I have avoided boarding my dog, Rupert, for six years.
I'm admittedly overly sensitive when it comes to his comforts, and the thought of leaving him in an outrageously priced, pee-covered cage for several days at a time has never really appealed to me.
But I ran out of options earlier this month when I had to leave town for the weekend. Practically everyone I know was gone for the holidays. For the first time, I considered boarding him.
I made some phone calls and found out that every boarding option in my neighborhood costs about $80 per night.
Most of them offer webcams so pet owners can check in on their animals from afar, but the cameras only added to my anxiety when I saw how dozens of dogs were crammed into Manhattan-sized, indoor concrete "playgrounds."
Then I recalled hearing about DogVacay, the so-called "Airbnb for dogs." It's a website that matches dog owners with prospective caretakers, or "hosts," for about half the price of boarding.
I was skeptical of leaving Rupert with a stranger, but I decided to give it a try.
I landed on DogVacay's homepage and input the dates that I would be out of town. The search yielded hundreds of potential hosts for Rupert, many of whom were located within a half mile of my apartment.
Most of the DogVacay hosts' profile pages contain detailed summaries of their services, reviews from former customers, and photos of themselves, their living quarters, and their previous animal tenants. I spent an embarrassing amount of time scrolling through all of Rupert's options before carefully selecting four potential hosts.
I contacted the hosts through the website's internal messaging system, because DogVacay doesn't initially give out the hosts' email addresses or last names. This is to partially help ensure that the hosts don't book appointments outside of DogVacay, as the company gets a 15% cut of all boarding fees.
I heard back from every host within a couple hours and settled on Rebecca, whose last name I'm excluding from this article to protect her privacy. At $50 a night — a little pricier than the average DogVacay stay — I booked Rebecca for three nights.
Then came winter storm Hercules. My flight out of New York was cancelled and then repeatedly delayed.
I ended up dropping Rupert off one day later than planned. I had prepaid for the boarding, but Rebecca called DogVacay for me and had one night's fees removed to reflect the change. She handled the travel issues with ease.
After dropping him off, I got a text from Rebecca almost immediately giving me a status update. (Rupert was "having tons of fun already" and romping in the snow with her pug, Wilbur).
Then I got nightly emails with photos, like this one, of Rupert and Wilbur:
I was pleased with the updates. I heard about Rupert's naps, his trips outside, and his general well-being all weekend. And when my flight back to New York was delayed by one day, it was easy to extend my reservation.
Rebecca later told me that she's been a DogVacay host since August 2012 and takes care of 10 dogs a month on average, for varying amounts of time, from one day to weeks at a time.
For some hosts, working with DogVacay has led to a full-time job that pays the rent. Pet-sitter Michael Lam told CNBC he started working with DogVacay when he was a programmer for Goldman Sachs. He's now a full-time dog host and certified dog trainer.
The company won't reveal details on its revenues, though CEO Aaron Hirschhorn told CNBC in August that the site's bookings had grown 10-fold in 2013.
"DogVacay has paid out millions of dollars to its 11,000 hosts across more than 2,500 cities in the U.S. and Canada," DogVacay spokeswoman Corinna Pielock told Business Insider. "The U.S. pet services market is $11 billion annually and surprisingly there are 78 million dogs in the U.S. – more dogs than there are kids (73 million)."
According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent an estimated $55 billion on their pets in 2013, including an average $327 annually on boarding.
As I noted earlier, DogVacay keeps 15% of hosts' charges, which range from $20 to $70 per night for boarding in New York City. Hosts can also offer dog walking, cat sitting, grooming and other services through the website.
Some have questioned, however, whether the company can generate enough revenue to survive.
From a purely personal perspective, I hope it does; because I'll definitely be using it again.
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