Every dog has its data

Written by New York Times | Updated: Mar 16 2014, 03:08am hrs
A half-century ago, dogs lived in barns or backyards, domiciled in shabby little doghouses. Now, they have the run of our houses and apartments. They sleep in our beds. In some cases, they are considered by their owners to be like children and, possibly, a bit cleaner.

So it is not so strange that the connected technologies that are creeping into the lives of humans are doing the same for pets.

Wearable pet activity trackers keep tabs on Bellas or Bears exercise. Some go further, monitoring dogs heart and respiratory rates and tracking locations in case they escape their homes. Webcams allow people who are away from home to monitor, communicate and play games with their pets, breaking up the monotony of lonely days.

What is making all these devices possible is an abundance of increasingly inexpensive miniature components created for the smartphone business: wireless chips, motion sensors and high-resolution camera lenses that can be jammed into pet-friendly devices.

Smartphone apps, meanwhile, are giving people a way to visualise the biometric data these devices collect and to snoop on pet behaviour from anywhere with a wireless connection.

These device manufacturers are chasing the growing pile of money people are lavishing on animals. The total annual spending on pets in the US, including food, veterinary care and medicine, more than tripled over the past two decades to $55.5 billion last year, according to the American Pet Products Association.

The tighter bond between household animals and the people formerly known as owners has established pet wellness as a

serious business, and tech firms are taking note.

It is the idea of being able to interact with your pet in a more meaningful way, said Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor

of biology at Northern Arizona University. Right now, pretty much all people have is voice to interact with their pets or touch. People want more.

Heidi Hurn recently clipped one of these gadgets, the Whistle Activity Monitor, to the collar of Hoosier, her 11-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever. This $130 brushed metal device, about the dimensions of a ketchup bottle cap, records when it is active, for how long and at what intensity level. It is the canine equivalent of the Jawbone UP, a fitness tracker that Hurn bought for her fiance.

Through an app on her iPhone, Hurn, 32 years old, who works in medical device sales in Seattle, can see a bar chart showing how hard and for how long her dog walker is exercising Hoosier. She can see how active he is when she and her fiance are not at home.

Hurn said she and her fiance got the device because Hoosiers veterinarian emphasised that keeping him active is likely to extend his life. She said the detailed logs of his exercise make the couple feel more responsible.

We are very attentive parents, she said. Hes our only child.

I, too, recently put a Whistle on the collar of Mitzi, my five-year-old pit bull/Labrador retriever mix. After a few days, I was able to compare her activity level to other mixed-breed dogs. I felt a small glow of pride when the Whistle app sent me a congratulatory text after Mitzi surpassed her daily exercise goal four days in a row.

More wearable tech for pets is on the way. Already on sale is a collar device called Tagg that combines activity monitoring with location tracking to help recover lost pets. Voyce, an activity tracker available later this year, also monitors a dogs heart and respiratory rates.

We really see ourselves as the wellness coach for the life of the dog, said Jeff Noce, president of i4C Innovations, the maker of Voyce.

It is possible the data from these devices could eventually help medical researchers better understand pet ailments. According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 52% of dogs and more than 58% of cats are overweight or obese, conditions which can lead to diabetes and worsen arthritis.

A 14-year study commissioned by Purina, the pet food company, found that a dogs median life span can be extended by 15% by restricting the diet to maintain ideal weight, or almost two years for the Labrador retrievers in the survey. Veterinarians have used expensive motion sensors for years to study pet activity levels, but they say the new devices aimed at pet owners have the potential to be used far more broadly.

Im very excited about the activity monitors, said Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

The solitude of pets is another concern that technology is tackling. Many animals spend hours alone at home while their owners are at the office. Separation anxiety, lack of exercise and other factors can lead to destructive tendencies.

Dropcam is a wireless security camera that can also be used as a pet monitor. It has a microphone and speaker so people can both speak to and hear their pets via a mobile app. I used a Dropcam to spy on Mitzi, who had positioned herself on a couch in my living room while I was out of the house.

Through the speaker, I ordered her down. She cocked her head like the RCA dog and stared at the cameraand didnt move. Im hoping for an update of the product that includes pet obedience.

A device called Petcube, coming out in May, combines a Webcam, microphone and speakers with a low-intensity laser pointer, the direction of which can be controlled remotely through a smartphone. Owners will be able to play games with their cats and dogs using the laser, assuming the animals are receptive to the idea of chasing a bright red light around a room.

People will be able to invite Facebook friends to play with their pets, too, by sharing access to their Petcubes.

While cats seem to pursue lasers without problems, Margaret Gruen, a veterinary behaviourist at North Carolina State University, said using a laser pointer with dogs could lead them to become shadow and light chasers, a compulsive behaviour. Gruen said it was unclear what effect owners talking to their pets through a Webcam could have.

When they cant see them, will that be confusing or comforting she said. I dont think we know yet. There are effective medications and behaviour changes for treating separation anxiety in pets, and playing classical music while an owner is gone can relax dogs, too, Gruen said. While it isnt clear yet whether these new technologies actually improve the lives of pets, they are certainly likely to answer the emotional needs of many pet parents. Remember the Baby Einstein DVDs said to enhance the intellectual development of infants

Theres this industry that springs up around selling highly specialised products that will allow you to feel like you are doing a better job of parenting, said Aaron Easterly, the chief executive of the dog-sitting website Rover.com. Its really the exact same pitch for these products.