Apps, Devices, and Wearable Tech: Is This the Future of Pet Parenting?

Advances in the pet industry are happening faster than ever. But is all that innovation a good thing for animal lovers? It depends.
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Kim Kasiewski doesn't consider herself a particularly techie person, but when her 7-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback mix, Rhasta, began finding ways to escape the yard of her home in Navarre, Fla., she found the solution to keeping him safe in a high-tech tracking collar.

"[Micro]chips are great for identifying dogs, but they don't tell you exactly where they are," she says. "Rhasta would break through fences and squeeze through neighbors' yards to go explore." And so, she got him a Fi Smart dog collar with GPS functionality, set a home zone that included her yard, and sure enough, one day while she was in the house working, she got a text saying that he had left that predetermined zone. "The collar switches from a Wi-Fi connection with his base in the house to a satellite," she says. "Then, the satellite tracking shows me his live location, as well as the nearest address to that location on a map in case you're driving and need directions." With this live tracking, she found him right away, when he was just a few doors down at a neighbor's house—and before he got into any real trouble.

Now, she also has another dog, a 2-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback named Cirrus, "who goes over six-foot fences like it's his job," Kasiewski says. And yep, you guessed it—he's got a Fi, too.

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Wearables, Devices, and Apps—Oh My!

Smart collars like the ones Kasiewski's dogs wear are far from the only type of tech we use in our pets' lives. From automated feeders and smart fountains to high-tech toys and apps connecting you to your veterinarian, pet sitter, and your pet's social media account (what, Luna's not on Insta?), there are countless types of tech that help us care for our dogs, cats, birds, and more.

Aside from the pet-specific technology out there, like remote ball launchers and automatic litter boxes, there's all the tech that makes pet parenting—not to mention other aspects of our lives—a little easier. Smart locks and video monitors help you keep tabs on who's checking on your pets when you're away, and while a robot vacuum might be particularly handy in a home full of heavy shedders, we've heard they can be found in fur-free homes, too.

From health and safety to convenience and fun, yep, there's probably an app for that. But before you tap that buy button on a robot groomer (which we assume is already in the works, if it doesn't exist yet), make sure you understand how to determine which tech is worth your time and money—and what limitations, or even dangers, might be inherent in leveling up your pet's tech game.

Ways Technology Can Help Pets and Their Humans

Safety

While some of these exciting advances may make it feel like we're living in the future, it's worth noting that early pet tech, in the form of microchipping, has actually been around since the days of Back to the Future.

"The positive impact of some pet tech is undeniable," Marty Goldstein, DVM, founder of Dr. Marty Pets, and author of The Nature of Animal Healing and The Spirit of Animal Healing says. "The insertable microchip has probably saved hundreds of thousands of pets' lives, helped keep shelters from overcrowding, and saved a lot of families from heartache."

Microchips don't run on batteries, so they never die, and they're placed under the skin, so they're unlikely to be lost, all of which means they'll always be an important tool in identifying lost pets—and aren't about to be replaced any time soon. But, as Kasiewski noted, that's certainly not the same thing as being able to track their location in real time on your phone, like pet owners can do with tracking collars and tags like the Fi device she uses, or others like Whistle, FitBark, and Tractive. You still need to work with your dog on a good recall cue to ensure they actually come to you when you find them, of course. But tracking sure makes it easier to figure out where they've run off to!

Other tech, like electric fences, are designed to keep pets inside a designated perimeter (although they may not be the right choice for all dogs and situations). Smart pet doors work with a pet's collar to allow them to come and go from the house to the yard as they please (at least during times when you've granted access)—without giving other critters the same ability.

While items like video monitors aren't strictly for pets, they are widely used by pet parents who want the ability to check in on their furry friends when they're away. That said, there are some pet-focused options, like PetChatz, which not only offers an interactive two-way camera and speaker, but bark alerts, aromatherapy, treat dispensing capabilities, and more. Although a product like this may help your pet develop some positive associations with your absence, the jury is out on exactly how much benefit it really provides your pet, says Erin Askeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, Camp Bow Wow's Animal Health and Behavior Consultant, and self-professed pet tech nerd. "It's not proven that dogs want to look at a camera, or that they can tell it's you, but they can hear your voice," she says. "It's maybe more for pet parent peace of mind."

two rhodesian ridgebacks sitting together in a backyard

Kim Kasiewski purchased Fi Smart dog collars for her dogs Rhasta and Cirrus so she can track their location in case they sneak out of her yard. 

Credit: Courtesy of Kim Kasiewski

Health and Wellness

In addition to the location services, many tracking collars also serve as health monitors that track steps, sleep, and more. Now that Kasiewski is aware of just how talented her dogs are at escaping, she makes sure they're always observed in the yard, but the data she receives from their Fi collars remains useful. "It helps me understand when they might be antsy because I can see their step count," Kasiewski says. For instance, "If the 2-year-old is under 13,000 steps, he'll need to go for a walk, or else he won't sleep."

Fitness trackers and other at-home tech, like auto-feeders, have been popular with Goldstein's clients, and he's delighted. "Obesity and obesity-related illness is one of the major causes of death for our companion animals, so anything to help fight that is fantastic."

Many of us became familiar with telehealth services during the pandemic, but Goldstein offered phone and video consultations at his clinic long before COVID-19 made them necessary. "We were able to help thousands of animals this way," he says. Those virtual visits are particularly helpful for pets who become stressed at a vet's office, as well as for large or mobility-challenged pets who are more difficult to transport. And they're a game changer for pet parents who live in remote areas who might not deem a small health concern reason enough for a long drive, but a 15-minute telehealth consult could be entirely manageable. Still, virtual vet visits won't take the place of every in-person vet visit. "There's nothing like good old hands-on contact with patients—and face-to-face time with pet parents," Goldstein says.

Technical scientific advances are also helping us learn more about our pets—and how to best care for them, says Jeannine Taaffe, Head of International Partnerships at Kinship, a collective of pet brands focused on using data, tech, and compassion to help pet parents do just that. "Pet parents are an incredibly savvy group as it is," she says, "but as they continue to leverage more tech in their pets' lives, I expect that we'll see continued advancement in guided self-care for pets." That may be through connected home solutions, like smart feeders, or an increased use of at-home diagnostic tools, like Wisdom Panel's genetic health screening or RenalTech, which predicts the likelihood of cats developing renal disease, she says.

Don't take this to mean you can start diagnosing and treating your pet yourself, though! "At-home tests and devices should be considered more of an early alert than a point-blank diagnostic screening test, unless otherwise noted," Taaffe says. "And these products are that much more meaningful when the information is shared with your veterinarian to help inform care, because the data alone can only do so much."

Fortunately, advances in tech have also made it easier than ever for us to track and share important updates about our pets' health with our vets. Many clinics use pet portals, where clients can upload data like vaccination records, make appointments, and send messages or files, such as videos of a concerning behavior a pet only performs at home. And there's no shortage of helpful healthcare apps out there. Some, like Cardalis (an app that lets pet parents count breathing rates at home for pets with heart disease) are specific to a particular health issue. Others, like WhiskerDocs and AskVet, are membership-based service providers with veterinary experts available 24/7 to answer questions, which can come in very handy when it's 2 a.m. on a Tuesday and you're trying to determine whether Lucky's upset tummy demands an emergency vet visit or if you can wait and call your vet's office when they open in the morning.

TECH TIP

Updating cat and dog microchip registration greatly increases the odds your lost pet will make it home to you.

Credit: Pawel Wewiorski / Getty

Behavior, Training, and Playtime

Let's say you got a video monitor, and, hooray! Now that you can check on Max and Molly while you're at work, you feel much better about leaving them alone during the day. But what about your pet's nerves? Askeland is thrilled to see some of the advancements in anxiety-reduction products, like the ZenCrate, which is specially designed with a camera, a cooling fan, and other functions. "It was designed to give dogs a place to go when they're anxious, like during fireworks or a thunderstorm. It detects the dog going in and plays calming music, and it's acoustically well made, so it dampens sounds from the outside," she says.

Other high-tech enrichment products, like automatic ball launchers and battery-operated interactive toys, can arouse your pet's playful nature and encourage her to exercise. And since mental stimulation is as important as physical activity, products like FluentPet (which lets you teach your dog or cat to "talk" to you using customizable talking buttons) can provide a fun way to bond and engage your pet's brain.

Too Much of a Good Thing? Digital Burnout, Privacy Concerns, and Other Ways Tech Falls Short

No matter how exciting or innovative a new product may be, tech will always have limitations. Primarily, it will never be a substitute for the loving care and attention your pet needs from you.

For example, while Askeland loves the idea of the calming crate, she worries that pet parents will become overly reliant on technology to solve issues that still need to be addressed with training, medication, or both. "Is it going to solve every dog's problem? No." Same goes for something like FluentPet. "It's a really cool piece of tech, and that's certainly not a bad thing," she says, "but my concern is that dogs communicate through body language, and we're trying to put that in our language instead, which is verbal. I think it can detract from our responsibility to learn what dogs are telling us through their body language."

That's something that worries Goldstein as well. "There's no substitute for your presence in your pet's daily life," he says. "What they want and need most is to eat, play, and exercise by your side, and be part of your family. So I hope that even with the new gadgets and apps, pet parents are still taking time every day to put down their phone, turn off their screens, and spend quality time with their furry best friend."

Besides, we've all experienced technical difficulties—and Jen Davis of Auburn, Ala., has had more than her fair share with her furry crew.

An animal lover who's always taking in or rehoming another rescue, Davis currently has three dogs and eight cats, and she'd hoped to find some high-tech solutions to help her care for and keep tabs on the pets when she was away. She has a Furbo, which is a video camera and treat dispenser, and also has an automated feeder for her cats that allows her to record a message. (Her message of choice is, "Are you ready for breakfast?" which is what she asks them when she's home.)

"I like the feeder, for the most part," she says, but since she also has the Furbo camera on, she's been able to watch how the cats react to it. "I have noticed they don't come running when they hear it [like they do when I'm home], and sometimes the food gets stuck so none of the subsequent timed feedings come out." That's just a minor inconvenience if you're home and able to fix it a few hours later, but a much bigger problem if you're relying on it to keep your kitty fed while you're out of town.

Then, there's her Furbo experience. "The noise the Furbo makes before I shoot the treat out for them had all the dogs breaking things and knocking stuff over to get to the treats first," she says. "And the first time I set it up, it stopped working not long after I left." She found out why upon arriving home and seeing that her dogs had destroyed it.

"And then, there's human error," she says. Although she only uses the camera function of the Furbo now in order to monitor the cats when she travels, it still hasn't been all smooth sailing. "I have a friend who takes care of my cats when I'm gone, and the Furbo alerted me that a person was in the house," she says. During one trip away she received such an alert, but when she checked the video, she was in for a surprise. "[The camera] was set at an angle where my chandelier blocked the person's face. It was a man—and my friend is a girl," Davis says. "I was in Chicago. I panicked. Called the police." Turns out, the man was her friend's husband. "I turned it off the rest of the trip," she recalls.

Another reason some pet parents end up turning away from tech is due to digital overwhelm, which is especially prevalent now that so many people are working remotely and have no choice but to use a variety of apps to attend virtual meetings or communicate with coworkers. And that's all on top of all the other tech we rely on each day as we check social media, listen to our favorite podcasts, browse streaming services to find a show to watch, order and pay for our coffee through an app, use a banking app to check our balance because, wow, that latte wasn't cheap … you get the idea. When you add in that extra tech on top of all the digital multitasking you're already doing, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

"Privacy is a real concern," Taaffe says. Every time you sign up for a new app or service, that's one more company you're sharing your sensitive personal data with. Plus, when it comes to actual trackers, it's up to you to read the fine print and make sure you understand exactly what's being tracked—and who has access to it. 

"Pet parents should understand where their data is going and how it will be used," Taaffe says. "Many industry devices are coming in with really low entry prices with the explicit business model of monetizing the data."

That brings up another potential problem. If you're investing in a pricey product or signing up for an ongoing service, you want to feel confident that the app or product will continue to update and that you'll have access to technical support if needed. You'll also need to make sure you're aware of any ongoing charges, since products like trackers often come with a monthly service fee—and it's all too easy to forget about that small monthly charge and continue paying it long after you've stopped using the associated product or service.

selfie of a woman and a black dog near water
two cats sitting on a red plaid blanket
Left: Jen Davis tried a Furbo treat dispensing camera to track her three dogs and eight cats while she's away from home, to mixed reviews. | Credit: Courtesy of Jen Davis
Right: Credit: Courtesy of Jen Davis

Smart Shopping: Tips for Choosing and Using Pet Tech

Despite the shortcomings of any automated service or tool, there are clearly plenty of perks in the world of pet tech. So how can you take advantage of the amazing advances in this realm without falling victim to the downsides?

For starters, Taaffe says, make sure you thoroughly research any new product or service before you buy, and pay close attention to how data is used. "At-home tests and devices should be considered more of an early alert than a point-blank diagnostic screening test (unless otherwise noted)," she adds. "These products are that much more meaningful when the information is shared with your veterinarian to help inform care, because the data alone can only do so much."

That leads to one of Taaffe's biggest concerns. "The speed at which products are coming to market can, in some cases, drive shortcuts that are concerning. And many indicate that they have 'partnered with vets,' but that may only be one veterinarian on a review board," Taaffe says. She urges pet parents to do research into any pet tech company they consider bringing into their homes to verify the credibility of their claims.

Goldstein strongly agrees. "Just because something is sold in pet stores, or has some good reviews online, that doesn't mean it will be healthy for your pet to use," he says. "Remember, the safety regulations for pet products are still pretty flimsy in the United States. So do your homework before you introduce any new tech into your home. Make sure it's free from toxic materials that could harm your pet's health."

Also, use caution with anything that seems too good to be true. As Taaffe mentioned, there are companies launching products with the goal of mining data. But there are also well-intentioned startups that launch a fantastic product, then find they don't have the production ability to meet the demand—or provide the tech support needed at that scale.

Of course, there's no way to guarantee that any company will be around and continue to support a given product in the future, but this is another case where a little research can go a long way. "If it's a well-established pet company, not just a new tech company, they may be more likely to put more effort into a new product," Askeland says. "Look around, check into their background and history. Do they have tech support? Are they still updating older products?"

At the end of the day, it all comes down to whether the tech you're eyeing will improve your life and your pet's life in some way. If so, it may be worth the investment. But if not, consider your reasons for spending the money. "These gadgets can be useful and fun, but in the end, the bond you share with your pet is absolutely priceless," Goldstein says, "so you want to do everything you can to help them stay healthy for as long as possible."

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