foo has been paying to spend time with Sandman, a Pomeranian-American Eskimo mix that he rents from FlexPetz about once a month. The membership costs him $99.95 a month plus $45 per day for "doggy time."

Under the FlexPetz membership system, members could select the dog of their choice and spend the time with the dog as they wish. Chris Haddix, Manhattan FlexPetz facilitator, says that all potential customers must go through screening and orientation—a process that can take up to a month—to ensure the dogs' safety. He says that all FlexPetz dogs live in cage-free facilities with a primary caregiver, and that the company rescues dogs that would have otherwise been worse off—in shelters or euthanized. His branch operates out of the Wet Nose Doggy Gym on East 13th St. and has had about six dogs available since it opened in October. FlexPetz likes to maintain a ratio of one dog to every five members. Haddix says that the model has worked out well for the clientele and the dogs, and that it provides an alternative for people who are aware that they're just not ready to care for an animal 24/7. "Our members take the ownership responsibility seriously," he said.

When FlexPetz launched last year, fans heralded the company as the ZipCar for animal lovers. But nearly 18 months after its launch, it's unclear how successful the company has been. In an email exchange, FlexPetz founder Cervantes did not specifically respond to NEWSWEEK's questions about how many customers have signed up or how many dogs the company owns.

But whatever growth the company may have had appears to be imperiled by a recent backlash. In April the British Parliament put forth a motion to prohibit pet rentals. Labor MP Drew David, who proposed the measure, said that the pet-rental business "encourages irresponsible attitudes to dog ownership." In June, after hearing that FlexPetz planned to open a location in Boston, the Boston City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting dog rentals in the city. And on July 29, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would prevent companies like FlexPetz from setting up shop anywhere in the state. According to legislative aide Matthew Carleo, the bill "will be placed on Governor Deval Patrick's desk this afternoon." Representative Paul Frost, a dog-owner who filed the bill, says the business model promotes the idea of "disposable pets." As a Republican in a blue state, Frost rarely seeks such measures restricting commercial expansion, but said this case was exceptional. "I am not against business growth or the entrepreneurial spirit," he says. "But there is an ethical line you have to keep in mind."

Daphna Nachminovitch, of PETA's Cruelty Investigations Department, agrees. "This business exists to make money at the psychological expense of the animal," she says. Besides the possibility of emotional scarring from being bounced from owner to owner, there are concerns about the rental dogs as they age. "Where do they go when their shelf life expires?" Nachminovitch asks. While the website states that all FlexPetz dogs have been "rescued or rehomed," its 2008 Securities and Exchange Commission filing lists $6,532 in dog purchases, and financial statements indicate that the company depreciates each dog with an estimated seven-year "useful" life.

In response to inquiries from NEWSWEEK about the effect the legislation will have on FlexPetz growth, CEO and founder Cervantes said that as a result of the recent legislation, she has decided to "shelve" operations in the US and London, and that each pet in all FlexPetz locations will be offered to a renter for adoption. Haddix said that the two remaining dogs at his NY location are slated for adoption in the coming weeks.

Nachminovitch says this dogfight is not over until the practice of pet rentals is retired forever. "We realize that this is a lucrative business," she says. "But animals are not DVDs."