Wearable tech for pets? Devices are not just for humans anymore

2014 promised to be the year of wearable tech for humans; now that appears to have gone to the dogs.

Research by the Consumer Electronics Association in December found that interest in purchasing dedicated wearable fitness devices -- such as FitBit and Nike's FuelBand -- quadrupled to 13 percent in 2013, from just three percent in 2012.

And according to Bob Vetere, the president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association, if humans find a product that works for them, they will often look for and demand -- or create -- the same for their pets. That certainly seems to be the case with wearable technology devices.

Americans spent $55.7 billion on their pets in 2013 and spending could creep closer to $60 billion this year for the estimated 80 million dogs and 96 million cats in the U.S. today. Pet food and product trends tend to follow human food and product trends, Vetere told attendees at the Global Pet Expo in March.

After a personal experience with pet loss, it was that same demand that drove Ben Jacobs to co-found Whistle, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in wearable activity monitors for dogs.

"When I was younger, my German Shepherd, Bear, died at just five years old from a sudden illness -- this experience serves as a continuing inspiration for Whistle," Jacobs told CBS News in an email.

The belief that pets have the power to improve their owners' lives and that humans are happier and healthier the more time they spend with them drives Whistle, says co-founder and Head of Product, Steve Eidelman.

"Being able to get data and insight into something we care for deeply, like our pets, helps us to better understand what habits and changes can most improve our lives," Eidelman explained to CBS News in an email. "Many of our users have shared that using Whistle has helped them to get more active with their pets -- improving their dog's lifestyle as well as their own."

Paul Mann, CEO of Fetch! Pet Care, a chain of professional pet-sitting and dog-walking services, notes that wearables can help owners keep track of their pets' activities, monitor their daily exercise and even their food consumption. Mann himself has two cats who wear electronic tags that activate a feeding system, which allows him to monitor the times and amount of food they eat.

"Because pets tend to go unattended throughout the day while their owners are at work or elsewhere, there is a greater need to for pet owners to know what their furry friends are up to and that they are safe," Mann told CBS News in an email.

Data from wearables can be stored and displayed to show trends, such as calories consumed, calories burned, and physical activity -- all information that's useful to share with your veterinarian.

"By the time we realize our pets are sick or lost, it can be too late." Jacobs said. "Whistle's goal is to transform preventative care and veterinary research for our pets, so situations like Bear's sudden death don't have to happen again."

Whistle is just one of the options in the growing wearable tech market for pets.

The Tagg pet tracker allows owners to keep track of their dogs via their smartphone and notifies them if their pet has left the preprogrammed "Tagg zone." Prices start at about $99, plus a monthly monitoring fee.

PetHub allows owners to set up an online profile with their pet's information and designate a QR code to access that information. If their pet goes missing, a smartphone could be used to easily scan the code -- located on their tag -- and help the pet find their way back home. Tags and collars range from about $20 to $40 with basic service included; a premium account costs a few extra dollars per month.

FitBark, like the FitBit, is for keeping track of an animal's physical activities, and allows owners to track their daily progress -- even comparing the human owner's physical activities with their canine's. FitBark's basic activity monitors are available for pre-order at $69 and are expected to retail at $99 later this summer.

The Voyce health tracking dog collar, from i4C Innovations, can monitor a dog's heart and respiratory rate, calories burned, and its pattern of activity and rest. It's expected to retail for $299 plus a monthly or annual membership plan to access data tracking, trends, analysis and medical information customized to the breed, age, and health level of the dog.

The original Whistle only had activity tracking, but the company unveiled WhistleGPS two months ago and is scheduled to ship in 2015. The tracker attaches to a pet's existing collar and sends information to a mobile app on the owner's smartphone. Instead of cell service or even WiFi, the next generation of Whistle will use SIGFOX, an ultra-narrow band network that allows very small amounts of data to be transferred at very low power -- allowing for double the battery life than other devices, the company says. The device has a monthly fee of $5 -- the lowest of any pet GPS tracking device on the market, according to Whistle.

"By removing the cost and energy barriers of connectivity for the internet of things, [SIGFOX] enables two-way communication for connected devices through a simple and cost-effective wireless system," Jacobs told CBS News.

The SIGFOX on-demand wireless network has yet to be enabled in the U.S., but when that happens at the end of this year, it could help the so-called "Internet of Things" really take off. Affecting not only pet devices, it could also have real-world human implications.

"There is immense potential for new devices and sensors created to ride these types of networks to address connected home solutions, smart city grids, valuable asset tracking and much more. Smoke detectors, security systems, and electricity/water meters are all examples of the millions of connections [SIGFOX] has coming online with their live networks throughout Europe today," Jacobs explained.

However, when it comes to pets, more study may be needed as wearable devices become widespread. Mann warns that "we don't yet know the full effects of radiation a pet might experience as a result of wearing a wireless device directly on their body."

In spite of that, Mann still believes that devices that enable a pet owner to maintain their digital presence when they can't be with their pets will continue to be popular. He foresees great demand for things like "smartphone controlled feeders, pet surveillance devices, smart water fountains, and kitty litter cleaners."

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