Go Ahead, Quantify Your Pet

Activity trackers have dubious benefits for humans. But for cats, dogs, and the other black boxes in our lives, they could be transformational.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Thinkstock.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Thinkstock.

I have dabbled in the quantified-self movement, and it has not amounted to much. Over the past few years, I’ve tracked everything from my steps and workouts to my carb intake to my sleep. I’ve learned a lot about myself, but very little that I could not have gleaned from common sense: Of course I’d feel better with more sleep; of course I’d feel more energized at the gym with a carb-loaded breakfast. This is what I spent $130 on a Fitbit Alta for?

There is, however, one member of my household whose data is of great interest to me: my cat. For the most part, her feelings, daily activities, and health are a black box to me. (I mean outside of her telltale meows of hunger or the swat that means stop with the belly rubs.) An example: For years, she had a chipped tooth. She ate and drank normally, from what I could tell, but I wondered if it ever bothered her, if it stung when her water was cold, or if she nibbled a kibble at the wrong angle. It also made me wonder: Could a pet tracker shine light on some of these mysteries?

As the quantified-self movement has led to a market flooded with health and activity trackers of every kind, device-makers have begun to target the $66.75 billion pet industry. Startups such as Whistle, FitBark, and PetPace claim that by using their device on or instead of your cat or dog’s collar, you can learn valuable information about your pet’s activity and sleep patterns.

Whistle, founded in 2012, makes a small rectangular device that attaches to your dog’s collar with built-in Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity, and GPS, as well as an accelerometer for activity tracking. To date, the company has sold more than 200,000 of them. In its latest iteration, Whistle is a small rounded rectangular gray box, less than two inches wide and just over half an inch thick. FitBark, another collar-worn pet monitor, describes itself as a “research grade” sleep and activity tracker. It gathers data around general activity including rest, active, and play times; sleep quality; distance traveled; and calories burned. With this information, its accompanying app gives your pet and overall health score and an activity score. In terms of features, PetPace might be one of the most advanced devices out there (although there are plenty of products not mentioned in this article). It’s a smart collar for cats or dogs, and it tracks a host of vitals your pet’s temperature, heart rate and heart rate variability, respiration, activity, body posture, and calories burned.

Priced between $60 (for Whistle and Fitbark) and $160 (PetPace), these aren’t budget-breaking purchases, but they are a growing segment of the pet industry. Grandview Research estimates , in a February 2016 report that the pet wearable market in 2017 is a $500 million industry, up from $300 million in 2012.

It’s still niche, though. Carol Roderick at Peninsula Pet Hospital in Menlo Park, California, said that she couldn’t think of any animal patients that have come in with a Fitbit-style product—and that’s in the heart of Silicon Valley. The clinic instead sells and sees a number of pet owners using a GPS tracker called Gibi, mostly because the device’s founder also goes to that clinic. Like Whistle, Gibi slides onto your pet’s collar, but it’s only useful to track your pet’s location in case it escapes or gets lost.

Popularity aside, the real question is whether pet-focused fitness trackers actually do what they promise. Do they offer actionable data that pet owners and veterinarians can use to better take care of their pets, or are they just snake oil?

Regarding their behavior-tracking features, the evidence is good—at least anecdotally.

“Trackers can help solve common pet mysteries, like one of our users who had a very fit dachshund and an overweight dachshund even though they ate the same amount of food and take the same amounts of walks each day,” Caitie Steffen, a Whistle product manager, told me. “Using Whistle, she discovered that one was getting a lot more activity at home during the day, and the other was mostly sedentary. Looking into things, she realized that her overweight pet hated climbing stairs, while the other one was racing up and down the stairs of her townhome all day long.” Steffen shared that another dog owner spotted a kidney infection thanks to Whistle. The dog was acting relatively normal, but the app’s activity tracking revealed his usual 60 minutes of active time per day suddenly dropped to seven. They were able to take their canine to the vet, more quickly than they otherwise might have, and get the condition treated.

That’s not to say these devices aren’t fault-free. Many complain that these types of products don’t offer accurate enough GPS tracking. (In the case that your speedy dog does jump the fence, the app doesn’t necessarily update quickly enough for you to catch up before it’s made a run for it.) Quality control and durability are also issues for some.

As for me, I may be sold. With my cat’s pesky tooth recently removed, it’d be nice to see—quantitatively—whether her activity levels are going up as her gums heal. It would also be helpful to have that baseline knowledge of how active she normally is, so if there’s a sudden dip, I’ll know to check things out. And at less than $200, the device could more than pay for itself if it caught a problem earlier. It’s cheaper than pet insurance, at least.