The Coming Age Of Cyborg Animals

May 25, 2016
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The Coming Age Of Cyborg Animals

Wearable tech like fitness bands and GPS trackers are all the rage, and our pets are starting to use them, too. These tools can help us monitor and track our companion animals. But these devices are also changing our pets’ capabilities and how we interact with them. We’ve entered the age of cyborg animals.

When you consider how much we love and care for our pets, it’s really not surprising to learn that we’re extending many of our technologies to them.

Emily Anthes, science journalist and author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up To Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, says it’s all part of the natural evolution of wearable device technologies. “Many of us consider our pets to be like our children or members of the family,” she tells io9,” So it makes perfect sense that we would want to track this sort of data in our pets.”

Anthes believes these devices can help pet owners become more aware of their pets’ psychological and physical health. Because animals cannot tell us the details of what’s wrong (or right) with them, these tools can help us bridge the communications gap.

Animal behaviorist and conservation biologist Con Slobodchikoff agrees. “We are finding out that dogs and cats are much more intelligent than we once thought,” he tells io9. “They can understand not only a lot of what we say to them, but our emotions as we say it. They are closely attuned to our moods, and often will seek to comfort us when we are not feeling well, just like our human friends.”

He says that this realisation has shifted them into the category of “friends” rather than dumb brutes we lock up in the back yard. We want to be with our friends, he says, and to ensure that we do the best that we can for them. “All of the devices coming on the market help us feel that we are in touch with our friends and are looking out for them,” adds Slobodchikoff. “There is a natural carry-over from human to human friends, to human to dog or human to cat friendships.”

Quantified Pet

Indeed, the things we strap on to our pets certainly aren’t what they used to be. Like fitness trackers for humans, there are now a considerable number of wearable devices that leverage similar technologies to help owners track a wide assortment of behaviours and biometric parameters. Depending on the device used, you can monitor your pet’s heart and respiratory rates, their location, and level of physical activity. Related devices can help you monitor your pet’s whereabouts with webcams, and to even communicate and play games.

Take, for example, the wearable put out by Whistle. After attaching the device to your pet’s collar, it collects data on activity throughout the day via a three-axis accelerometer.

After syncing and reviewing the data on your mobile app, you can set activity goals, leave comments on data points, and share them with friends via social networking.

The Otto PetCare System can also be paired with a food dispenser to calculate the quantity of food your pets require based on its caloric expenditure. Tapping on an icon can command the system to dispense the food. You can even watch a webcam to check in, and listen and talk to your pet during its meal.

Keeping Them Healthy

The point of all this, of course, is to help us stay on top of our animals’ health and emotional well-being. These new devices are allowing owners to track and respond to health issues with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

“I happen to have a dog with a heart murmur and I’m supposed to monitor his respiration,” says Anthes. “If he starts breathing much more quickly, it’s a sign that his heart condition is worsening. Right now I do it in an extremely low tech way, which is by taking out a timer and counting how many breaths he takes in a minute. If it’s over a certain threshold I have to call the doctor. But I can imagine having a respiration tracking device that could easily alert me if his breathing gets to fast; that would be much easier and far more reassuring to me than the way I’m doing it now.”

The Coming Age Of Cyborg Animals

Indeed, as Jeff Noce, the president of i4C Innovations explains, “By the time you actually notice something at home [the health issue] is much further along than it would be with humans.” He says dogs instinctively tend to hide their symptoms, making health-tracking devices a necessity. To that end, his company developed Voyce.

The Coming Age Of Cyborg Animals

Further, these wearables could be used to measure progress in the same way that fitness trackers work in humans. In conjunction with other wearables, such as the K9FITvest, owners can get a sense as to whether or not their pet is getting fitter.

It’s also possible that the data collected by these devices could eventually help medical researchers better understand pet ailments. As noted by Nick Wingfield in the New York Times:

According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 52 per cent of dogs and more than 58 per cent of cats are overweight or obese, conditions which can lead to diabetes and worsen arthritis.

A 14-year study commissioned by Purina, the pet food company, found that a dog’s median life span can be extended by 15 per cent by restricting the diet to maintain ideal weight, or almost two years for the Labrador retrievers in the survey. Veterinarians have used expensive motion sensors for years to study pet activity levels, but they say the new devices aimed at pet owners have the potential to be used far more broadly.

“I’m very excited about the activity monitors,” said Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and founder of the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

Interestingly, these devices could be used to track the health of owners, too. Subtle changes in an animal’s behaviour could indicate that something’s wrong with their humans, particularly if they’re older and isolated. Cassim Ladha and Nils Hammerla say their “collar-worn accelerometry platform“, which can recognise 17 standard dog behaviours, including chewing, peeing, shivering, and sniffing, is suitable for just a purpose. If there were a sudden change in how much walking a dog was doing, or even a gradual decline, it might indicate that the person’s mobility had become impaired. Or it could be a sign of growing depression. Essentially, our pets’ behaviours are bound up with our behaviours — and measuring one gives us clues about the other.

Cams and Games

Cameras can be used to monitor your pet, or to provide a fascinating perspective on their daily activities. Though technically not a wearable, Dropcam is a security camera that doubles as a pet monitor. It has a microphone and speaker so owners can both speak to and hear their pets via a mobile app.

The Coming Age Of Cyborg Animals

For owners looking to track the indoor/outdoor activities of their cats, camera traps can be mounted onto catflaps. Recently, BBC Research & Development, when filming The Secret Life of Cats, were tasked with building a camera for the task with off-the-shelf components that can be purchased and assembled by anyone at home. You can find the instructions here.

Manufacturer Eyenimal has developed pet videocams that can be worn by cats and dogs. They’re lightweight, waterproof and feature three video recording modes: continuous, motion detection, and pointing.

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