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The startup world’s cuddly, cutthroat battle to walk your dog

Wag and Rover are cashing in on our obsession with pets — and they’re not without controversy. The signs for Norman first appeared on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in early March. “REWARD. LOST DOG. 4 year old, microchipped, male, tan, Chihuahua. He is not wearing a collar. Missing since 03/02/2018. DO NOT CHASE.” By mid-April, they were all across New York City. Norman the Chihuahua had gone missing during a walk facilitated by a pet care startup called Wag, and his owner Nicole DiCarlo was determined to get him home.

She says Wag was initially helpful in the search for Norman. It paid for flyers to be printed, and said it would cover a $5,000 reward for Norman’s return. It also hired a professional dog tracker. But things soon got weird, says DiCarlo. A Chihuahua in her neighborhood was hit by a car the day after Norman went missing, and Wag’s CEO Hilary Schneider tried to convince her the dead dog was Norman. A delivery man had taken photos, and once DiCarlo saw them, she disagreed.

“The other dog was bigger, and the fur coloring was wrong,” she says. “They had no real evidence that it was Norman, and yet the CEO tries to tell me he’s deceased. I’ve asked a few family members to look at the photos, and we all know it’s not him. They just wanted to get rid of us.”

DiCarlo is not the only person to lose a pet at the hands of a pet care startup. Elaine Conoly says her dachshund Wally was killed by another dog while in the care of a sitter she found through Wag’s main competitor, Rover. She has since started a GoFundMe to raise money to bring legal action against what she calls a “negligent business plastered with lies.”

Wag and Rover are two of the newest and largest players in the booming pet industry, each with more than $300 million in venture capital funding. Both companies are digital marketplaces where pet owners can find dog walkers, pet sitters, and boarders via an app, with most services ranging from about $20 to $50. Wag is often referred to as “Uber for dogs,” since it assigns on-demand walkers and sitters, similar to the way Uber’s algorithm assigns drivers, though pet owners ultimately approve or decline the worker they’re offered. Rover has earned the nickname “DogBnb,” as users can sift through hundreds of available workers who set their own prices.

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