Pet tech takes the lead in care for household animals
Man’s best friend is the target of tech companies, who are coming up with new ways to help owners care for their pets. Jenny Brookfield reports.
From music to help dogs de-stress to smart cat flaps that ensure you don’t get the neighbourhood moggies straying into your home, the market for pet technology is growing at a rapid rate.
Tech companies are responding as animal lovers look to ensure their pets are healthy and happy.
Cats and dogs around the world are being helped through potentially stressful experiences and anxiety thanks to Manchester tech entrepreneur Amman Ahmed, who has an avid following for his YouTube music channels.
Roundwaves.com was set up as a side project four-and-a-half years ago using money left over from his student loan.
It is now Ahmed’s main focus, with relaxmydog.com and relaxmycat.com running alongside offerings to help babies sleep and to aid relaxation and concentration when studying.
The channels, which offer ‘music with a purpose’, boast 400,000 subscribers between them and have notched up 110m views.
The business has web developers in India and an artist in El Salvador working on the music, which can last up to eight hours for owners who have to leave their pets alone for long periods.
Though many of the pieces are based on a formula, Ahmed encourages regular dialogue with users to gauge what works, and has heard countless tales of dogs falling asleep as they listen to the music on the notoriously stressful bonfire night.
The business is also currently experimenting with mobile gaming for animals for iOS and Android. One app with 1,000 downloads so far has cats following a mouse as it pops up onto the screen.
“We started off with the relaxation music and then experimented with the music for dogs and it grew from there – now our most popular thing is relaxmydog.com,” says Ahmed, who admits he has overcome a fear of dogs since starting the business.
He is also aiming to pursue licensing deals for the music with hotels and spas after one of the tracks was picked up by a film producer and will be used in a forthcoming Jamie Foxx movie.
“The mobile gaming is going quite well too and we’re still trying to figure out how we can push it further. Mobile gaming for animals could be quite risky, but it can also be exciting so I want to see where it goes.”
While Cambridge-based PitPatPet also has leisure at its heart, there is a serious reason behind its product, which took two years to develop.
Launched in January 2016 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world’s largest tradeshow for consumer technology, the PitPat is an activity monitor for dogs aimed at improving their health as an adult fitness tracker would.
Before using the PitPat, a small device that fits onto the dog’s collar, an accompanying app requires owners to set up a profile for their pet that includes age, weight, breed and other health information, and all activity is measured in minutes against veterinary guidelines.
It means owners are advised on when to increase their puppy’s activity or when to slow down for older pooches, and fitness goals can be set.
“People often don’t understand the difference between breeds and this gives them the reassurance they are doing the best for their dogs,” says chief executive Andrew Nowell, who says the joint problems experienced by his sister’s German shepherd inspired the product.
“We’ve heard of people with energetic dogs like springer spaniels who come back from a walk and the dog is rested rather than chewing the furniture now because it’s done the correct level of exercise.”
Nowell cites PDSA figures that show four million dogs are overweight in the UK and two million are left home alone for more than five hours a day. He says the £39.99 price tag and free app have set the PitPat apart from other products.
“We’ve had people using them in many weird and wonderful ways. One person put theirs on their grandad’s dog to see if he was getting out and walking or not,” he says.
“It’s fun and educational, getting people outside playing with their dogs and helping them learn more about them.”
The company is currently working on a version for cats that includes GPS, though he says owners may use this to satisfy their curiosity about where their cat has been rather than for a fitness purpose.
The next version for dogs will be PitPatPlus, which will be more expensive as it includes GPS for those concerned about their dog running off.
Nowell says that in the long-term data could be captured from the trackers: “We’re consumer-focused now but in the future we will be more advanced.
"We could use the data to learn how best to manage exercise in German shepherds so they don’t get arthritis, for example.”
GPS has been central for one Hertfordshire business since its inception 10 years ago. Retrieva, in Berkhamsted, was set up after one of the founders was left trying to locate his two dogs after they ran off during a walk.
The first Retrieva collar, allowing owners to track the location of their animals, was on the market in 2008 and was also used by the likes of the police and search and rescue teams.
The latest product, the Dog Tracker Nano, incorporates the ability to track a dog on a map, with real-time street view and a viewcam with compass directions.
Owners can set geofences around their home, which send alerts to a mobile phone if a dog breaches the boundaries, and fitness features have also been built in, allowing owners to track a walk, monitor daily activity, set goals and receive health advice.
If a dog has run out of sight in a field, for example, and a map would be ineffective, the owner can hold up their phone in camera mode until it gives them a view of their pet’s location.
John Wisbey, head of business development at Retrieva, says customer demand and the rise of obesity in dogs led them to add the health and wellbeing features, which they worked on with the PDSA and pet food brand Purina.
“Our approach is to work with the industry and partners so that we can develop the tech that works for them as much as it works for pet owners,” he says.
“The technology is moving on now but our customer is still the dog owner worried about loss or theft, which is what motivates them to buy something like this.
"In addition to this, what we’re trying to do is to get people to think personally about their pet rather than about pets in general, so that they know exactly how many minutes’ exercise their dog is doing, what their weight should be and how much food they should be giving them.”
Wisbey says customers talk about how much more fun – and less stressful – it is to take their pets out. Some feel more confident in taking them on holiday in unfamiliar surroundings and the dogs are much happier as they are able to be let off the lead more.
He also sees the value in data. “People will use it to make much more informed decisions about looking after their pets and our efforts will concentrate on getting them to understand how important that is,” he explains.
Cambridge-based Sureflap agrees that ease of use is a key factor of any tech-based pet product, hence why its technology is based around the microchips which most pets already have.
The business began in 2008 with a cat flap that would only open when it sensed the microchip in the pet that lived there, helping owners combat the problem of having other cats stray into their homes. Owners must simply change the batteries once a year.
“The cat flap has an awful lot of technology in it but the perception is that maybe it doesn’t,” says Sureflap’s head of consumer marketing Piers Hampson.
“Where our product is different is that the technology is hidden away and is accessible because of that; it isn’t intrusive and you forget it’s there while it’s doing its job.”
Improvements since the 2008 launch include a curfew mode, which means you can program the flap to lock and unlock at specific times.
More recently, the technology was transferred to produce Sureflap’s pet feeder, which opens when it senses the cat is nearby.
It means food is not left in the open, you can control overeating and, in multiple cat households, you can ensure the food is eaten by the correct pet.
Next on the agenda for Sureflap is a national study into the temperature of cats and dogs using a microchip temperature reader.
Recruiting 1,000 participants whose pets have a special bio-thermo microchip, it aims to give owners a better understanding of their animal’s day-to-day health and wellbeing by establishing a ‘normal’ temperature range.
Bow wow do you do? Doggy translation is coming
Ever wondered what your dog is thinking?
Fetch, the pet store department of online supermarket Ocado, is developing a canine translation device that could tell owners whether their pet wants walkies or a belly rub at any given time.
WhatsYapp will use smartband technology via a device worn on a collar to analyse a dog’s sounds, movements and activities.
Bluetooth stickers can be attached to key locations in the home, such as doors, dog bowls and beds, to create a pet-smart home, with the information relayed to a phone app which will then translate it.
The product won a public vote to decide the first concept to be developed in Fetch’s new Petnology Centre.
Rachel Comerford, head of commercial at Fetch, says: “The team at Fetch is passionate about caring for pets in the best way possible and we’re excited to see how this technology can improve our understanding of our canine friends.
"We’ll be working closely with tech and engineering experts to develop a WhatsYapp prototype and are excited to get started.”
Meow-vie stars - keeping tabs on your pet
For those intrigued about what their pet gets up to when they’re not around, Motorola has come up with a high-tech monitoring camera that captures all the action in HD.
The Scout 85 has 24/7 monitoring featuring a two-way audio system, sound and motion detector and infrared night vision.
Owners can catch up with what their animal is doing via a free app and use their smartphone to control the camera.
Any sound or movement is recorded, which Motorola says gives the added bonus of offering you clips you may wish to upload to YouTube.
The product is supported by the RSPCA.
Lisa Richards, scientific officer and dog welfare expert from the charity, says: “Knowing how our dogs behave when we’re not there can be really helpful, and if they’re not coping alone we can take steps to help them feel more relaxed and to learn that being alone can be fun.”