Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rent-a-dog woman has animal welfare chiefs snapping at her heels

It is the ultimate luxury for the time-poor and wealthy who want the status of walking a flamboyant dog without the hassle of hair on the carpet or dealing with fleas. Gucci, an 18-month-old Pomeranian, can be rented once a week for £279 a month. He is the first of a dog fleet for hire in Britain.

Flexpetz, American venture already established in Los Angeles, San Diego and New York, is coming to London, with plans for Glasgow later this year.

Dozens of people in the capital have expressed interest in the scheme. Under the rules of the company only five people can share Gucci, the only dog on the books. More dogs will be recruited in the summer and matched with part-time pet owners by Pippa Woollard, the Flexpetz facilitator.

Ms Woollard, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, declined to say how Gucci was acquired, but she made clear he was well cared for and lived with a family that had other dogs on the outskirts of London. She has introduced him to his new companions in orientation sessions in Hyde Park. Ms Woollard said that she would check the credentials of all potential dog tenants and visit their homes. “I like to get to know them before they are accepted and would not allow a dog with anyone who gave me cause for concern.”

She accepted that the hire charges in Britain were high – £99 for a monthly subscription plus £45 for each of the four days. In the US the same service is on offer for $279.95 (about £144) a month. “It is just much more expensive in Britain to own a dog. We have to ensure the correct veterinary treatments and checks are made and pet food is also dear,” she said. She would not disclose whether the dogs’ primary carers were paid but said that all the dogs to rent were owned by Flexpetz.

Although animal welfare and care for the dogs appears to be a priority for the service, Ms Woollard appeared unaware of the anxiety her service has created among experts. The RSPCA and the Dogs Trust have been trying to contact her to discuss the details of the scheme, so far without success.

David McDowell, a veterinary adviser at the RSPCA, said that he was “extremely concerned” about the Flexpetz rent-a-pet service. “There will almost certainly be an emotional impact for the dogs as they are moved from owner to owner and from home to home. Most dogs need the security of a proper routine with one owner and without this they could become stressed and unhappy.”

Sarah Carlin, a spokeswoman for the Dogs Trust, said: “ Who does this service really benefit? Dogs need a stable routine and a constant owner to bond with and whilst the various ‘owners’ may provide treats and affection, the charity is concerned about the emotional impact on the dogs involved.”

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