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Your Dog Is Fat and Lazy: 3 Activity Trackers For The Quantified Pet

Big Data is coming to pets.

Your Dog Is Fat and Lazy: 3 Activity Trackers For The Quantified Pet
[Photo: Flickr user Héctor García]

The age of the quantified dog–and, if you’re willing to go off-label, quantified cat, horse, bunny, etc.–is here.

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Just as the Fitbit, UP and Nike+ FuelBand have allowed us humans to obsessively track each step we take and smack-talk slacking friends, we now can transfer all of those oddly competitive, occasionally compulsive, quasi-fitness goals to our animals.

Companies, including FitBark, Whistle, and Voyce have created dog activity monitors that promise to do more than just tell you if you’re contributing to your dog’s obesity. The design challenges to these devices are considerable: These wearable pet devices not only need to be rugged (and waterproof), but they also need to consider a dog’s movements and activity patterns–using calculations different from those that capture our relatively sedate bipedal strolls.

By continually grabbing data from accelerometers and feeding it to proprietary algorithms, these devices can generate surprisingly detailed information not just about canine activity and rest, but also, in the case of Voyce, vitals stats including heart rate and breathing. With these data points pouring in by the minute or second, there are some big lessons to be learned–not just for owners but also for veterinarians, researchers, and companies.

But even if you can measure your dog’s every bound, nap, and calorie, would you want to?


FitBark

The dog market might be niche, but it is not small. Owners spend some $60 billion a year on the 80 million dogs in the U.S. A very small amount of that so far is wearable tech. But it is a sector these companies are counting on to grow. In 10 years, wearable tech for animals is expected to be a $2.6 billion market, says Davide Rossi, founder and CEO of FitBark.

And perhaps for good reason. Even the most attentive (or obsessive) pet parent cannot follow their furry charge around 24/7. And for the rest of us, “we’re busy, so we don’t know what they’re doing during the day,” says Susan Nelson, a clinical associate professor at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in canine and feline care.

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“This will not be for everyone,” Nelson says, but “for some clients, it’s going to be really, really eye-opening.” Owners with a yard might think their dogs get plenty of exercise, but being able to compare their pooches to others–or to vet-recommended activity levels–might hold surprises in revealing how little exercise their dog is really getting.

For those who rely on dog walkers or doggy day cares, these gadgets could provide not just the checks and validation that their canines are really getting the activity promised, Nelson notes, but they also have the added bonus for owners of being able to be more involved in their dog’s lives–even while away at work or on vacation.

These devices also aim to be a health advocate of sorts for animals, alerting owners to potentially telling behavioral changes. “They are members of the family that cannot speak for themselves,” says Ben Jacobs, CEO and cofounder of Whistle. “Before you know it, you’re facing thousands of dollars in vet bills.” And, adds Jeff Noce, founder of Voyce, “the sooner you can identify something, whether it is behavioral or health, the more options that you have to treat it.” Such activity data could also allow owners and vets to see if a dog that is supposed to be having a restful convalescence is actually getting too much activity, says Jeff Werber, a Los Angeles-based veterinarian who has consulted with Whistle. The goal is to provide a preventative tool using “objective data to help owners take better care of their pets,” Jacobs says.

These trackers still can’t translate your dog’s barks to intelligible words. But, says Noce, “technologies can [help] bridge the communication gap.”


Whistle

How to choose a fitness tracker? How about by size? At eight grams, the $99 (or $69 on preorder) FitBark is the smallest tracker currently launching to market (take note, Pomeranian owners). “We wanted to add something incredibly nonintrusive,” Rossi says. This device collects a few data points per minute and feeds it to an interface to map and share activity patterns. A Wi-Fi-enabled base station will allow kennel owners to scale up and collect info on dozens of dogs at a time. FitBark, which is expecting to ship devices by the holidays, is hard at work developing a usable backend in the coming months where companies–from veterinary pharmaceutical firms to insurance agencies–as well as scientists and developers can mine the heaps of data that will soon be dumping onto their servers. Such a rich cache of information could change canine clinical trials for good–opening the subject pool from a dozen to a thousand, Rossi says.

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And developers will be able to go to town with the data, creating apps for every community from sled dogs to post-op pets. Not to mention kennel data could help you pick the best doggie day care for your hyper puppy.

But there are other options if you’re interested in data collection. Whistle, a small, $99 device that attaches to your dog’s collar, can deliver accelerometer-based intel on activity and rest with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (and GPS in a new model coming soon). An app provides play-by-plays of your dog’s day, maps trends, and flags behavioral changes. You can also link up with “friends” (and share pet photos, of course). “Our goal is to be the story of your dog’s day,” Jacobs says.

Behind the scenes Whistle, which has partnered with Jawbone’s UP, is amassing gigantic quantities of data so you can compare your pup to similar dogs. But they are also collecting super-granular data—thousands of data points per minute, according to Jacobs–that casual users don’t see. This data is getting massaged into algorithms to catch particular health challenges, such as doggie seizures.

Not yet on the market, Voyce is a full collar that adds radio signals to the accelerometer to monitor heart rate and breathing. (It’ll be available late 2014 or early 2015, for a rough price of $239, with a $9.50/month subscription fee). But, says Noce, “data collection is only a small piece of the puzzle. It’s what you do with the data afterward–how you present it to provide insights and actions for the owner.” Their content-rich interface helps put your dog’s info in age-, breed- and activity-level context while also allowing users to manage pet care by setting alerts for medications or vaccination updates. They aim to be “a lifelong wellness coach that’s customized for your dog and you,” he notes.

Of course, all of that data could be a bit overwhelming for owners. Are you supposed to worry if your dog’s heart is pounding away at well over 140 bpm? But for veterinarians and researchers, this could be the way of the future for pet health. “We really wanted to bring something to the market that had medically relevant data,” says Noce, who has previously helped develop similar devices for people with disabilities and neurological diseases. Vets could check Rover’s latest vital patterns to see if he is staying healthy or recovering well from a recent procedure.

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Even though they have yet to start selling their dog collars, Voyce is already developing similar monitoring technology for cats and horses, Noce reports. Such specialized trackers, Nelson notes, could be incredibly valuable for cats–many of whom have heart and respiratory conditions–as well as horses, who are not so easy to bring into the vet.

And, as Werber notes, activity trackers for our dogs might end up doing us some good, too. Some 75% of dogs and cats that are overweight belong to owners who could also stand to shed pounds, he says. But with real numbers in front of them, “people can’t BS themselves–or their vets,” he says.

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