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Pet monitoring technology

Can the growing number of available health monitoring technologies undermine the role of vets?

14 April 2020, at 9:00am

Two-thirds of UK dog and cat owners would be interested in using devices that monitor the health and activity of their pet. But a lack of awareness about the availability of these technologies and the contribution they can make to improving pet health has limited the uptake so far, a survey has found.

MSD Animal Health questioned more than 5,000 pet owners in five European countries about their understanding of pet health issues and their own role in identifying and tackling disease. It found that while only about 10 percent of pet owners in those countries were familiar with these devices, there was a strong appetite for taking a more proactive role in maintaining their pets’ health.

In a meeting at the BVA headquarters in London, veterinarians examined ways that the profession can encourage clients to make better use of monitoring devices and how the information produced can improve their own ability to diagnose and treat disease.

Rachel Dean, director of clinical research with the VetPartners group, dismissed suggestions that these technologies could potentially undermine the role of vets. “When used wisely they can contribute to the care that we give to our clients’ pets,” she said. “Many of the common conditions that we see such as diabetes and osteoarthritis are influenced by the lifestyle of the pet, and these technologies can give us the accurate information on what is happening at home that we need to make good recommendations to the client.”

However, there are many different activity monitoring devices on the market and the information that they provide can be of variable quality – “there is a lot of dodgy data out there,” she warned.

David Hallas is managing director of MSD subsidiary Sure Petcare, one of the main providers of these technologies. He acknowledged that this type of equipment does not undergo the same rigorous pre-market testing required of medicines or vaccines. But he was confident that his own company’s products do provide accurate data.

It has an ongoing programme to refine the algorithms that interpret pet behaviour, based on matching the information produced by movement-sensing accelerometers with the behaviour observed during thousands of hours of video recordings, he said.

David cited examples of situations in which the information provided about the movements of an animal have identified the source of health and welfare problems. One dog seen by US vets was shown to be awake for much of the night. After some investigation, it was realised that the dog was cold and that providing a warm and comfortable sleeping area quickly resolved the issue.

The company was currently working on an improved algorithm to identify occasions when a dog is scratching itself excessively as a consequence of a flea infestation. If combined with a mobile phone app that alerts the owner to the need to order an ectoparasiticide from their veterinary practice, this will improve the health and welfare of the animal while minimising any environmental effects of unnecessary treatments, he explained.

One of the company’s next goals is to generate an algorithm that can make the dog’s owner and veterinarian aware of the incidence of epileptic seizures. This work is challenging because those events will usually occur irregularly and it may be difficult to gather good quality video recordings. But epilepsy will be a priority because it is such a difficult condition to treat and such a worry for the owners, he said.

It is not just the owners and their veterinary advisors that will take an interest in the data generated by activity monitors, suggested Dr Hallas. He predicted that detailed information about the pet’s lifestyle will help steer insurance companies towards setting premiums that reflect the benefits of regular exercise in reducing the risk of certain diseases.

Other technologies now available can affect another lifestyle factor that has a huge influence on a pet’s health and welfare – its diet, he said. Personalised feeding devices are being produced which can detect the animal’s microchip and will open up when it approaches and close after it has finished feeding.

This system can help keep uneaten food fresh but will be most useful to owners of multiple pets, ensuring that not all the food is consumed by the greediest animal in the house or by an interloper from outside. But it will also guarantee that any investment in prescription diets for pets with a particular medical condition is well spent, he said.

The range of new technologies that are available now, and in the future, do present their own problems, noted Dr Hallas. They will generate massive amounts of data that could be overwhelming for anyone attempting to keep track. So, it is essential that there is technology included in the system that will provide automatic alerts to the owner’s mobile telephone or to their veterinary advisors only when significant changes are detected.

He said several different technologies will come together to help both owners and vets to provide better care for these animals. “The future of pet technology is a connected digital ecosystem, increasing engagement among ‘pet parents’ and helping connect them with their veterinarians,” he said.