Folklore has it that aside from formulating the laws of motion and universal gravitation, Sir Isaac Newton also invented the cat flap.
Frustrated at his beloved cat Spithead rubbing against the door of his laboratory to get in, he tasked a local carpenter with cutting two holes into the door – one for Spithead and another for her kittens. Whether true or not, what cannot be denied is that since the dawn of civilization, man has gone to great lengths to help make the lives of their pets and owners easier.
The early Egyptians – who kept domesticated cats and dogs – are credited with the invention of the dog collar due to a 4,000-year-old wall painting featuring a man walking his dog on a leash. Meanwhile, in Ancient Greece, sheep dogs – used for hunting as well as companionship - were given spiked collars to protect their necks from wolves.
Today, in this hyper-connected world, technology informs, empowers and binds us together. It drives our social networks and strengthens relationships with those we love. So it’s no surprise developments in technology extend to our pets.
From health and wellbeing, fitness and food, to physical and mental stimulation, curve-leading tech offers solutions to pet-related problems, helping owners connect with their animals more than ever before. Sales of worldwide pet wearables are projected to hit £1.84bn by 2022, according to a report by Grand View Research, proving the potential of and level of interest in this market. It also reinforces that owners are willing to invest in tech to support their pets’ care and wellbeing.
GPS monitoring for pets has already changed the lives of millions - meaning we need never lose track of them again, making those forlorn “lost” posters pinned to lamp posts obsolete. Cat litter boxes have been transformed into smart health systems, monitoring the weight, waste, visits and behaviour of our cats.
Smart pet feeders with HD cameras allow two-way audio and video communication – enabling owners to set a timer for mealtimes, call their pets to eat, dispense the food, as well as interact through the video – all without being there. Remote controlled balls allow us to play with our pets while we’re away.
Meanwhile, the world’s first game console for dogs is already here. One plastic dome design with flashing lights allows your dog to complete challenges for rewards such as dry dog food, or just for fun, to help stimulate and entertain them during the day.
But what can pets and their owners expect in the future?
It is clear that many major companies and investors are now taking an avid interest in the industry. In March, Mars launched a pet tech innovation venture arm, while Nestle-Purina runs a yearly pet care innovation contest. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Millennial pet owners are helping to drive this surge. In the US, one in three pet owners are tech-savvy millennials – accustomed to and looking for gadgets and products to help make their lives easier.
Research suggests they are also a generation who are unlikely to use kennels when going away. Expect online and mobile-based platforms for pet sitters and dog walkers to grow and branch out. Meanwhile, a research group at one English university is creating media specifically designed for dogs, making The Dogfather Trilogy not as unfeasible as it sounds.
And scientists are using artificial intelligence to learn how to translate animals’ facial expressions and sounds into something we can understand. Internet retailing giant Amazon predicts advances in tech will allow humans to talk to their pets within the decade.
While I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to talk to our pets, I’m certain we will be able to understand them better. The near future of pet tech will revolve around the analysis of data – and actionable insights of that data.
Later this year, I will be launching a new product that will monitor a dog’s sleep quality, activity and play, to help owners understand the day-to-day wellbeing of their pet like never before. It will also observe and report on behavioural activity such as barking, scratching and shaking.
Over time, this data will determine what is a “normal” activity range or behaviour for their pet. Any deviations, such as a fall-off in movement or unusual barking patterns, would suggest something isn’t right.
So, while we won’t be able to understand what our pets are saying, we will be able to work how they’re feeling and why. It could be a case of one bark for ‘yes’ and two for ‘it’s time for the vets’. Lassie would be impressed!
Maybe one day, vets will even have direct access to this data to help with the early diagnosis of illness - and strengthen the bond between pet and owner further still.
The possibilities are endless, but the pet tech journey is only just beginning.