Animal welfare technology in the pet industry

The surge in first-time pet owners has widened the room for innovation. With animal welfare a critical matter in the sector, fitness technology is perhaps now more important than ever.

“Demand for pets has soared. Enquiries increased by more than 253% during lockdown and over 20,000 people contacted pet charity Wood Green about getting a new pet – more than half of which were for dogs,” says Linda Cantle, director of pet and owner support services at Wood Green. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association (PFMA) confirms there has been a “dramatic rise” in pet acquisitions since Covid-19, alluding to the Government’s provisioning of furlough alongside the ability to work-from-home as particular motivators for the swell in additions. 

“This sudden surge in demand has been felt across the sector, with charities and breeders inundated with hopeful, prospective pet owners,” says Cantle.

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The new footfall has not only demanded the attention of charities and breeders but also “intensified” the level of competition within the sector. According to e-commerce platform Common Thread, it cites that while retail stores have seen a “slow increase” in buying, the online pet market has nearly quadrupled since 2013. Data from Statista strengthens the platform’s figures, displaying that both “pet supplies” and “pet food” are the second and third biggest e-commerce CPG categories across the industry – the platform even suggests that many staple pet retailers such as Walmart and Target have been forced to expand their online presence to maintain a foothold in the sector. 

Common Thread correspondingly proposes the appetite in the market is already drawing the attention of entrepreneurs “eager” to penetrate into new markets. It is consequently seeing a rise in start-ups with distinct emphasis on pet fitness technological innovation – but why now?

“This technology really hasn’t been ready and it has taken many years for human technology to mature,” says Andrew Nowell, CEO and founder of pet activity retailer PitPat. “Unfortunately, over half of dogs are overweight or obese – that is currently the number one problem – and it really needs to be tackled.”

Nowell has not always worked in the pet industry, however his love for animals has been constant. After specialising in the engineering sector and designing technology that revolved around human health, Nowell was intrigued to discover how this innovation could be applied to the pet market. He accredits the recent presence of health and fitness technological innovation to product development “taking time to create” – and only now are we seeing the results.

“Every year it gets better. Imagine the first iPhone – when it came out the big leap forward was the wide screen but it didn’t have any apps. Over the years there’s been an incredible amount of innovation and the same thing is happening in the pet industry. This new technology is about keeping dogs as happy and healthy as they can be.”

According to the IGA, the market is particularly “ripe” for open innovation and it goes as far to describe the market as a “growing hub” for new technology – for instance, PitPat capitalised on the opportunity to integrate some of the technology that impacts human health into the pet industry:

“Fitbit has been really successful in getting people to monitor human exercise and really focus on health. Our Activity Monitor similarly focuses on keeping dogs in the best body condition to live the healthiest lifestyle possible,” says Nowell. 

PitPat underlines exercise, feeding and weight management as areas that technology can have a large part to improve, suggesting “it has previously been impossible to get personalised recommendations for these domains.” Banking firm Morgan Stanley shares PitPat’s perspective and names animal health as one of the “most important” focuses of innovation. Cited by Forbes, it suggests that research and development teams can “leverage new technologies” resulting in discoveries that improve animal health. Nowell supports, “technology has the ability to fundamentally improve how we care for our pets.” 

By using in-depth research to measure over 100,000 dogs, PitPat is now able to profile their activity and understand how many calories they are burning: “It’s the first time we’ve ever really understood how much you should feed a dog to gain weight, lose weight or maintain weight,” says Nowell. The Global Animal Health Association additionally outlines the ability to create new vaccines due to the continual technological innovations, of which, “are among the most powerful tools in the veterinary toolbox.” Yet, what further benefits does pet fitness technology deliver? “It is solving three main problems at the minute,” says Nowell. “The first is knowing how much exercise your dog needs.” 

According to PitPat, every breed of dog requires a different amount of exercise and the new wave of monitoring tools allows owners to continually observe their dogs level of movement, especially as puppies. “As a new pet parent it can be overwhelming. There are more consumers that need this help and support – and now maybe more than ever with the current trend in dog ownership post-pandemic.” The retailer’s latest research correspondingly found nearly half of all UK dogs are overweight – more than six million in total. In addition to sourcing the appropriate level of exercise, welfare technology within the sector is also able to provide the “correct” sum of food through automated food dispensers. “If you look at what’s on the back of the food package at the minute, it’s a single recommendation for pretty much all dogs,” contends Nowell. “It doesn’t factor in whether they’re neutered or not and some don’t have different levels of activity, age and how much food your dog needs.” By using automated food dispensers it provides consumers “a completely tailored feeding recommendation – meaning less time spent decoding tables and more time enjoying life with your dog.”

PitPat disputes that traditional models of calculating feeding requirements have been limited due to the “lack” of available data – and with its results highlighting that obesity can diminish a dog’s life by up to two years, this is something that may prove in high demand by consumers – in fact, the retailer already reveals the strong appetite for fitness monitoring technology within the market as it displays it has shipped 39% more devices in 2021 in comparison to 2020 and sold over 100,000 devices in total. 

PetsForever accredits the surge in animal welfare advancements to the safety of pets, specifically, the introduction of pet cameras. According to Emergen Research, the pet camera industry is set to widen by five times by the year 2028. PetsForever alludes to not only the reassurance the cameras offer the consumer when they are away from their pet but also the communication. Yet Nowell draws attention to the “long disputed” argument: should dogs be left at home alone? “There’s obviously occasions where you have no choice. But for me, I think it can be more distressing knowing they’re upset and not being able to do anything about it.”

The CEO does, however, champion the ability of welfare technology in the sector aiding veterinary practices. “One of the exciting things long term is that this data will be able to help your veterinarian understand what is wrong with your dog.” Nowell warns firms need to be “really careful” not to replace the vet and offer diagnoses but “if you notice your dog is slowing down and receive an alert from your phone – you would be encouraged to speak to your vet.”

“It is a really positive step forward,” he adds. “Anything that can be done to help decide whether people need to come in for a visit, or whether it’s simply reordering and modification is still crucial. It is a fantastic use of the technology.”

Nowell imparts that we are seeing an increasing appetite in the industry for pet welfare technological innovation. From exercise monitors to food dispensers, technology already present in the sector is “significantly” improving the health of pets – “there’s no doubt in my mind,” states Nowell. He goes as far to suggest “the care of our pets may overtake human health,” underlining the space for further developments in the industry. Maybe one of the most principal aspects this technology can offer is that it “encourages” pet parents to pay more attention. “It has to be about how we enhance the life of pet parents and their pets,” says Nowell. “The more technology that works together, the more power we have to help.”

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