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 (full disclosure). 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 activity trackers, Webcams and other connected technologies that are creeping into the lives of humans are doing the same for pets.
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 are giving people a way to visualize the biometric data these devices collect and to snoop on pet behavior from anywhere with a wireless connection.
These device manufacturers are chasing the growing pile of money people are lavishing on animals. Total annual spending on pets in this country, including food, veterinary care and medicine, more than tripled during the past two decades to $55.5 billion last year, according to the American Pet Products Association.
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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.”
The Whistle Activity Monitor is a $130 brushed metal device, about the dimensions of a ketchup bottle cap, that records when a dog is active, for how long and at what intensity level. The data is accessed with a smartphone app.
I recently put a Whistle on the collar of Mitzi, my 5-year-old pit bull/Labrador retriever mix. After a few days, I was able to compare her activity level to that of other mixed-breed dogs.
I felt a small glow of pride when the app sent me a congratulatory text after Mitzi surpassed her daily exercise goal four days in a row.
More wearable technology 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 dog’s heart and respiratory rates.
The data from these devices may eventually help medical researchers better understand pet ailments. According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 52 percent of dogs and more than 58 percent of cats are overweight or obese, conditions that can lead to diabetes and worsen arthritis.
A 14-year study commissioned by Purina, the pet food company, found that a dog’s median life span could be extended by 15 percent 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.
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 a speaker so people can 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 camera — and did not move. I’m 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.
While cats seem to pursue lasers without problems, Dr. Margaret Gruen, a veterinary behaviorist at North Carolina State University, said using a laser pointer with dogs could lead them to become shadow and light chasers, a compulsive behavior.
Gruen said it was unclear what effect owners talking to their pets through a webcam could have.
“When they can’t see them, will that be confusing or comforting?” she asked. There are effective medications and behavior changes for treating separation anxiety in pets, and playing classical music while an owner is gone can relax dogs, too, Gruen said.
While it is not 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?
“There’s this industry that springs up around selling highly specialized products that will allow you to feel like you’re doing a better job of parenting,” said Aaron Easterly, the chief executive of the dog-sitting website Rover.com. “It’s really the exact same pitch for these products.”