By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
Like many new pandemic pet owners, Nia Morgan knew her puppy, Zorro, had grown very attached to her due to all the time she spent at home with him. So she was understandably hesitant about leaving him for the first time with a sitter she’d hired through Rover, a popular platform for booking dog and cat sitters.
Morgan took what she thought were adequate steps to ensure her timid then 9-month-old poodle mix would be in good hands during an upcoming trip. She interviewed a Rover sitter and did a trial run — dropping Zorro and a friend’s dog off together with the sitter for the day. Zorro’s “temperament was good,” said Morgan, after picking up her dog, which made her feel comfortable enough to book the same sitter for a five-day trip.
One day after she left, the sitter said her phone had broken and she was using her computer to send updates through the platform. Morgan said she wasn’t sent photos of Zorro — something that is typically common for sitters to do — but she had been “satisfied with the in-depth messages” the sitter was providing.
The evening before Morgan was set to return home to Chicago, the sitter messaged her that Zorro “got loose” while she was at her boyfriend’s house more than an hour away from her home, according to correspondence viewed by CNN Business. Morgan would soon discover through a post from the local Animal Control’s Facebook page that Zorro had gone missing at the beginning of the stay. (According to a police report, the local Animal Control received two calls reporting a loose dog on the first day of Zorro’s stay; one came from a man who claimed his girlfriend’s dog had gotten loose, describing a dog similar to Zorro.) The sitter waited four days to notify Morgan, all while providing false updates, according to correspondence viewed by CNN Business.
Four months later, Morgan is still searching for Zorro — mostly, she feels, with little support from Rover which initially included Amber Alert robocalls, flyers and a $100 contribution towards a reward for finding Zorro.
“We feel terribly that some pet parents believe we’ve fallen short of our obligation to them,” said Rover spokesperson Dave Rosenbaum in a statement for this story. “We’ll continue to work hard to live up to our community’s expectations.”
More than 2 million “pet parents” have turned to Rover’s network of “trusted sitters and dog walkers” to book services including boarding, house sitting and day care, according to the company. Now, it is set to ride a wave of pandemic pet demand to a Wall Street debut. But as with other sharing economy platforms, which largely rely on independent contractors with limited amounts of vetting, there can be a dark side.
CNN Business spoke with six pet owners who said their dogs have gone missing or died while in the care of a sitter they found on Rover’s platform since the start of the pandemic. All of them said they turned to the platform because it was a recognizable name in the industry and they felt more comfortable after reading positive reviews of their respective sitters on the site. One pet owner said her sitter remained on the platform for months after her dogs were lost while in the sitter’s care. (Rover declined to comment on this claim.) Another owner, whose dog was found dead with no explanation, said the sitter whose care he was in remains live on the platform. (Rover said it is reviewing this matter.)
It’s unclear how many owners have experienced such incidents. Rosenbaum told CNN Business the company tracks these incidents but does not “currently disclose” numbers. However, there have been stories over the years of dogs who were lost, abused, or found dead while in the care of Rover sitters, often reported on by local news outlets. (CNN Business has not independently confirmed these accounts.) Others don’t make it to the press at all — in some cases potentially due to the company’s efforts to tie some payouts to non-disclosure agreements, which can effectively silence people from going public with their stories.
Additionally, when signing up to use Rover, customers agree to bring any claims against the company to individual arbitration, a process that keeps issues out of court and prevents people from banding together to pursue combined cases such as a class action lawsuit, unless they explicitly opt out of the agreement with a written notice.
“As a team motivated by a shared love of pets, we’re committed to helping people access quality pet care, so it weighs heavily on our hearts if someone has a negative experience,” Rosenbaum said in a statement to CNN Business. “Over 40 million services have been booked through the platform with 97% of reviewed stays receiving 5-stars. But even one negative experience is too many. We work every day to improve the platform so that every experience on Rover is a positive one.”
Rosenbaum told CNN Business that it raised its standard reward for a lost dog from $100 to $500 in early July to address “the effects of rising ‘pandemic puppy’ adoptions and pent up travel demand.” At times, Rover increases the amount or applies other resources “if we believe doing so could materially increase the likelihood of quickly reuniting a pet with their family,” he said.
That change came late for owners like Morgan and Elizabeth Snell, whose terrier mix Tony went missing in Greenville, South Carolina, on July 4. After CNN Business asked whether Rover would offer the $500 amount to pet owners whose dogs are still missing, and specifically mentioned Morgan’s Zorro, the company offered Morgan the $500 amount. Snell said she was offered the larger contribution after her story was featured on local news. (“This update would have been proactively communicated to the pet parent irrespective of press coverage,” Rosenbaum said.)
A pandemic dog sitting boom
Founded in Seattle in 2011, Rover is part of cohort of startups that emerged over the last decade — Uber and Lyft, chief among them — that created marketplaces to connect individuals in need of a particular service with individuals who can provide such a service on a gig-by-gig basis.
The company dominated the sharing economy pet market even as it faced competition from Wag, a rival startup that raised an eye-popping $300 million only to stumble. As CNN Business previously reported, Wag’s leadership had struggled to handle fundamental issues facing its business, including growth, customer service and the safety of pets.
Rover weathered the pandemic and arguably emerged stronger this year, thanks to all the people who added canines to their homes and then needed pet walking and sitting services as the country reopened. Rover has increasingly eaten away at Wag’s market share, holding 95% of the US share of sales compared to Wag’s 5% in June 2021, according to data from Bloomberg Second Measure.
Now, Rover expects to begin trading on the Nasdaq next month through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, which will value the combined company at $1.63 billion and help it continue to expand. “A public listing will provide the capital to accelerate the expansion of core service offerings, support other pet types, and continue to grow our geographic footprint,” said Rover CEO Aaron Easterly in a statement about the merger deal.
But amid the boom in business, there have also been new reports of missing or killed dogs while in the care of a Rover sitter. In an SEC filing from Nebula Caravel — the company Rover is merging with to go public — one of its risk factors is an acknowledgment that “Rover cannot guarantee the safety of pets, pet care providers, pet parents and third parties.”
Like other on-demand companies, Rover requires pet sitters to pass at least a basic background check, which references a sex offender registry, terrorist watchlist, and the National Criminal Database, which has its own limitations, including the fact not all records are digitized. Rover says that sitter profiles are reviewed and approved by the company; applicants also take a basic six-question safety quiz. According to Rover’s site, sitters who apply for Rover will receive approval (or be notified that information provided is incomplete) within 24-48 hours.
But some customers question the thoroughness of the background checks. Annette Leturia dropped off her two dogs — two-year-old Togo and nearly four-year-old Liam — with a Rover sitter in Houston, Texas, in late June for what was supposed to be a week-long vacation, only to return early after the sitter told her Togo was found dead on the bathroom floor. Afterward, Leturia said she had an independent background check done on the sitter, which turned up troubling charges for grand theft and fraud. She said she still has no closure on what happened to Togo.
In the meantime, based on screenshots viewed by CNN Business, the sitter appears to be pet sitting on the platform. When asked about this, Rosenbaum said: “We have asked our team to review the specifics of this incident and take further action if appropriate.”
Morgan, Zorro’s owner, also said she discovered her sitter had past criminal charges. Rosenbaum pointed out that cases can change between an initial charge and a final ruling. “In the interest of accuracy and fairness, we must make decisions based on what is legally available to our background check provider and reported to us,” he said.
Rover said sitters can choose to apply for a standard ($25) or an enhanced ($35) background check, and pet owners can choose to only hire providers with enhanced checks. The company also said it promotes meet-and-greets with sitters as well as meeting with multiple potential sitters prior to booking.
There is otherwise minimal vetting, training, or oversight because workers are treated by the company as independent contractors rather than employees — a classification that could be jeopardized if the company asserted more control over sitters. This factor is a standard complaint about the business model that worries some.
“Whether you’re talking about ride share or grocery delivery, there are lots of complaints about poor service. Because these platforms have decided to go down this route of using independent contractors, they actually can’t really train people to do a good job or to screen people maybe the way you’d really want them to do it,” said Miriam Cherry, a law professor at Saint Louis University School of Law who has studied corporate social responsibility and the gig economy. “It is not a good model if you really care about wanting absolute good quality, knowing you’re covered if something goes wrong.”
“With a pet,” she added, “if things go bad, they can really go bad.”
Rosenbaum said that “unlike some other ‘gig economy’ platforms, services on Rover are not assigned by Rover or offered on-demand. We believe that the best person to choose a provider for a pet are the pet parents themselves.”
Venky Ganesan, a Rover board member and partner at Menlo Ventures, which invested early in the company, stressed the company’s commitment to safety. “At the board level, we have always made sure the company can over-invest in Trust and Safety because for lots of people, their pets are as important as their kids,” he said. He added that “one incident is too many” and referred CNN Business to the company to further discuss the matter.
A history of complaints — and NDAs
Three years ago, Colleen Nolan’s senior, blind dog Mooshu died while in the care of a Rover sitter. The sitter was supposed to stay at Nolan’s Georgia home while she was on a business trip to Vermont. Instead, Nolan said the sitter took Mooshu to her own apartment where the sitter claimed the dog followed her cat out the door, onto her balcony, and fell two stories onto concrete. He died soon after at an animal hospital, according to his hospital record.
Rover initially sent a message to Nolan apologizing for what happened and offering to cover expenses associated with Mooshu’s death, according to a copy provided to CNN Business. But after what she felt was a frustrating delay in correspondence, Nolan reached out to a Rover executive to escalate her situation. Nolan eventually heard back from the company and asked to be reimbursed for expenses totaling $5,000, including training and cost of a new dog that may “replace” Mooshu.
A Rover representative said the company would pay roughly $2,600 to cover vet fees and aftercare including cremation and the urn but declined to cover the cooler to carry Mooshu’s dead body, according to an audio recording reviewed by CNN Business. To get the money, she’d need to sign a release of claims and a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). She said she refused. (Rover did not dispute this, while adding that its standardized settlement agreement “does not limit the user from sharing the facts of their experiences.”)
Joy Collier, whose Blue Weimaraner and Aussie Shepard doodle went missing in late May 2020 while in the care of a sitter she booked through Rover, allegedly had a similar experience. She said Rover offered her roughly $4,300 on the condition of signing an NDA after she started to get some local press attention about her lost dogs. Collier declined and then filed a lawsuit against Rover in May 2021 over the incident. In her lawsuit, she alleges she also spent tens of thousands of dollars to date in an attempt to find her dogs, including taking out billboards in the Phoenix area, hiring scent handlers and drones. Her claims, however, will be forced into arbitration due to the company’s terms of service in which customers agree to resolve disputes in this forum.
Rosenbaum, the Rover spokesperson, said the company cannot comment on ongoing litigation. “I can tell you that we disagree with many of the claims Ms. Collier has made and look forward to providing our perspective as part of the legal process,” he said.
Meanwhile, Leturia, who had not spoken to press about the death of Togo, said Rover reimbursed her $249 vet bill but she was not asked to sign anything.
“All I can do for Togo is to share that story, to warn others so this hopefully doesn’t happen again,” Leturia told CNN Business.
Rosenbaum said that claims under the Rover Guarantee — which the company touts on its website as a reimbursement program of up to $25,000 for vet care when eligible — aren’t tied to settlement agreements but that the company does require them if it is “providing support that exceeds our standard Rover Guarantee terms.”
But Rover’s own terms of the Rover Guarantee state that it may condition payouts associated with the Guarantee on a settlement agreement, including a release of claims and “an obligation to keep confidential the reimbursement amount and circumstances.” (According to Rover’s terms of service, which people agree to when signing up, Rover has no liability for damages associated with services “which may include bodily injury to, or death of, a pet,” aside from the Guarantee.)
Broadly, the usage of non-disclosure agreements or confidential settlements are “fairly common” when bringing disputes against a company, said Cherry, who noted that some states have passed laws to stop this practice because of “the incentive it creates.” As she put it, “if you condition the settlement on someone’s silence, it keeps the problem from getting out there.”
Since Mooshu’s death in 2018, Nolan has focused her energy on getting the word out to help others. She set up a public Facebook group where people post about incidents on the platform. There’s also a private “support group” where hundreds of people are members. CNN Business has reviewed both.
One week after Nolan was featured on CBS This Morning in April 2019 about her experience, Business Insider published an interview with Rover’s CEO about adding cat sitting to its services. He joked about adding “a cat that comes across the [web] page and shoves the dog off a ledge and says, ‘okay, this is my space now.'” The comment hit Nolan a little too close to home.
Rosenbaum said the company is “deeply sorry if this comment was perceived as offensive. This was unrelated to the incident involving Ms. Nolan’s pet and was not an attempt to make light of any sort of tragic situation. Doing so would be antithetical to our company values.”
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Update: This story has been updated to clarify Venky Ganesan’s comments.