Pets... the ultimate accessory?


In New York, a dapper bachelor could enlist a dog each Saturday to help him find his date for the night.

NATIONAL REPORT — In New York, a dapper bachelor could enlist a dog each Saturday to help him find his date for the night.

In Los Angeles, the latest "it" girl could bring a purse-sized dog to her red-carpet event.

In London, a traveling businessman could have a furry companion when he finds the time to be at home.

This is because, in some places, pets have joined apartments, cars, tuxedos and vacation homes in the realm of things that can be rented to fill human needs.

At a time when the strength of the human-animal bond is on the forefront, with doggy spas and gourmet animal foods in demand, it might be difficult for animal lovers to come to terms with rent-a-pet arrangements.

The veterinary profession may have additional concerns about public health, zoonotic disease transmission and, in the case of neighborly pet-sharing arrangements, dealing with multiple sets of pet owners.

Blogs on pet renting berate proponents as uncaring about the bond animals might form to their temporary owners and what might happen to the pets once they aren't a hot commodity anymore.

"As a concept, the renting out of pets for profit represents a new industrial use of pets," says Dr. Patricia Khuly, a Florida small-animal veterinarian, veterinary columnist and blogger.

"It trades on the idea that those with busy lives need not commit to an animal. In my view, it thereby underlines the disposability of pets in our culture — something we struggle against already, with our teeming shelters a visible reminder."

To counter the trend, Massachusetts recently banned pet lease or rental services, following Boston's example, and San Francisco is considering a similar ban.

Tales of neighbors sharing the care of one pet are becoming more common.

The Aspen Animal Shelter in Colorado allows residents and tourists take out dogs, free of charge, for a day around town. The Ritz-Carlton in Beaver Creek, Colo., has for the last six years had a dog-in-residence that greets guests in the lobby and occasionally accompanies them on hikes or stays in their rooms.

Commercial pet-renting has been popular for sometime overseas, specifically in Japan, where space limits the number of people who can keep canine companions.

In the last few years, a California-based shared pet ownership business, FlexPetz, sprouted up in Los Angeles and quickly spread to New York City and London. The business had planned to expand to other U.S. metropolitan areas and overseas in 2008, but reportedly put those plans on hold as it wages a battle against public opinion. Calls to existing FlexPetz branches and its corporate office were not answered.

But several veterinarians who focus on animal welfare and behavior issues say they don't see the harm in shared pet ownership agreements that are well-run and put the care of animals before the draw of the dollar.

"It has the potential to be abused. My first thought would be the public-health issues," says Dr. Lauren Keating, who serves on the American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Committee. "How are these dogs screened? I think there'd be a huge liability for the business."

In the case of FlexPetz, dogs usually were rescued pets that underwent a strict training program and were given a full examination by a DVM every three months, according to the company's Web site. The company also interviewed customers and matched them with dogs for their personality. For a little less than $300 a month, FlexPetz members got four days of "doggy time," and the dogs were fitted with GPS tracking collars with temperature sensors and sent off with their temporary masters with pre-portioned containers of holistic chow.

"I picture the dog going up to the penthouse for the weekend," Keating joked. "But I think it really depends. I keep trying to think about the negative impact on the dog. If it wasn't well-run and the people renting the dogs weren't informed, I could see the dog being fed incorrectly or being allowed to go off the leash, kicked or hit. But if it's done right, it could really leave a positive experience with someone who's never had a pet. It's an urban phenomenon."

An owner who doesn't have the time or ability to properly care for a pet full time, leaving it crated all day, seems to be more harmful to an animal, Keating says. The pets involved in shared ownership programs also don't have the time to develop as deep a bond as animals that are fostered, which Dr. Rolan Tripp, founder the Animal Behavior Network, says could do more harm.

"I think well-meaning people who do fostering is a bigger concern, because then the dog develops a stronger bond.

That is a bigger damage," Tripp says, adding he was asked to consult for FlexPetz but he's not a big fan of the concept.

Programs like FlexPetz also may help dogs learn to deal well with humans, making them more adoptable and tolerant, Tripp says.

Khuly disagrees.

"Many shelters have programs that allow people to take pets out for walks and even foster them for brief periods. These not-for-profit programs are far better suited to the animals' needs," Khuly says. "But I'm not uniformly opposed to renting pets as a commercial practice.

"But it's one thing to offer a plush house cat as a perk at an upscale bed-and-breakfast that caters to cat lovers, where the animal enjoys his happy life in his daily setting, and quite another to offer pets for rent, where their home life may change multiple times a week."

But what if the trend were to spread to small-town USA?

"At this high-end scale, it works. On a larger scale, it's harder to tell the temperment of each dog and take the time with clients," Keating says.

"But this is entrepreneurialism going to work here. There's a need for people to interact with a dog, and they recognize they can't have a dog. If it didn't work, it wouldn't be in business."

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