What would happen if we crossed Match.com with Petfinder? Could we get that much closer to solving the problem of millions of unwanted and homeless pets languishing in shelters and facing euthanasia? Sorry to be so blunt about it -- but could the answer, at least in part, be as simple as a dating service designed to connect animals in shelters with the families anxious to adopt them?
Pets are big business. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2011 the pet market was worth $51 billion. Tech and social media are poised to get a slice of that pie. A study released last year suggests that 1 in 10 pets have a social media profile. The paying pet market is seeing a splash of tech start-ups designed to meet the needs of pets and owners.
Dog Vacay recently launched in San Francisco and was described by Mashable as "the AirBnB for dogs." The site offers vetted alternatives to kennel stays and has been a huge hit. The company is also dipping a toe into the dog walking and dog grooming fields through its concierge services.
Other sites are popping up to facilitate doggy play dates. Matchpuppy recently launched in NYC, and connects dogs and owners with suitable companions. The profiles ask for details like energy level, breed and tidbits about personality. Owners then coordinate meet ups based on what they are looking for - such as other small, calm dogs or a rough and tumble Labrador looking for a swimming partner.
But how do we transition the incredible power of tech minds to solving the issue of homeless pets? It brings to mind the Westminster Dog Show fiasco earlier this year, when they fired their ads partner of 24 years Pedigree because they felt that their adoption themed ads were "too depressing." There's obvious money to be made in the pet industry; the financial return on a site geared to helping animals in shelters is harder to figure out -- but it's not impossible.
Animal welfare has largely been confined to the space of philanthropy. We think in terms of donations and volunteering; these are important. But our understanding of what entrepreneurship can achieve as a society is evolving. Social entrepreneurs are applying business tactics to solve societal issues all over the world, every day. And many entrepreneurs understand that they can build businesses that contribute to the public good while still turning a profit. We've figured out profitable ways to bring clean water to remote villages in developing countries, and make computers available to children around the globe. Surely we can take this innovation one step further and make a serious dent in the problem of homeless pets.
The technology itself could be quite simple. Harnessing Petfinder's massive database of pets in shelters and foster homes across the country, and building on simple dating site functionality with compatibility criteria could simplify the pet adoption process. Imagine this: a streamlined service that emails Joe, "an avid runner in New York looking for a mid-size, active dog that's house trained" when a suitable candidate "Bruce the Pitt-Bull Beagle mix that weighs 35lbs and is looking for a running partner appears."
What about a site that allowed would be adopters to fill out a single adoption application that could then be used by any participating shelter? A common frustration among potential adopters is that you may look at a few candidates in the course of finding the right pet to add to your family. Each time, you're often required to fill out a multipage application. This step could be eliminated with a Monster.com like functionality -- create an adoption application that can then be easily shared with any shelters with resident animals you're interested in meeting. Consider the possibility of an app that integrated shelter inventory with Google maps, and notified you that there was a beautiful basenji (that you'd previously indicated you'd love to meet) at a shelter a one minute walk from your current location.
Sites like Petfinder, AdoptaPet and ASPCA.org are doing incredible work. But can we support their missions, make them easier and more effective, by integrating some of the latest technologies to enable better searching, better matching and easier processes? The millions of dogs, cats, and other homeless animals currently waiting for families in shelters would be incredibly grateful if we tried.
Liz Alton is a Boston-based writer and social media enthusiast. You can find her writing in USA Today, Technorati, PolicyMic, The Daily Muse, Social Media Today, and many others. Connect with her online via Twitter @beinglizzie.