Doorstep pet minders: Buyer beware

Say you have a cat and you have to leave home for a few weeks on a business trip. What do you do with your pet?
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Say you have a cat and you have to leave home for a few weeks on a business trip. What do you do with your pet?

If there is no trustworthy neighbor to tap and your friends are too far away to help, you may turn to a professional service to feed the cat and clean the litterbox in your absence. But who are these professionals and are they really reliable?

The question arises with the advent of door-to-door pet services that are popping up everywhere nowadays, especially during long holidays like the weeklong National Day and Spring Festival holidays.

Shanghai has an estimated 700,000 or more pet cats and countless strays that people feed.

Pet services publish information online about what they provide, the areas they serve and their experiences with pets on e-commerce platforms. Customers can book services for fees ranging from 60 yuan (US$8.93) to around 150 yuan a visit.

There are also dog walkers offering to step in when pet owners are away. However, cat minders seem to be the most prevalent and popular.

Hundreds of lists of providers can be found on the Alibaba platform Taobao. Most of them are in larger cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou.

One pet minder, whose online name is Coco, says she has been in the business for nearly a year. She herself owns two cats and lives in the downtown Jing’an District. Prior to long holidays, she posts ads on various platforms.

Customers are required to leave their keys with her and have sufficient cat food and litter in stock. They can install a home monitor to oversee her work.

“I use gloves, shoe covers, disinfectant and different trash bags so that cats from one household don’t cross-infect cats from another household,” she says. “I take pictures of the cats and their poo, and send them to the owners to let them know about the cats’ health condition. And if owners permit, I play with the cats for about 20 minutes so that they don’t get too bored being left alone at home.”

Coco says she doesn’t rely on the service to make a living because she has a full-time job. She offers the service mostly because she is crazy about cats.

“For me, the more cats in my life, the better,” she says. “And customers can save the hassle of sending cats to kennels, with the risk of causing them stress and the cats catching a disease.”

Ti Gong / Ti Gong

A pet minder plays with a “customer.” She has been in the door-to-door pet service business for a year.

Owners seem to like the idea of such services, though they are cautious about choosing someone to mind their pets. Brimi Zhu, an occasional user of the services, says she never trusts any provider lists posted on e-commerce sites, preferring to choose a pet minder recommended by friends.

“I am especially leery of those who try to attract customers with low prices,” she says. “I often suspect that they are either not professional enough or have some ulterior motive in doing this job.”

Her concerns aren’t without merit.

A case widely spread on Chinese social networking services revealed that a man providing door-to-door cat care services was a cat abuser. One owner watched on a home monitor as the man killed a cat by flinging it to the ground.

The man later told the owner that the cat had bit him. While trying to hold the cat and calm it down, the man said the animal struggled, yelped and bit him again. That’s when he lost patience and threw the cat to the ground.

Because there is no law on small animal protection in China, the man was not prosecuted, but he did negotiate compensation with the owner.

In a cat-raising online chat group, the owner says she had trusted the man because he claimed to own six cats and said he often fed strays and helped with pet-adoption programs. She was led to believe that he was a “caring man full of love toward animals,” she said

There are no regulations or standards governing pet-minding services. A pet product design company called Pidan tried to develop its own standards. First founded in Paris in 2015, Pidan aims to promote the idea of raising pets more scientifically.

When the company saw the market potential of door-to-door cat minding services, it started the PidanCARE project and trained a team in several cities in China, using standard procedures, including wearing a headset camera when in a home. All its minders must be free of any criminal records.

“When there is no industry standard, we have to set the bar high to make sure our service is truly good to the pets,” says Cathy Cao, operation director of the PidanCARE project.

That job is easier said than done. Pet minders may encounter all kinds of unexpected circumstances. They may arrive at home to find it so dirty and messy that a bit of cleaning up is needed to move about. They may encounter a very sick cat that needs to be sent immediately to a veterinarian. They may find that a pet owner didn’t leave enough food or that the cat escaped through an open window before the minder arrived.

For all the contingencies Pidan developed standard coping procedures. But one thing the company wasn’t prepared for was soaring customer volume during the recent Spring Festival holiday.

Pidan said it received thousands of service orders for the seven-day holiday and it managed to cover most of them. But even then, some cats were found starving.

Such incidents caused outrage on the Internet, with some owners claiming that their pets were “starved so badly that had to chew on plastic bags.”

After compensating all the angry customers, Pidan suspended the door-to-door service.

“We have learned our lessons,” Cao says. “And we’re improving our scheduling system so that we will be more prepared if we decide to restart the service.”

Pidan and other professionals call for laws to be enacted in relation to the pet industry. The market is huge but regulation is nil.

“Believe it or not, the market is there and the consumers’ needs are there,” Cao says. “And we believe that every cat, or any other pet, should enjoy the high-standard services they deserve.”

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