Pet tech transforms the relationship between humans and their furry friends

  • Pet ownership gave rise to a booming industry
  • Hiring dog walkers in digital marketplaces
  • An interactive camera enables owners to reward their dog
  • A smart bed monitors the weight of dogs and cats
  • Helping cats to exercise using a giant hamster wheel
  • An AI-powered pet bowl and a remote-control door
  • Creating a quiet zone for dogs stressed by fireworks
  • Enabling pets and owners to enjoy a happy life

Millions of people have welcomed pets into their families. Dogs and cats now travel with their owners, increasingly show up at work, and provide emotional support on commercial flights. Some 85 million American and 80 million European households own a pet animal. But taking care of furry friends requires a lot of effort. Owners don’t always have enough time to take dogs for a walk, nor are they able to spot the signs of serious medical conditions that animals can face. And travelling with pets is sometimes not the best option, either. That’s why companies are developing pet tech solutions for many of these challenges.

Digital marketplaces now make it easy to find pet sitters or walkers. Special cameras enable owners to monitor and communicate in real-time with pets at home, while a smart bowl opens only if a specific cat approaches it to eat. Also, special treadmills motivate cats to run and lose excess fat. These and many other products and services are redefining people-to-pet relationships and providing everyone with convenience and peace of mind.

Pet ownership gave rise to a booming industry

An infographic showing the sales volume of the global smart pet market in 2018, as well as its forecasted size by 2023.

The global smart pet market reached sales of $565 million in 2018, and it’s forecasted to grow to $1 billion by 2023.

The pet industry is booming, and Americans alone spent $72.56 billion on pets in 2018. That’s more than a 70 per cent increase from one decade earlier, and it’s a major boost for producers of toys, collars, bowls, feeders, and many other products. In Europe, the pet food market with related services boasts an annual turnover of around $43 billion, and pet ownership generates around one million jobs. And although all generations are fond of pets, millennials especially have a soft spot for ‘fur babies’. In fact, three-quarters of Americans in their 30s have dogs.

Furthermore, pet owners are increasingly willing to spend money on smart pet products, giving rise to a new market that’s set to reach $1 billion by 2023. David Sprinkle, the research director of the market analysis firm Packaged Facts, says that “Most pet owners are already using smart devices, so it’s not surprising that they would turn to technology to stay more connected with their pets.” Investors have taken notice of these trends, too. Funding in pet startups has risen to $291.8 million in 2017, compared to $67.2 million in 2012. And in the first half of 2018, more than half a billion dollars was poured into this growing industry. This prompted the rise of many startups that are competing to win the hearts and wallets of millions of pet owners.

A horizontal bar graph showing global investment in pet startups in 2012, 2017, and the first half of 2018.

Investments in pet startups are growing rapidly, going from $67.2 million in 2012 to $291.8 million in 2017, and reaching $519.3 million in the first six months of 2018.

Hiring dog walkers in digital marketplaces

Some of the most-funded companies in this sector are the US-based Wag and Rover. Both are digital marketplaces that connect pet owners with dog walkers, pet sitters, and borders via an app. Rover, the older of the two, was founded in 2011 and has around 200,000 workers in 14,000 cities. The company has raised $310.9 million in investment, with a valuation of almost a billion dollars. Wag was launched four years later, and it offers services in 110 cities with 50,000 workers. It’s also a smaller business than Rover, valued at $650 million and with $361.5 million in funding.

Both firms charge pet owners between $20 and $50 for their services. But while Rover takes 20 per cent of each transaction, Wag takes 40 per cent. And when it comes to winning new customers, the companies use social media in almost the same way, targeting millennials with ads and offering free walks to new users or discount codes to existing ones. Where they differ, however, is in their plans for the future.

Rover plans to grow internationally, with operations in the UK and Germany set to start in 2019. Also, it plans to expand into pet grooming services. Wag still doesn’t have international ambitions, but it plans to introduce new features, such as allowing customers to specify how far their pets should be walked. This option is being considered as owners are becoming “obsessed with their pet’s fitness”, says Wag’s CEO Hilary Schneider.

An interactive camera enables owners to reward their dog

And if signing a dog up for daycare is too expensive, the Seattle-based company Tomofun has developed a cheaper solution. Its interactive camera, called Furbo, costs $200 and enables pet owners to monitor what their canine friends are doing at home through a live HD feed. It has a two-way speaker that allows owners to hear and communicate with their dogs using their smartphones. Also, the device can toss treats to dogs, which essentially means that people can talk with their dogs from their workplace and reward them with food. And if a dog is barking, owners will be notified via the app. The camera also features night vision and 4X zoom.

A smart bed monitors the weight of dogs and cats

Taking care of animals, however, is more than just tossing them a treat. More than 53 per cent of cats and dogs are overweight and obese, which can reduce their average life expectancy by 2.5 years and negatively affect their quality of life. What’s worse, most owners can’t spot if their pets are obese, nor are they knowledgeable enough to introduce relevant dietary changes. An activity tracking system developed by the US startup Petrics aims to address these problems.

It consists of a smart pet bed that monitors the weight and sleep patterns of dogs and cats. The bed can also cool or heat, depending on the ideal temperature for each animal. The next piece of Petrics’ system is a small tracker that’s placed on any collar, and it monitors pets’ activity levels and rest periods. And all these pieces of information flow into an app that warns owners if their furry friends are obese or underweight, tells them what kind of food they need to eat to reduce fat, and whether the room temperature is too high. Petrics’ CEO, Ed Hall, says that the system helps users to detect “health issues from fluctuations of the weight for early detection and intervention”.

Helping cats to exercise using a giant hamster wheel

And while dogs often get regular walks, cats are typically left at home and lack exercise. The South Korean startup Petding has developed a device that might help users keep their feline companions in shape. The Little Cat is an app-driven machine that looks like a giant hamster wheel with a built-in LED light that moves to get cats onto the treadmill. Once that happens, the floor starts moving. Users can set the speed, monitor the cat through a live camera feed, and record voice samples to be played when they’re away. The app also records activity data, but it remains to be seen how many cats are willing to chase lights while on a treadmill.

An AI-powered pet bowl and a remote-control door

People who own multiple pets face unique challenges, one of those being that some animals tend to ‘steal’ food from another’s bowl. And although for some people, this might seem like a minor issue, the Italian tech firm Volta has decided to put an end to it by using facial recognition technology. It launched a pet bowl called Mookkie that uses artificial intelligence and a camera to recognise individual pets. Once the ‘right’ animal approaches, the bowl cover is drawn back, enabling them to eat. The app alerts owners when the bowl is empty, and the device also has a built-in night light, enabling pets to find food in the dark.

Another great solution for people with several pets, based on Internet of Things technology, is the Microchip Pet Door. The system works by letting only animals with a special microchip or RFID tag in or out of the house. Owners can, for instance, use an app to allow their pets to go outside, but prevent neighborhood cats from wandering inside. Or, if there’s a sudden thunderstorm, users can prevent any pet from going outside and getting soaked. Up to 32 animals can use the pet door, while the only downside of this system is that there’s no version for larger dogs.

Creating a quiet zone for dogs stressed by fireworks

The car maker Ford is yet another innovator in the smart pet market. The US giant has decided to apply its tech prowess and help dogs avoid stress during fireworks or thunderstorms. The company developed a kennel prototype that blocks out external sounds and creates a quiet zone. A microphone inside the kennel registers loud sounds and sends opposing frequencies to cancel out the noise, while the dog house is sound-proofed with a special material. Ford didn’t clarify how effective the device really is or when it will be commercially available. Nonetheless, it’s a promising step forward in solving this problem that many pet owners face.

Enabling pets and owners to enjoy a happy life

The pet industry is growing fast, fuelled by innovation and customers who spare no expense in providing comfort and safety to their pets. New tech-based products and services help owners to connect with their pets even when they’re physically separated, while taking care of health-related issues is now easier, too. The industry is still in the early stages, though, but its transformative potential is evident. And as more and more innovative smart pet devices hit the market, they will improve relationships between people and animals, enabling them to enjoy a long and happy life together.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

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